Be the Michelangelo of Goal-Setting

April 3, 2013 /LinkedIn/ – If you’ve ever completed a marathon, saved up to buy a new car, or aced a difficult exam; if you’ve ever mastered a piano sonata, or learned how to dance the salsa, or gotten a pilot’s license: you know there’s nothing quite as sweet as setting a big goal – and reaching it.

Forty years of research shows that the same is true in business: unlike vague plans or fuzzy hopes, ambitious goals lead to greater efforts and memorable results.

So swap your three-page, 25-item to-do list for a Post-It note’s worth of spectacular goals. Even two or three will do. I’m not talking about insipid “we want to do the right thing” corporate mission statements or dull EPS targets. I mean goals that everyone in the organization can own, build on, and believe in.

These four guidelines will help you create goals that keep your organization united and energized:

1. It’s not about you. Your success as a leader depends on the success of the people you work with. It’s Management 101, but it can be hard to accept if you’re an overachiever used to doing everything yourself. Still, the sooner you realize that a team of successful people can accomplish far more than any one person – and that a phalanx of great teams can move mountains – the closer you’ll be to understanding that great goals are about empowering people.

Michelangelo liked to say he liberated the figures he sculpted from their marble prisons. In the same way, the best leaders learn to unlock the deepest potential of the people they’re leading – by pushing them beyond their self-imposed limitations. The art of goal setting, then, is to show your team members how their individual growth is vital to the organization’s success – and vice versa.

2. Meaning, not metrics: Goals should never be about sales growth or profit margins: those numbers don’t tell the real story. Doubling sales is great for shareholders, but team members want to feel like they’re doing something that matters: creating a product that lets busy parents enjoy time with their children, giving doctors with a treatment to prevent illness, or providing working people a quick way to cook healthy food.

What gets people energized is the story of what your organization is doing, and what you want it to do next. Numerical goals don’t tend to move people; but goal-driven people will move the numbers.

3. Evoke, don’t impose. If you find yourself forcing goals on your team, go back to step #1. A successful goal shouldn’t have to be imposed; people will naturally want to own a piece of it – to participate in achieving it. They won’t need leaders to monitor or harass them.

You can try the carrot-and-stick method, of course – it always works, until it doesn’t. Once reward and punishment become your main motivation tools, you’ll find that external motivations like this are not much different from handing out a drug – after a while you’ll have to up the dosage just to have the same effect.

4. Make it emotional and visual. A while back, a group of my students did an exercise where they came up with 10-year goals for themselves. Many had to do with health and life balance.

One student said her goal was to eat right, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep. No one could disagree.

But when her colleague said that his goal was to “run a marathon faster at age 35 than I did at age 25,” the class seemed to have an “a ha” moment. The expression of the goal wasn’t spiritually different from his classmate’s, but the image he created was so much more memorable – it stuck in our minds right away.

A decade later, the student even called me and introduced himself as the “guy who’d run a marathon faster at 35 than at 25.” I remembered his face clearly, and the moment too. He’d managed to recruit me to his cheering section in that class, so when he told me now that he’d succeeded in outracing his younger self at the marathon, I just about stood up and applauded.

If you can conjure a goal so vivid that it comes alive in people’s minds — that they can see, and better yet, feel – you’re well on the way to the finish line.

By Joel Peterson