How To Set Professional Goals At Work

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Setting goals at work can help provide the discipline and motivation you need in order to succeed. When you set goals at work you can be setting them at an organization level, team level or an individual level. In each instance however the goals should be orientated towards helping you achieve the company’s stated goals and objectives within the definition of your role.

For example setting professional goals at work for a Sales Executive could include closing x number of new customers for $100,000 or more in new revenue. This in turn can align with the company’s broader goal to achieve x% growth in a particular market or domain.

When it comes to setting professional goals at work there are a couple of things we should first consider. According to The management of organizations: strategy, structure, behavior by Barney and Griffin goals can serve four primary functions:

  • They help to inspire and motivate
  • Goals facilitate easy planning
  • They help guide employees
  • They help in evaluating control and performance

What these functions essentially highlight is that goals have some course of action attached to them that can then be reviewed and judged on its effectiveness.

In the rest of this article, we are going to look at how to set goals, how to choose the right goals, as well as the difference between personal development and performance orientated goals in the workplace.

How To Set Professional Goals

Before embarking on setting the goals, there are some guiding principles that the goals should meet in order to ensure that they provide value to you and the organisation at large.

Failure to structure a goal properly is almost as bad as not having a goal at all. Without appropriate structure, goals can be hard to evaluate or lack specific criteria and timeframes for completion. To ensure you set professional goals at work you want to use the SMART framework.

SMART goals are:

Specific

A professional goal at work should have a particular objective that is easy to define and have a specific outcome. You want to avoid broad goals because they are harder to track and success is not always black and white.

For example a broad goal would be “I want to sell more than I did last year”. While it has some guidance (because you know the amount you sold last year), it is not very specific.

A more specific version of this goal would be “I want to sell $500,000 worth of new widgets in the 2019 calendar year”.

Measurable

Having a goal that is measurable is closely tied with ensuring the goal is specific. In fact there is often cross over in this domain. A measurable goal is one in which you can directly say whether or not you succeeded or failed.

The more measurable you can make a goal the better that goal is and the clear criteria against which you have to judge your success. For example let’s say you set a goal to increase web traffic by 20% next month. On the surface that goals appears measurable. You can judge whether or not you increased traffic by 20% fairly easily.

But lets say its not just your goal, but a team or organisation led goal. Now all of a sudden someone in marketing could ask “how are we going to achieve that?” and respond with the idea to increase the marketing budget for Google Adwords by 50%. Doing so helps you achieve the goal of increasing traffic, but it comes at great cost.

A more measurable goal would be to “Increase web traffic by 20% in July 2019, while only increasing our marketing budget by $1,000”. Not you have set more parameters around the goal, thus making it easier to measure and benchmark your success.

Achievable

For a professional goal to be motivating for you or your team it needs to be achievable. If a goal is too easy or too hard to achieve it has the opposite effect. It discourages your team for striving (in the event the goal is too easy) or from trying (if the goal is too hard).

For example, say your team has achieved $1 million in sales for the past 3 years. If you set a goal to do $5 million in sales this year that is likely to be highly unachievable. At least without a correspondingly large increase in marketing budget or quantum shift in the industry. Setting a goal like this won’t motivate, but rather discourage your team because it is so far out of reach.

On the other hand if you set a goal to achieve $800,000 in sales this may be equally demotivating. The team knows that they will probably hit that goal without too much effort and therefore do not try to hard to achieve it. They expect it to come naturally.

There is no hard and fast rule about what makes a goal achievable, but enough of a stretch to be a challenge. You have to use your own knowledge and prior experience when setting professional goals at work.

Relevant

A professional goal also needs to be relevant. It needs to be relevant to you and your role in the organization, as well as relevant to the organization as a whole.

For example if you work in marketing, setting a goal to “improve the staff breakroom facilities” is not very relevant too your role. Neither is it specific or measurable for that matter. Even if you achieved this goal and had people raving about the new ping pong table and bar fridge it is not relevant to your role or what is expected of your team.

Relevant goals don’t necessarily have to be company specific goals however. This same person in marketing could set a goal to “Complete Google Adwords Certification training by December 2019 and achieve an 80%+ mark”. This is largely a personal goal. It is completed by an individual and will help them in their career. But it is also relevant to their role and has a benefit for the company. Especially if through this training the marketing manager can create more effective ads at a lower cost.

Time Bound

SMART professional work goals are goals that are time bound. They have a defined end date. Leaving a goal open-ended means that there is no focus on achieving it within a set timeframe. If other priorities emerge that goal can get pushed down the list. After time it may be forgotten about altogether.

When setting professional goals at work you also need to ensure that the time provided for a goal isn’t too long or too short. Much like making sure the goal is achievable, a goal that has short time pressures can be demotivating, while a goal with a long time horizon may not have the immediate focus it requires.

A time-bound goal also means you have another metric to measure your success or otherwise against. For example if a goal is to increase sales by 20%, is that over a week? A month? A year? A decade? without a time measurement its almost as if, if you wait long enough it could still come true.

Choosing The Right Goals

Broadly speaking in a workplace setting their are two types of goals to consider:

  1. Professional development based goals
  2. Performance-based goals

Both have their place in an organization and for an individual contemplating their future, but understanding the difference between the two can help ensure you have the right balance.

Professional development based goals tend to be slightly longer term focused. They might not necessarily take longer to complete, but their benefit can be ongoing.

Professional development based goals also don’t only benefit the organization, but you as an individual as well. We have already used an example of a professional development based goal above where we spoke about the marketing manager undertaking a Google Adwords certification.

On the other hand, we have performance-based goals. These goals have more hard and fast metrics against which we can judge performance. They are also often found in roles such as sales and marketing where individuals are used to being judged against specific metrics.

Here’s more on each type of goal.

Professional Development Goals

These goals are often aimed at improving the employee’s skills and enhancing their ability in job functioning. They don’t necessarily need to be set by the individual and often in large companies, you will find manager setting professional development based goals for their team members. For example, for them to learn about a new product or service or to enhance their industry knowledge in a particular way.

With performance-based goals, you want to pay close attention to the measurable and timely aspects of the SMART methodology. This is because professional development goals can often be vague or hard to quantify. For example, simply saying you “want to be a better manager” or have a team member “improve their knowledge of product Y” is hard to judge. Instead you would want to set goals such as “Within the next 3 months I will improve my knowledge of management strategies by completing a short course from XYZ institute” or in the case of the team member the goal could be “I will improve my knowledge of product Y in the next 6 weeks. My achievement of this goal will be judged by my ability to give a 60 minute demonstration of the product to my peers without any aids or prompts”.

Performance-Based Goals

Performance-based goals are often work goals that immediately come to mind when talking about goal setting in a corporate environment. We have already covered a number of examples of performance-based goals when it comes to sales and marketing.

One of the main reasons why performance-based goals get so much of the attention is because they are easy to track and manage. They involve hard numbers and anyone can tell if that number has gone up or down over time. And having access to this data can make it easy to assess your success or otherwise.

Performance-based goals can also tend to be more time bound by their nature, especially if they are associated with a particular role or function. For example, while having a goal to “achieve your sales target” is not very specific and does not state a particular time period for the sales executive they know over what period their company judges sales performance and can, therefore, infer the date.

Performance-based goals often struggle in other areas. In particular, being specific and achievable. Continuing with our sales example from above the sales executive wants to achieve their sales target but gives no guidance as to how. Making this goal for specific could involve stating “I want to achieve my sales target of $x by cold calling 50 contacts a day, holding 8 customer meetings a week and achieving 3 sales a month”.

Making a performance-based goal achievable is also important. Again because performance-based goals tend to be drive by numbers it is very easy for a manager or individual to set the goal x% higher than last year. While this may sound logical it gives no consideration to the current market conditions, potential new product releases, etc. Every time a staff member sees a goal increase by x% without justification they can often feel that it has been set arbitrarily, thereby reducing their motivation for success.

How To Measure Performance of Goals

Now that you have a good understanding of the different types of goals in the workplace it is time to give some thought about how you measure the performance of those goals.

The good news is if you have created a SMART goal it is already by default measurable and timebound. This provides the two crucial pieces of information which you will need in order to judge your performance.

That said, you don’t necessarily have to wait until the end of the period you stated to judge your performance. In fact, you should have regular check-ins and give consideration to how far or close away you are from achieving your goal.

With this in mind, however, one trap people fall into is seeing that they are close to achieving their goal only to push the metric for success out further. For example, if your goal is to sell $100,000 of new software in 3 months and in the first month you sell $80,000 worth of software you may be tempted to increase your goal to $150,000. This is the wrong thought process. Once a goal is set it should remain in place. You can always set a new goal after you have achieved it.

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of measuring these goals many company’s have processes in place to discuss your goals with your manager. If this isn’t the case then committing to writing them down and recording them somewhere where you will remember is equally important.

For number based goals, like those we discussed under the performance goal section, having a dashboard or report that tracks you success towards that metric is often a great way to measure your performance.

Beyond the core number(s) however it is important that after each goal setting period you look back and ask:

  1. Was that the right goal for me and the organization
  2. Did it provide a material impact on my career/job function and the success of the company

If you can’t answer yes to both of those questions then perhaps you need to work a little hard at the start of the process and ensure the goals you set will provide the meaningful impact you are seeking.

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About Author

Paul Towers - Founder @ Task Pigeon

Paul Towers is a 3x Entrepreneur and Founder of Task Pigeon. Join me on my journey to build an open & transparent startup from day one. Paul is also the founder of Startup Soda, a newsletter curating the best content from the Australian startup ecosystem.