Pull the drawstring on a bow, shut your eyes, and shoot an arrow in any direction.
What will you hit?
Most of us will miss the target by a mile.
That's essentially what happens when you don't set specific and attainable goals for employees. More to the point, it's what happens when they don't set their own goals. They pull the drawstring and fire, but when they don't aim at anything, they won't find success.
Back in my corporate days, I experimented with many different action plans, some incredibly complicated, to solve this. My boss at the time believed in an intricate performance evaluation process, grading everyone on a five-point scale and using an Excel spreadsheet that went on for multiple pages. Employees had to seek improvement in countless ways all year long. The goals were complex, hard to explain, difficult to judge, and almost impossible to hit. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right?
It was--that company started sinking like a stone. I've since realized that people...are human. They like to think about a small set of attainable goals in a fairly short time-frame more like a task list than anything. You can chat at the lunch table about a few goals, but who would talk about point 22B from that complex Excel chart? It's not exactly fodder for the water cooler or anywhere else at a company.
My new plan doing some mentoring with college students is to set five simple and attainable goals over a short period. (Right now, they are only for the summer, so about three months.) We can mention the five goals to each other at meetings. We can chat about them in 15 minutes at a weekly one-on-one. We can even make jokes about them.
Just as importantly, the time-frame is within reach. No one can really think about what will happen in a year. Times change, technology progresses rapidly. Three or five months is about right. You can easily look out to September or November and think about what you can accomplish within that window. It's reduces stress, builds momentum on the team, and provides some motivation. Shorter than that creates pressure--how can anyone reach a goal in a month? Goals set longer than that...also creates stress. It's too far away to really plan anything related to a goal that's so far from now.
For every employee, you can sit down and--working together--come up with a list of well-intentioned, obtainable, practical goals to achieve in five months. You can hit a target when you aim for it. A five-goals-in-five-months plan works for every employee because it makes logical sense. You and the employee can easily get your head around five goals.
Here's a quick breakdown of how to establish the goals and the time-frame.
1. Pick a few easy ones
You know, goals don't have to be difficult or complicated. One of the main reasons to even pick five goals is to make sure there is an action plan from the beginning. You're on a set course and you're setting expectations. It doesn't have to be an obstacle course. At least one or two goals should be well within reason. This will give you and the employee a chance to celebrate the victory together--the classic high-five moment.
2. Pick at least one hard one
Make sure there is a tough goal in the mix. Again, it's about motivation. One hard goal means the employee has to stretch their abilities a little. If he or she hits the goal, great--you have seen some growth and it's more cause for celebration. If the employee misses it, he or she still knows there are other highly attainable goals. A hard goal also means you can strategize together about hitting that high water mark, and that's the big win.
3. Make a few of them highly measurable
A few of the goals should be easy to track as well. With a social media team member, you can easily set a goal related to increasing Twitter followers. You can measure the numbers together. Avoid having all of the goals too wishy-washy, such as learning how to be a more effective leader or work well on the team. How will you know the employee attained those? Be specific and practical about this. Tracking should be fun.
4. Pick them together
Let the employee pick several of their own goals. This helps with ownership. At the same time, show you are invested in the employee and offer at least one or two goals you want that person to achieve. You can make suggestions, or even insist on a goal as a way to show you really care that the employee is motivated and challenged. In general, come up with the list together.
5. Talk about them frequently
Growth happens when there are minor victories and successes almost every day or every week. It's not a Herculean jump, but one that involves small steps of progress. The five goals makes that abundantly obvious. Maybe the employee achieves one goal per month. Great! Maybe he or she hits a target right away. That's also a wonderful thing. Most importantly, it's all about the dialog you have together--make the subject of goal achievement a primary concern for you and the employee.
Now, get busy! If you have many employees, it will take some time to strategize about goals and get the wheels rolling. As always, I'm here to help. If you are struggling to define goals, or wondering why you need to go through this exercise, or have questions about tweaking the plan, ask away. I'm here by email or on my Twitter feed to offer help.