Teach Employees to Set Life-Changing Goals

Talent Management

June 22, 2012

by Marshall Goldsmith

When people lose spirit, the cause can often be traced to a rootless sense of mission. They lack clear goals. They don’t target opportunities. They can’t decide on simple criteria for how they define their lives. And so they wander aimlessly, spin in circles or stand in place, which in a rapidly changing world actually amounts to falling behind.

Many of us, especially if we work for others rather than for ourselves, have forgotten that we have the choice to set our own goals. Instead, we operate under criteria handed to us by others that lure us into mindlessly running with the herd. When this happens, we rarely take the opportunity to set our own criteria.

The best thing about having criteria is that it forces you to be precise — in what you do and how you hold yourself accountable afterward. It’s the difference between saying, “I’d be happier if I spent more time with my kids” and “I am going to spend at least four hours a week with each of my kids.” The former statement is vague, and therefore meaningless. What’s “more time” mean? One minute more than you’re spending now? How will that tiny incremental improvement matter to your kids — or you?

On the other hand, “four hours” is specific and measurable. It creates accountability. You either hit the target or miss. And if you hit the target, you reward yourself with an invisible gold medal every week. That makes you feel good about yourself on the inside — and this quickly shows on the outside, especially to the people who really matter, namely your kids. That’s how a renewed spirit happens. It’s not magical; it only seems that way.

A few years ago I was working with a woman named Barbara, who appeared to be a highly motivated, high-achieving executive at a marketing firm — except she was miserable. She couldn’t really pin down why. She liked most of her work, she liked her colleagues, she was good at her job, and she saw a clear growth path in her career.

“OK,” I said, “If you don’t know what’s making you unhappy, what would make you happy?”

“That’s easy,” she said. “Happy would be not having to go to any meetings that I do not want to attend.”

That was a breakthrough for Barbara, because suddenly she had articulated a very specific criterion for her working life. It was all about meetings. She hated them. But more than that, Barbara was chafing at a lack of autonomy and self-direction.

So she quit her job and set herself up as a consultant, working out of her home, which can be risky and stressful. But she was also completely in control of her time. Instead of endless meetings, she communicated with clients by email and phone, and when she needed a face-to-face with anyone, it was her choice. Acting on her simple criterion not only removed the forced attendance at pointless meetings, it cut out the daily commute into the office and her obligatory presence on equally fruitless conference calls — all of which helped to liberate three or four previously occupied hours from her day.

When I tracked her down 18 months later, she was no longer working at home. Her business had grown so quickly that she’d opened an office a few minutes away from home and now employed four people. “But still no unnecessary meetings,” she said. “My staff is not complaining.”

Barbara’s story is neither unique nor extraordinary. There are, after all, millions of refugees from the corporate world who are working out of their homes or in small offices. What makes her special is the spark that initiated her new life change — namely, identifying a criterion that made a difference. When you articulate a criterion for leading your life, it dictates many of the major choices that follow, closing some doors but opening others.