Developing Leaders Through the Power of Goal Setting

By: Sam

How individualized are your leader development efforts? Are your events, activities, and initiatives tailored to the unique needs of your team, or even more importantly, to individuals? Or are they broad brush strokes waving over vague, cookie cutter topics on leadership? 

How are your team members being uniquely challenged, supported, and developed? 

Are they?  

We are inspired by the words of Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey in their book, An Everyone Culture, when they say, “Imagine so valuing the importance of developing people’s capabilities that you design a culture that itself immersively sweeps every member of the organization into an ongoing developmental journey in the course of working every day.” 

With such an eye for individually tailored development, we cannot think of a more effective tool than goal setting.  

As with individual goal setting, the hardest part about helping others set goals is figuring out where to start. Most people don’t have goals. But we know the value of setting and accomplishing goals, so it is incumbent upon us as leaders to help our teammates develop and achieve some of their own.  

It starts with a simple conversation and one question: “Can you tell me a goal that you have, either professionally or personally?” Cue the awkward silence and blank stare. Chances are, it is going to take a minute for your teammate to think of something. That’s okay! Since most people don’t have goals, we can’t expect them to rattle one off. They may say they need to get back to you after taking some time to consider it. Better yet, it may be appropriate for you to prep them via email or a statement at the end of a weekly team meeting: “Over the next couple weeks, I would like to meet with each of you one-on-one to discuss your goals. Prior to the meeting, take some time to consider just one goal you have and why it is important to you. This goal can be personal, professional, or a mix of both – it just has to be important, challenging, and authentic.” Priming the conversation can help prevent the awkward stare, but either way, the important part is to get the conversation started.  

Don’t be afraid to iterate over this process; it may take time to discover a true, authentic, and challenging goal. Further, don’t be afraid to contribute to the goal development conversation. As their leader, you have a valid perspective on their essential developmental needs. Consider the value of contributing your perspective in the conversation to see if it sticks, and to a point that it resonates, ultimately creating a need within themselves to address that idea.  

Once you’ve passed this critical point—ironically the hardest part—the next couple steps may seem easy. When you meet to talk through the individual’s goal, make it a comfortable setting. Maybe it’s a walk around the building or over a coffee. You want them to be comfortable, so having the conversation during their annual performance review may not be the best. Remember, sharing a goal can be a vulnerable experience for someone so you need to consider the surroundings (i.e., a quiet area) and your body language (not texting or checking your email while they are opening up to you). Your job initially is to listen, understand, and learn what it is that your employee wants to improve upon. After you have a clear grasp of their objective, it's time to apply the SMART methodology. I’m not talking about taking out a checklist and walking through each letter; that will feel too forced and mechanical. Instead, use the SMART framework to help guide your own responses. For example, let's say you have an employee who states they want to be the #1 Fire Fighter in the city. While a valiant goal, we know it is difficult to Measure and isn’t Time Based, which ultimately will make it difficult to achieve. Coaching them through how to reshape and add specificity could turn this bold objective into something actionable.  For example, you can encourage this Measurable, Time Based approach in your colleague by helping them refine their goal to “Compete and win the Dallas Firefighter Challenge in 2024.” And remember about iterating; it may take iteration to finally formulate a high-quality SMART goal. Unearth needs, desires, and hopes! 

Once you’ve helped your teammate get their objective into a compelling SMART goal, you have to figure out how you can help. As their manager and leader, what resources do you have access to that can assist them? Are there training courses or conferences available that would be beneficial to them? Is there someone inside the organization that has more experience who could help provide tailored mentorship? Can you clear their schedule for an afternoon every week to give them dedicated time to work on it? Not only does this show your employee that you care enough about them to commit company resources and your own time, it also helps them feel like you are an accountability partner on their journey; they won’t want to let you down! This leads us to our final step: accountability.  

Now that they have a SMART goal and the resources to help them achieve it, you need to work with them to establish a method of accountability. When will you next meet to check on their progress? Their goal should be Time Based, so some backwards planning can help drive this. Make these future meetings a priority, despite temptation to “bump it” from the schedule due to some other conflicting event. Your employee opened up to you, made themselves vulnerable, and is working on something that is very important to them. The worst thing you can do as their leader is marginalize their goal by failing to uphold your end of the deal. I can’t stress this enough: you are going to need to pull these accountability checks along because often times your employee will not feel comfortable reminding you about them; it can be intimidating asking your boss for their time on something about you! Forgetting them can be catastrophic, undermining the investment you have made in them and their ability to achieve an identity-based goal.  

There is no denying that this is going to be hard. As a leader you have several priorities competing for your time, not to mention goals of your own. But the return on investment here is huge. You may very well have people on your team right now who have never set a goal and seen it through to completion. You can be the reason this changes for them.  

One such example of goal setting and its impact comes from a company called Next Jump. At Next Jump, they have spent years focusing on how to develop their culture to become one that values growth and development of their team, both at work and at home. One way they do this is by helping their employees identify their “backhands,” a tennis analogy that represents an area you are weak in. Once an individual’s backhand is identified, it is shared publicly with their colleagues; people actually begin lectures by introducing themselves and stating their backhand…to the entire office! Next Jump also offers tons of resources to help the person improve daily. Because it is a company-wide program—even the CEO has a known backhand—employees don’t feel singled out or embarrassed by their weakness. It is normalized and no one wastes time or energy trying to lie, hide, or fake their way through work every day. 

Next Jump’s methodology has several key takeaways to consider. Most importantly, they put their money where their mouth is. They devote company resources to helping individuals improve. It's one thing to simply point out a weakness, but Next Jump takes the important and necessary next step and devotes company time and resources to helping their employees improve. This sends a clear message that they have a vested interest in the achievement of the individual’s goal. The results they have experienced as an organization are impactful. In fact, they have been recognized by Harvard Business Review as one of only three Deliberately Developmental Organizations in 2016.     

Much of helping your employees achieve their goals is about providing a framework, a sounding board, and the resources that you can make available. While achieving the goal will have direct impacts for the organization at large (like having the #1 Fire Fighter in the city on your team), what you will start to find is that the investment you are making in your employees is having an even larger impact on your organization’s culture. They will start to trust you more, share more openly, and work harder because they know you care about them. That is powerful, and as a leader, you have the unique ability to enable and empower individualized, focused, and life-impacting change!  

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