Goal-setting for clarity

We’re all scrambling for any bit of clarity we can get our hands on right now. As a manager, you’ve got an opportunity to help create that for your team, in a way that can have outsized impact for them and for your organization.

In any time, clear goals, and your ability to meet them, are at the core of your organization’s effectiveness. No matter what team you’re in charge of, it’s critical to your organization’s success at meeting its mission that you’re able to identify and communicate clear goals for your team.

You’re responsible for holding your team accountable for meeting both team-level and individual goals. There are plenty of frameworks for setting useful goals; whether you’re a devoted “SMART” goal person or all-in on OKRs, there are a few aspects of goal-setting that are particularly relevant to the clarity of the goal:

  • A timeframe. If your goal does not have an attached timeframe, you can never tell whether you’re making appropriate progress toward the goal.
  • Some degree of uncertainty that the goal will be reached. As my friend Michelle Paul says, “A goal that you’re 100% confident you can reach is not a goal; it is an item on your to-do list.” Conversely, a goal that you’re 0% confident that you can reach is a fantasy. You want some confidence, just not total confidence.
  • An explicit understanding of how you’ll know when the goal is reached (the “measurable” part of SMART goals, and the “key result” part of OKRs).
  • Connection to your overall mission or larger objectives (the “clarity of purpose” for a particular goal).

Some managers approach goal setting from a top-down perspective: the manager sets the goals, the reports are responsible for them. I advocate for a more consultative approach, especially if your team members are relatively senior or have expertise in areas you don’t (that’s most teams!). In particular, you want your team’s input to understand how realistic your goals are to achieve, and to give them a chance to voice concerns about how their other work will be impacted. This process allows you to help them prioritize their current workload against a new goal, so that they understand that a new goal doesn’t mean they’re expected to simply take on more and more work.

Depending on your reports’ individual confidence levels, you may need to coach them toward a more ambitious target – it’s scary to set a goal that you aren’t sure you can reach, especially if you aren’t sure of the consequences of failing to meet that goal. Be as clear and explicit as possible about what happens if the goal isn’t met: “This is a new grant for us, so the worst-case scenario is we continue as we’ve been going. In that case, we’ll spend some time afterward reviewing the grant and looking at who was awarded it, so that we can focus our efforts more effectively in the future. But getting it would be an opportunity to expand our programs and have a significantly stronger impact toward our mission, and we also anticipate that it can strengthen our other fundraising efforts.”

If the goal isn’t simply a nice-to-have, but is instead a mission-critical job requirement, make sure to state that explicitly, and outline how the report will be held accountable for meeting that goal. Meanwhile, you need to be accountable for making sure that they have the resources they need to accomplish the goal – make sure the report knows that.

As early as possible in the process, detail what resources you know are already available, identify any moments when you want to be approached for help, and as the employee brings up new requirements, advocate for them to your board or leadership team while at the same time helping the employee identify any possible alternatives to meeting those needs in case additional resources can’t be made available. And speaking of what resources you know are already available… one of my favorites, The Management Center, has tons of resources available to help you delegate and goal-set with clarity.

Why performance reviews matter

If you’re like me, it feels borderline preposterous to think about performance reviews right now. We’re going to talk about it anyway.

If you don’t already have them in place, it may feel silly to create a formal evaluation rubric and review process, particularly for small or especially close-knit teams; you might feel like you know good work when you see it, and you’re confident in giving developmental/corrective feedback when it’s needed. It’s easy to deprioritize creating an evaluation rubric for a new role; I’ve been known to procrastinate on creating an evaluation rubric for senior-level employees for an embarrassingly long time. (I still do performance reviews on time, though!) It’s one of those things that rarely makes it to the “urgent” corner of our attention. If you can bring it to that corner now, you’ll have time to make thoughtful and impactful changes before the end of the year.

If you’re looking for details about what to include in a performance review, Alison Greene and Jerry Hauser’s book Managing to Change the World has a great overview of the logistics that go into setting up performance reviews, including a sample evaluation rubric. Here, I want to go a bit deeper into why they’re important for effective and equitable teams:

Evaluation rubrics help to create clarity around what’s expected of an employee, especially when they’re introduced to the employee outside the context of their first performance evaluation. Even in a highly communicative, collaborative team setting, until you codify the expectations of the role and how you’ll tell if someone’s doing well at it, your direct reports will be guessing about whether they’re meeting expectations, and that takes mental and emotional energy away from actually doing the job.

Having your expectations and evaluation points codified also gives you a basis for addressing performance issues before they arise. Conversations about significant performance problems are already difficult; they’re easier if you can point to a shared expectation about how the job performance will be assessed, rather than needing to first come to a consensus about whether that performance should be acceptable.

Having an evaluation rubric for senior or management roles can also facilitate conversations about career growth with a more junior employee, and help you make better promotion decisions in the future. Rather than simply promoting the person with the longest tenure or the most effective individual contributor, you’ll be able to point to specific skill sets that are required at the next level and help the employee to focus on developing those skill sets. Establishing those shared expectations across the board helps you identify and mitigate the impact of unconscious bias on your assessment of your employees – setting you up for a more equitable and effective team in the long run.