Recently, I posted a list of 12 Things Good Bosses Believe. Now I'm following up by delving into each one of them. This post is about the third belief: "Having ambitious and well-defined goals is important, but it is useless to think about them much. My job is to focus on the small wins that enable my people to make a little progress every day."
Managers often think their job is to inspire their people with "stretch goals" — clear objectives that will be hard to meet, but that would have a dramatic impact on the organization's success. That this kind of ambitious goal-setting is a hallmark of effective leaders, and of high-performance organizations, is an old theme in behavioral science. Edwin Locke and Gary Latham in particular have produced a brilliant and compelling stream of research over the past 35 years demonstrating that difficult, specific goals lead to better task performance. In a more popular mode, Jim Collins has convinced thousands of managers of the value of "BHAG's" — big, hairy, audacious goals.
There's no denying that ambitious goals are essential to motivation. But my view is that the best bosses don't spend much time thinking or talking about them. There are a few reasons for this:
- They are strategically obvious. What if I asked you to guess at the stretch goals of various teams, ranging from the grizzled sailors on the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch, to the U.S. Soccer team now competing for the World Cup in South Africa, to a giant retailer like Target Stores? You wouldn't know the exact numbers to name, but you'd know the nature of their goals: the captains are trying to catch x tons of crab, the soccer team is trying to win y number of games (culminating with the championship), and Target is trying for a z percent gain in market share, or profit margin, or stock price. Even if a goal is a more noble, relating to employee retention, for example, or carbon footprint reduction, it will not be surprising. For most organizations in most industries, success is measured on well known and accepted yardsticks. Sure, there are differences and they do matter, but ambitious goals rarely send people in directions they didn't realize they needed to go.
- They're too blunt to provide daily guidance — or satisfaction. Tell a division that it needs to double its revenues in the next five years and people will not likely see what they should individually do differently to achieve that. A good boss lays out the path to a big goal, and works with people to break it down into objectives that more clearly imply the necessary actions. Focusing attention on the little steps not only clarifies what people need to accomplish on a daily basis, it also allows people to enjoy Small Wins, as Karl Weick called them in his wonderful 1984 article in The American Psychologist. (Here is the pdf.)
- They're too daunting. Weick also points out that organizations tend to be stymied by big goals that have not been broken into bite-size pieces. Faced with seemingly huge and overwhelmingly difficult challenges, people freeze up or even freak out. So the best bosses not only outline the steps, they talk and act like each is not overly difficult — which quells people's fears and enhances their confidence that, if they just keep moving, everything will turn out fine.
In Good Boss, Bad Boss, I share a story from a CEO I know who set a monumental revenue target for his organization. The number he named was so high that it would take the most successful sales campaign the company had ever run to make it. Adding to the pressure, the business was on the ropes. It had lost some key accounts, and nothing less than the revenues he targeted could save it from large-scale layoffs.
Few on his team were inspired by the audacity of the goal. Immediately fears were expressed that it could never be realized given the severe time pressure, limited resources on hand, and tough market conditions. But rather than simply repeat the do-or-die imperative, the CEO led a discussion of what it would realistically take to make the campaign a big success. Before long, the list of "to do's" had stretched to over 100 tasks, causing even more doubts to be vocalized. The turning point came when the CEO asked the group to sort that list into "hard" and "easy" tasks. When a task was declared easy, he asked who could do it and by what date. Within 15 minutes, the group realized that they could accomplish over half the tasks in just a few days. The anxiety level dropped, and stage was set for a succession of small wins.
How did it all turn out? The company did run the most successful sales campaign of its history. This was in 2009. Better yet, the power of the CEO's approach carried over to the next year. The senior team (with much less guidance from him this time) used a similar small-wins strategy for a 2010 campaign that generated even more business than 2009's — thanks in part to their higher confidence level and in part to the skills they'd gained at breaking down tasks. They knew how to get the myriad easy ones out of the way so they could focus on the harder (but still manageable) ones.
I'm eager to hear if all this is consistent with your own experience. For the moment, here's my conclusion: great bosses do set very challenging goals and communicate them to their followers. But you're a bad boss if, once those goals are known and accepted, you keep mindlessly invoking them. Rather than continually drawing people's attention to that distant horizon, help them see what they can and must accomplish right now. Let them proceed calmly, with confidence, and with the motivation that comes from taking clear little steps — and they may just accomplish those big hairy goals.