5 Goal Setting Tips: How NOT to Set Goals for Your Team

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Dear CFO,
As the Financial Director of a small manufacturing business, I’ve been working with our sales team to set goals for next year…which has led me to wonder if I really understand goalsetting. I’m good at the “big picture” part, but I struggle to help them prioritize when we narrow it down. What are your best goal setting tips for actionable (realistic) goals?
Leveling-Up Goals in LaGrange, IL

I’ve read so much on goal setting, and a lot of it feels somewhat esoteric. Trust me, I’m the queen of high-level thinking, so I know as well as anyone how difficult it is to break down those high-level values, mission, vision, and targets into real, workable, actionable steps. For many managers and leaders, the breakdown is the hardest part.

I’ll tell you, there are great goal setting tips out there, but it’s hard to wade through all the peripheral noise. Here are five of the best goal setting tips I’ve found and what works for me.

The Five Best Goal Setting Tips

Tip #1: Commit to Starting Your Goals NOW!

I find many leaders get bogged down in what I like to call a “plague of maybes.”

  • Maybe you’re still a bit on edge about establishing a solid commitment to achieve your goals.
  • Maybe it’s hard to commit because you think your team won’t get on board if you’re stretching them a little thinner with extra workloads.
  • Maybe it’s compounded because you’re not sure whether your team will buy-in or even be capable of the performance you expect.
  • Maybe the day-to-day workload is too much.
  • Maybe you’re in a mid-level role and you’re waiting for word from the top (before soliciting buy-in from the bottom).
  • Maybe you feel committing is a waste of time because you never know what will happen, or you haven’t been successful in the past.
  • Maybe, maybe, MAYBE.

Enough Maybes!

The list of obstacles preventing you from starting to set your goals is endless. Running through the maybes is a masterclass in procrastination. I propose, even if ALL of the maybes listed above are 100% true, your department will be more successful, and perhaps even perform better when you commit to setting goals. Take one step today, right now!

Tip #2: Don’t Dismiss SMART Goal Setting

Your plan is what keeps your goal achievable and grounded in reality. Consider your plan the road mapBy now we’ve all heard so much about SMART goals, we can recite the criteria in our sleep: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. But if we all know the SMART concept like the back of our hands, why do we still skip a letter (or two) when we set goals?

First the “S”—I’ve seen so many people flounder with their goal setting because they aren’t specific enough about what they want to achieve. (Hint: if you’re stuck, start by listing out what you want to AVOID instead. Sometimes that’s an easier approach.) Either they aren’t sure, or they get stuck on the “big picture” thinking again.

People also get stuck when they avoid the “A” and “R” in SMART. While I encourage setting big stretch goals, your goals must be achievable and realistic. Realistic doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim for the stars, but set a plan to obtain a rocket ship first. “A goal without a plan is just a wish,” in the words of author Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Your plan is what keeps your goal achievable and grounded in reality. Consider your plan the road map.

People miss the “M” and “T” as well. They aren’t sure when a goal is complete because they’re nebulous with the parameters. Is the outcome measurable? Will you KNOW you’ve achieved your target? Is the goal time-bound? Will you know WHEN you get there? So many goals end up floating out there in space because they aren’t tethered by time and measurability.

I read a great article a while back in Forbes called Seven Mistakes Leaders Make in Setting Goals—a fantastic list addressing goal setting and implementation issues. The insights in the article are timeless when it comes to goal setting. (Much thanks to author Ron Ashkenas for his ideas.) From the article, I gleaned three additional goal setting tips.

Tip #3: Don’t Engage in Charades

you need to know what your team is capable of and whether or not they’re going to sandbag the idea right from the startAshkenas defines engaging in charades as, “you and your people know from the beginning that the goal is just an exercise to convey the appearance of progress, but there’s no hope of achieving it.”

My take is you need to know what your team is capable of and whether or not they’re going to sandbag the idea right from the start. While you know you’re the team leader—and, yes, your team needs to follow your lead here—above all, stay realistic. Get buy-in from upper management to ensure you have the right people on the bus. Do you trust your current team?

Are your team members comfortable with communication? Are they willing to let you know the goal is more than a stretch? Can you break it down into smaller pieces? Can you quantify the resources it will take to accomplish this? Do you have internal and external resources to hit your target? Can you afford to make it happen?

The bottom line is this game can occur at every level in the organization, from the strategic plan to individual performance goals. Be honest with your team and yourself.

Tip #4 Don’t Set Vague or Distant Goals

It comes back to the S in SMART. Are your goals specific? Look at the T as well to ensure, as Asheknas says, “The time frame is not explicitly defined or set too far into the future, so no one takes it seriously.”

You define your targets and long term objectives with milestones that stretch out 3-5 years. But how do you break it down to “eat the elephant one bite at a time?”

When it comes to these long-term, high-level objectives, pick THE date, perhaps hang it up in the office, so the target is always present, relevant, and meaningful. Again, get a feel for the steps, people, and time involved before defining the date. People want to feel successful. As expressed in Break Through: A Leader’s Greatest Lesson by Paul Homoly, CSP, your job is to make it easier for your people to succeed.

If there’s no hope of meeting the end date, your team will know it isn’t real, and they won’t take it seriously (or they’ll feel instantly defeated. Your goal must be doable, or they’re doomed from the start.

Tip #5: Set Only One or Two Goals at a Time!

Prioritize your goals and only go after 1 or 2 at a time - don't overwhelm yourself!Overachievers raise your hands! One of the biggest goal-setting mistakes is setting too many goals! Asheknas says, “By assigning an overabundance of objectives, you allow subordinates to pick and choose the goals they either want to do or find easiest to do—but not necessarily the ones that are most important.”

The truth is, this is the goal-setting tip I struggle with the most. I want it all achieved NOW. So, instead of setting realistic goals, it becomes a long, LONG (overwhelming) to-do list. If you’re like me (and there are many out there) put someone on your team to tell you when there’s too much on your plate.

Sometimes priorities need to get rearranged and reassigned. Priorities make everyone’s job easier; it’s still possible to achieve much of what you want to do, and when those items are ranked, a rhythm develops to accomplish each step.

Decide what’s most important. Help your team prioritize and decide which goals to tackle when. Don’t merely throw goals at your team and expect them to come up with the priority. When this happens, someone will get overloaded, and your most important goals will get ignored, not accomplished.

Using these goal setting tips will help you and your team tackle those goals and you’ll be on your way toward your targets! Remember to start with the right, SMART goal setting strategies, prioritize, and work toward your goals step by step. Before you know it, you’ll feel amazed at all your team has achieved.


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