Goal Setting and Your Development: A Powerful, Yet Untapped Resource
One of the personal accomplishments I am most proud of is completing the 2015 Leadville 100 Mile Trail Race. I share this not to boast; I had to work my butt off for a whole year to achieve that. But I believe it is something I am extremely proud of because of the commitment and discipline it took for me to accomplish it. And looking back, I believe I was only successful because I started my journey with a clear, compelling, and SMART goal.
Goal setting is one of the most powerful developmental activities we can engage with, personally and professionally. I place goal setting as an essential component of our development, right next to challenging experiences, gaining new knowledge through reading and other learning activities, mentoring, feedback, and reflection. And yet, it is probably the most unused activity of that group.
When looking at the most popular goal season, New Year’s Resolutions, 80% fail by February. Of those that fail, 35% say it’s because their goal was unrealistic and unclear, 33% didn’t keep track of the goal, and 23% straight up forgot about it.
Moreover, Harvard Business Review research found that 83% of the working population do not have goals. 14% have a general plan, but their goal is unclear and unwritten. Yet, this 14% is reported to be ten times more successful than the 83% without a goal. Even more, there is 3% of the working population that do have clear, written goals with a plan, and they report to be three times more successful than the 14%.
What can we extract from all that? Goals are incredibly powerful for our development, performance, and success. However, goals remain largely ignored, or are used whimsically at best, leaving a lot of untapped potential on the table.
We need to do better in using goals. And we can.
The Power of Goal Setting
Why are goals so powerful? What do they help us achieve, whether we use them for our own personal development or as a mechanism to help develop those we lead?
First, goals help create a clearly defined vision for success. They remove ambiguity from our desired performance. They capture what desired success looks like.
Second, goals help us focus our growth. It keeps our attention on one big thing for a specified time. It helps us delineate between what is important and what is not. It brings structure to our development. How do you eat an elephant? One bite (or goal) at a time. This applies internally for our personal goals; it also applies when using goals to help develop others. It helps eliminate cloning or cookie-cutter developmental plans as well.
Third, goals cultivate intrinsic motivation. We become driven by and committed to achieving a well-defined level of performance. They help us remain inspired, continuing to pour into our growth, rather than chasing external, temporary motivations.
Lastly, goals generate challenge in our life and in our work. They help us to achieve awesome, important, and hard things. That challenge keeps us engaged and committed to our growth. Goals help us to live at the peripheral of our comfort zone, continuing to push those boundaries over and over.
Once we understand the importance of goal setting for ours and others’ development, the first question often is, “ok so where do I start?”
Step One: Setting the Goal
Our first step should be establishing a clear, compelling, and complete goal – one that is SMART.
A SMART goal is one that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. These five variables ensure that our goals are well defined, realistic, compelling, and complete. They help us avoid vague goals that don’t focus, guide, and inspire behavior change.
Let’s now explore each variable; as we do, I will reference my Leadville 100 goal mentioned earlier as an example to better understand each one. For full understanding, my SMART Leadville goal was to complete the 2015 Leadville 100-mile trail race in under 30 hours to earn the race’s official (and coveted) belt buckle.
- Specific: Our goal should be narrow and focused on a targeted desired end state. My goal wasn’t to complete a random long-distance race. It was specific in identifying a particular race so that I could build a training plan around a certain course on a certain date. That focused my approach and habits.
- Measurable: What will you use to show that you are making progress or that you achieved your desired end state? For my race, I clarified completing the race in under 30 hours. That helped me structure my training to ensure I was able to maintain a certain pace throughout the race. I could also use that metric during training races or training segments on the course to ensure I was meeting those targets.
- Achievable: Is the goal something we can realistically achieve? My race goal was 30 hours to complete, which is a popular completion goal time for “common” racers like me. I didn’t set a goal of 16 hours or something, which I would not have been able to successfully train for or complete (that completion time would have also made me competitive to win the race; definitely not a realistic position for my first time running it).
- Relevant: How does this goal align to our values, our long-term objectives, and our identity? Do we care about this goal? Will it actually help us get to a desirable end state that we care about? Is it compelling? As a long-time distance runner, where trail running is a hobby of mine I that I enjoy and that serves as an important personal identity, the race was a life-long dream to achieve. It’s a popular race at high elevations in Colorado, making it commonly regarded as a “tough” race. The challenge and prestige surrounding the race made it very appealing, compelling, and relevant for me.
- Time-Based: When will we reach the end state? Without a defined time boundary, we don’t generate urgency for behavior change and growth. We need to set a challenging, yet realistic deadline to achieve success. For my race, that was easy since the race occurs the same time every year. So, in October of 2014, I decided on and committed to my goal to complete the race, which occurred in August 2015. That gave me almost a full year to train and prepare. It also gave me a hard deadline, so I could plan a training program.
Using SMART Goals
Now, I reference a personal physical goal throughout this that is easy to define and build a plan around with a very specific outcome. But the SMART goal model can apply to a broad horizon of behavior change, both for ourselves and when developing others, especially in our growth as leaders.
I have used SMART goals to grow in many ways as a leader. Some recent examples include:
- Creating more space for others to fill when I talk with people on my team, making conversations more focused on them and not on me. I set a goal of trying to ask twice as many questions per conversation than statements I make to focus on others. I used that ratio to make it measurable and focused on it within a specific season at work to make it time bound.
- Following some feedback that my non-verbal gestures sometimes signaled that I was dismissive of others’ ideas, I focused on a goal to pause before I spoke and physically reacted in response to others. This helped me to think through how my words and gestures would be perceived by others.
- I once received feedback from a friend and member of the 3x5 community about my overuse of confirmation phrases like “right?” that became distracting during our webinar series. I learned I have a habit of using unhelpful confirmation phrases like “right,” “does that make sense,” and “you know what I mean.” I set and committed to a goal of eliminating those from my teaching and lecturing habits to be more authentic, to own my material and not have to repeatedly seek validation, and prevent creating a distraction for the audience.
SMART goals can permeate all areas of our desired growth, from physical performance ones, ones that guide how we lead, to how we show up and be present for others in any area of life. The model is adaptable, capable of supporting any goal in any environment. And this approach will help you tap into an incredibly powerful developmental tool.
So, what is your goal right now?
Is it SMART?
If not, I encourage you to start with step #1 and build it into a clear, compelling, and complete SMART goal.