The why and how of great goals

Most people don’t set goals regularly and don’t value goals as a workplace tool. We find that kind of strange – in the high performance sport and business environments we’ve worked in, goals are set and used daily by elite performers.

And there’s a good reason for that. They’re valued as an essential tool to help motivate, focus effort and keep connected to others. They’re the key to performing, improving and succeeding. Start setting goals the high performance way.

Reading time: 5 minutes

What goes on

According to some good research over the last 20 years from Harvard Business School and others, less than 10% of people fully understand what’s expected of them in their role and how that ties in to the objectives of their business. That’s alarming, but to us, not entirely surprising given what we know about how goals are used in the business world.

We see a lot of disjointed and really poor goal setting go on. We see businesses spend a lot of money on their vision, strategy and goals. Their goals generally are oriented around results – not what’s required to get the results, or performance. They’re also often pretty lofty – targets that are probably only achievable if conditions are perfect. And we know that conditions are rarely perfect and constantly changing, right?! Despite this, goals are only periodically reviewed and infrequently changed – even when it’s obvious they’re not attainable.

The same happens at individual level. Goal setting happens periodically, perhaps as part of an annual or quarterly planning and review process. Goals are often set or dictated for the individual, are results focused and there’s usually not much discussion or thought about the plan to achieve the goals. Goal setting is an event, not the start of a performance process! And too often, individual goals aren’t aligned to team and organisational goals.

Elite performers set regular goals that are focused not just on what they want to achieve, but how they need to perform to get those results. To them, it’s a valuable tool and a process they own. It gives them focus and direction to what to do and how, and ensures they spend their time and energy on the right stuff. And it then gives them a foundation to review and learn from.

Sounds good? It is, which is why you’ll see them set and use goals really regularly.

Five performance truths

The brutal reality of high performance life – this is what you need to know

  1. Goals help you be clear on what you’re aiming for and how you’ll get there. They’re a brilliantly simple tool that brings clarity, focus, energy and direction. Great performers are great goal advocates. We don’t know many who aren’t clear on their roles and goals.
  2. Goals that are just focused on results and outcomes are very bad things. When the focus is just on results, then people do whatever’s needed to get results, not worrying too much about the right or wrong of that. An over focus on results ($$$) drove Enron into the ground, contributed to some very dodgy practices in some major financial institutions and sparked off the global economic crisis in the late 90s. We rest our case.
  3. Set what and how performance goals. Use goals to get clarity on what to do and how. The “what” might be practical stuff – tasks, learning, training. The HOW is how you need to behave or perform – your mindset, your attitude, your energy management, how you use your support network. Focus on you as a performer.
  4. Own your goals. Lead the process of setting and using goals. If you’re lucky, you’ll have control of setting your goals. If you’ve got have fixed targets in your role, take control of your performance what and how goals – and lead in communicating these to those who need to know. Own your goals as much as possible.
  5. Daily, weekly and monthly goals. Use goals in a pyramid type of way. Long term, annual goals are great for overall direction. Quarterly/monthly goals help you focus in the medium/short term. And weekly and daily goals really help you prioritise your energy, effort and time. Remember, how as well as what goals!

Three things to do

  • Start by getting some crystal clear longer term goals. Know what’s expected of you in your role, this year, quarter or on a project. Make sure you’re 100% sure of what great looks like for you in terms of outcome.
  • Build a picture of what’s required to deliver what you need to deliver. This is the performance you need to give, and the performer you need to be.
  • Keep reviewing and checking in on this to make sure it’s still valid. Given you work in a changing world, we’d be very surprised if this doesn’t need to change often.


Louise’s story

Louise worked in a big bank. She did clever things with hedge funds and earned lots of money. Where she worked people talked about money a lot – turnover, operating profits, share prices, fund ‘performance’ (which wasn’t performance at all, but we’ll let that slip). Louise was judged by how the shares she traded in rose and fell – it was all about what money she was earning for fund clients and hence the business. So all her energy and effort went into earning more money and getting the fund to perform better. She worked longer and longer hours and started to do some things that probably weren’t too great but got results.

But she started to feel a bit unhappy and increasingly stressed and out of control. How well the fund did was often more related to other stuff (like FTSE movement) than what she did. And she was uneasy at some of the stuff she was starting to do and saw others doing. She was feeling burnt out, demotivated and disillusioned. Poor Louise.

She read a great article in The Performance Room and realised that her picture of success was one-dimensional and out of her control – and it wasn’t helping her be a good team member or employee (which deep down the business wanted her to be). So she focused on what good looked like for her in her role – skills and expertise she wanted to use and develop; the mindset, attitude and behaviours she wanted and needed to show; how to manage her energy better to perform as well as she could; and how to connect and use others to not just achieve what she wanted but also learn and develop at work. She started to set goals on a weekly and daily basis to help her focus on some high priority stuff that would help her achieve what she needed to.

Pretty soon she was feeling more in control and motivated, had regained the work-life balance she wanted and was performing better and getting better results. Good old Louise.