Goal-setting can be an effective tool for leaders to provide challenge, focus, and motivation to their people. Unfortunately, this tool is often underutilized or poorly implemented. I recently showcased how it can be poorly implemented; this is a lesson learned from personal failure.
As part of my role in advising and coaching Cadets through their summer training leadership assignments, I intended to make goal-setting an important component of our initial counseling. During these counselings, I aimed to not only outline the Cadets’ roles and responsibilities for the summer, but to allow them to develop some personal goals for their assignment to help maximize the developmental impact of their experience. I found that I ran into one major issue during these counseling sessions while working with the Cadets to form their goals: the goals they created were poorly defined and incomplete, preventing our ability to track progress and achievement over the five-week experience. The Cadets were creating goals around the right ideas, but they were just incomplete ones. We established goals such as “to delegate and empower my subordinates as much as possible” or “to become better organized and more efficient with my time.” Great ideas, but they have no way of showing tangible progress. That was a failure on my part as the formal leader in the situation. I was not making this an effective developmental tool for the Cadets; it turned into more of a “check the block” requirement with little potential for impact.
Why Goal-Setting is Important for Leaders
To help build understanding of the power of goal-setting within your team or organization, below are a few reasons why goal-setting is so important for leaders to incorporate into their developmental models and methods.
- Competence: Setting and achieving goals improves individual and/or collective skills or performance results. Goal-setting is a simple way to get things done through your team.
- Confidence: When people see that they can achieve targeted results, they become more confident in their ability to pursue and achieve future results. Goal-setting can then become an iterative process, like a “self-licking ice cream cone.”
- Direction: Establishing a goal focuses peoples’ efforts on a targeted result or behavior.
- Assess: Goals can provide a clear and tangible way to determine progress, effectiveness, and efficiency.
- Ownership: Goals provide a simple method to challenge your people to assume responsibility and to make progress on the intended target.
A Goal-Setting Framework: SMART Goals
Below is a recommended framework to make goal-setting more effective; it follows the acronym: SMART. I encourage leaders to guide their people to set just one goal and stretch them to fully define it using the SMART framework, instead of two or three vague and ineffective ones. By doing this for one goal, your people can begin to see the progress they make through it, compounding their motivation and commitment to it.
- Specific: Goals should be stated using precise terms, not vague ones; goals should be quantified as much as possible.
- Measurable: You must use a measurement device to assess the extent to which a goal is accomplished.
- Achievable: The goal should be realistic, challenging, and attainable. It should not be impossible; people prefer not to fail and thus unachievable goals lead to loss in motivation.
- Results Oriented: Defining the end result of the goal provides purpose for it. Why am I pursuing this goal?
- Time-Bound: Goals must specify target dates for completion to plan around.
Below is an example of a general, vague goal transformed into a SMART goal.
General goal: improve my run time on the 2-mile run event for the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT).
SMART Goal: Improve my 2-mile APFT run time from 14:30 min. to under 13:00 min. by the end of the calendar year (6 months from now) in order to score a 300 on the test (maximum possible score).
Do you notice how the SMART goal provides a more complete framework to guide and motivate someone, and to provide them tangible metrics of progress? With the SMART goal, I can better create a strategy to achieve those specific metrics. I encourage you to guide and stretch your people to create one complete SMART goal related to your work or organization to facilitate targeted personal and collective growth.
Final Thoughts on Goals
Finally, I want to conclude by addressing three considerations for effective goal-setting.
- There are two different types of goals: performance and learning. Performance goals target a specific end result where learning goals encourage learning, creativity, and skill development. These types are on the opposite ends of the development spectrum (results vs. learning), but equally contribute to overall personal and organizational growth. It’s important to consider which type of goal is appropriate for the season and level of development your people and organization are in.
- SMART goals can help improve the depth of impact of the One Big Thing exercise. Consider engaging your people through this exercise, where their One Big Thing is defined using the SMART goal framework.
- Make goal-setting a collective effort between you and your team. Based on the needs of the individual and your team, consider balancing how directive you are in setting a goal for someone versus allowing them to formulate some of the components of the SMART goal. The more someone participates in creating their goal, the more committed that person usually is to it.
The content and opinions within this post are solely my own and do not reflect that of the United States Military Academy or US Army.
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