How to have meaningful goal-setting conversations

And stop filling up boring templates your company hands you

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Source: Helloquence on Unsplash

We’ve all had this experience — there you are, sitting across from your Performance Manager, partaking in a strange annual ritual of “discussing your goals” and “recording them on the ‘Performance Enhancement System”.

I’ve done these conversations both as a performance manager and as an employee. And quite honestly, I’ve struggled in my initial years to fully grasp the value in this exercise.

There are 3 primary reasons that the traditional goal setting process didn’t appeal to me:

  1. They’re too generic and somewhat uninspiring : I’m looking at you “100 % timesheet compliance” and “increase value for stakeholders”

Most goal-setting sheets do a terrible job of defining what an employee needs to do and how this benefits them as an individual. It takes a mature Performance Manager to illustrate this and bring out the best in their direct reports.

Through many years of fumbling and extensive reading, I have curated a 3 step framework to help you get the most out of these goal setting conversations.

Please note that this framework combines techniques from David Allen’s, ‘Getting Things Done philosophy’, a few notes from Stoicism and a flurry of other psychological techniques.

I don’t claim that it is the best way to do a goal setting conversation, but it is something that helps break the soul crushing monotony of the template-ised goal setting conversations which happen to be the norm at many organisations.

You’re very welcome to put your own spin on it to suit your circumstances. My examples below will tend to have references to audit and finance since I’ve spent most of my career in this field, so please bear with them.

All right, let’s hop to it.

This is written from the point of view of a Performance Manager/Coach who will help elicit the goals from the employee/mentee and see them thru to fruition.

To begin, both the coach and the mentee must have a broad sense of the company’s generic set of goals and a fair understanding of the department/function. This style of goal setting works best for employees who have been in the system for a while though it can be customized for freshers too.

This will be a handwritten exercise, so both the mentee and the coach will need to bring a pen and paper. Please expand the diagrams below to see how the sheet will be filled up in various phases. The content within the diagrams is reproduced below them.

Step 1: Defining the aspirations and long term outcomes of the mentee

You’ll need to make 3 broad columns on a sheet of paper:

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In the far right column, fill out the career aspirations or dreams that the mentee has. This column will be called ‘outcome’.

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The ‘outcome’ column requires an honest conversation between the mentee and the coach to discern what the mentee wishes to do with their career in the long run. The outcomes should not be limited to the roles that exist within the current organization or even the current line of work. This is supposed to be the ultimate wish list of career aspirations. It is important to establish trust with the mentee to get honest replies.

Use various prompt questions to get the answer to this question as most mentees don’t always know how to articulate this:

1. Which aspect of your role do you enjoy the most?

2. If 5 years from now you walked down the street and saw a poster of you recognizing an achievement of yours, what would that poster look like — what would you like to be known for?

3. Is there a role model you have in the organization, or outside the organization?

4. If there were no limitations, what would your ideal day at work look like — what sort of work would you be doing.

The idea is to stir up some emotion in the mentee and to give them a sense of ownership of their careers. This question will force the mentee to reflect about the course of their career and to understand what they want to do. They need to find one long term vision to identify with and commit to during this part of the goal setting process.

See below for a sample of responses that are expected in such meetings — these are honest answers and should in no way be used by a coach to influence ratings or departmental transfers. The responses will stay in the room and are strictly confidential between the mentee and the coach.

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This is simply to get a sense of what the mentee likes to do so they are emotionally invested and engaged in the role as opposed to working for a salary and never fully feeling a sense of purpose.

One of the responses I have heard from a mentee is that she wants to eventually start a business of her own. She doesn’t know how exactly and what type of business it will be but there is an entrepreneurial streak that she wants to nurture at some point but does not have the means to do so currently.

This is a great starting point.

I’ve also heard responses such as these, which are all perfectly valid starting points.

  • I want to become an expert at auditing and technical accounting and maybe become a Partner at the firm eventually

The mentee does not have to know how they will make this happen; they just need to know why they are in the present role and where they want to go eventually if there were no limitations to what they could accomplish.

Step 2 : Writing down the yearly goals

Once the long term outcome/vision is identified, the coach is to ask questions about what things should happen within the year for them to get close to this outcome. Let’s pick the first outcome of a mentee wanting to run their own business a few years down the line, they are now required to define what they can do right now in the organization to help them acquire the skillsets necessary to run a business.

The idea is to make it so that every minute they spend in the organization, they are working towards

Please see a sample of the annual goals stated by a mentee who wanted to run a business eventually. This is recorded in the column on the far left.

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The mentee has stated the following yearly goals:

  1. Learn how to lead my immediate team and lead my current assignment like it is a prototype of my business

The role of the coach is to help the mentee define these things rather than define these for them. The objective is to enable the mentee to take these decisions independently, and fully commit to what they want to get out of the year.

Once these goals have been articulated and the mentee has a sense of what they are aiming at for the year, it is time to re-state the goals to make them company specific so the employee can see the value in working for the company.

Here’s a sample:

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  1. Learn how to lead my immediate team and lead my current assignment like it is a prototype of my business is rephrased as “Act as an exemplary team leader and a coach to junior staff. Measured by engagement levels and upward feedback from junior staff”

Please make sure that the measures of progress are also written down in this step, to make these as specific and tangible as possible for the mentee.

Step 3: Developing a plan of action to achieve the goals

Thus far, we’ve only articulated the outcome and the goals — essentially the ‘Why’ and the ‘What’. The most important part comes now, the ‘How’ of it all.

This is where we fill out the column in the middle for each of the rephrased goals. This column is titled, the ‘Mentee-specific action plan’ and will differ for each mentee and also inform the kind of support the coach needs to provide to help them reach their full potential.

Here’s what the completed action plan looks like:

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Even here, try to elicit the plan of action from the mentee — this is necessary to enable them rather than keep them dependent on the coach.

Goal #1 is, “Act as an exemplary team leader and a coach to junior staff. It is measured by engagement levels and upward feedback from junior staff”. The action plan is as follows:

  • Strike a balance between being assertive and going easy on the team

Goal #2 is, “Build stakeholder engagement by increasing hours by x% and is measured by stakeholder feedback”. The actions agreed between the coach and mentee are again defined in granular detail:

  • Overcome fears of interacting with senior stakeholders

Goal #3 is, “Present innovative solutions for effective cost management. It is measured by number of ideas submitted and proof of concept established to solve existing problems in the department”. Action plan is defined as below:

  • Allocate time in calendar to think of solutions/ideas for solving long standing department issues

Once this process is complete, the mentee and the coach both have a sense of what each person needs to do. And each follow up meeting is focused on helping the mentee find solutions to get to their goal. When mentees know what whatever they are doing for the company is also going to help them reach their person long term goals, they are likely to be more productive. There will be a reduced need for a gimlet-eyed Manager to oversee their movements. This will in turn free up manager capacity so the manager/coach can take on more complicated projects, focus on critical value adding innovations and strategic thinking.

The advantage of this method is that even if you do not have a coach who is willing to do this exercise with you, it is something you can do on your own.

You could walk into your goal setting meeting and just talk about the ‘restated’ goals and the action plan you’ve made up and ask for specific support you need from your performance manager.

When you get laser focused on setting goals like this, everything you do or don’t do becomes meaningful. Since you know what you’re going after, you will be less tempted to put up your hand for projects that do not take you closer to your long term vision. You are also able to ruthlessly prioritize your day’s work and cut out the clutter from your routine and steer away from meaningless meetings and busywork.

Best of all, you won’t be held back by your designation — thoughts of “I am just a first year team leader, can I really do this?” turn into “I am an aspiring business owner; I ought to try this challenging project to get to my ultimate goal faster”. Ratings and bonuses will matter just a tad bit less because you finally see the reward in the process rather than the arbitrary external measures which you don’t fully control.

Goal setting if done correctly can really transform careers. Whether you are a mentee or a coach, it is up to you to make goal setting feel empowering. I hope that the 3 step process described above helps you have better goal setting conversations in the future.

As always, this is based on the research I’ve done and a series of personal experiments throughout my career. Please comment below to share your views.

Author of 'How to be a Lighthouse'. I write for those pursuing excellence and meaning.

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