By Morey Stettner
Ideally, leaders set goals that are easy to measure and tough to reach.
As long as staffers understand how to keep score in a simple, unambiguous manner, they can track their progress. And if they must stretch to attain a challenging but achievable goal, then it’s calibrated just right.
Yet setting effective goals is fraught with peril. A target that’s too fuzzy or complicated to measure can stymie your team. It also should spur them to struggle a bit — but not too much — to cross the finish line.
To drive success, rivet everyone’s attention on ambitious but realistic objectives. Here’s how:
Before finalizing goals, analyze your employees’ historical performance. Review their results in past years, under different circumstances and scenarios.
“Good managers observe how their people perform and talk to them on a regular basis,” said Ira Kalb, a professor of marketing at USC’s Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles. “They ask them how they feel about a goal” before setting it in stone.
It’s tempting to refuse to listen to employees who gripe about the high bar that you’ve set for them. But it’s better to stay attuned to their reaction.
“Your goals need to be challenging but not too difficult or people might leave,” Kalb said. “And they can’t be too easy or people might get bored. If (employees) are complaining a little bit about the goals, that’s perfect.”
Know when to lighten up.
While it’s smart to push people to exceed their expectations, there’s a risk that you can go too far. Continually prodding hard-charging employees to work even harder can lead to burnout.
Once staffers attain impressive goals, don’t rush to up the ante. They may call it quits if their resentment boils over.
“If you keep saying to successful people ‘You did well. Now I’ll increase your goal,’ they won’t like it,” Kalb warned.
Reinforce what you measure.
Remove any mystery about how you intend to measure the team’s pursuit of the goal. As long as they see what you see — and they know what metrics you’re watching — they can focus their efforts on higher-priority activities.
“We set goals on an annual basis and update them quarterly to all our employees,” said Jeff Bevis, co-founder and chief executive of FirstLight Home Care, a provider of nonmedical home care based in Cincinnati. “We have a score card with 18 criteria that we track on a monthly basis.”
Create opportunities for employees to learn about the goals and why they matter. This fosters buy-in across business units.
Bevis hosts quarterly gatherings of his workforce where he and other department heads discuss the goals as stipulated on the score card. Attendees gain insight into how the goals came about.
“For example, an employee asked why we have a benchmark for caregiver retention,” Bevis said. “Our head of (human resources) explained that retention saves us money in lower recruiting costs” and increases operational efficiency in other ways.
Celebrate incremental gains.
Lofty goals can seem unreachable at first. But if you laud your team for modest victories along the way, you’ll boost morale.
“If the leadership team has created reasonable projections, then communicate to your team as much information as possible so that they believe in your projections,” said May McCarthy, a serial entrepreneur and angel investor in San Antonio. “As you celebrate each milestone, they’ll get excited and that builds confidence and shifts belief. Then they think the next set of goals aren’t as crazy after all.”
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