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Stretch or safe? The art of setting goals for your teams

The pandemic has made planning a bigger challenge, and created a difficult balancing act for leaders.

As researchers and drug companies race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, the global economy continues to struggle to gain a footing. Every scrap of good news — say, a surprising pocket of strength in a particular sector — is matched by a sign of ongoing weakness elsewhere, raising questions about the long-term viability of certain companies and industries.

With so little clarity about the future, how can leaders set business goals for the next six months to a year? During the dozen years between the 2008 financial crisis and the current pandemic, the world seemed far more stable, and budgeting was more of a predictable process. But now? Who knows. We are living in an era of VUCA, an acronym coined by the U.S. Army War College that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

This uncertainty is raising new challenges for a fundamental leadership skill: goal setting. It is as much an art as a science, because it requires finding the sweet spot between the aspirational and the realistic.

Yes, there is something galvanizing and inspirational about a big stretch goal, as President John F. Kennedy knew in 1961, when he announced that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, even though the longest time any American had spent in space was barely 15 minutes.

The business leader’s job is to set an ambitious target that will bring out the best in a company’s teams and achieve what may seem impossible at first. These are the BHAGs — or big, hairy, audacious goals, in the words of Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great and other books. We’re often capable of more than we know, and an outlandish target that prompts gulps at first can inspire a team to focus on how it can be achieved.

“Our job as managers and leaders is to instill the belief that whatever core mission you’re pursuing is possible and valuable,” as Anand Chandrasekher, the CEO of Aira Tech Corp, a software company based in San Diego, told me in a recent interview. “It can’t be an unachievable belief; it’s got to be rooted in reality. In the current environment, our job is to create that belief around what’s possible, so everyone stays focused. That’s what humanity is based on. We effectively live on hope.”

Chandrasekher likes to tell his team about how people believed for decades that it was impossible to run a mile in less than four minutes. But in 1954, Roger Bannister finally broke the four-minute-mile mark, and over the next year, 18 other people did as well. The lesson? “That is a fantastic example of how belief, not ability, can hold people back,” Chandrasekher said. “In periods of uncertainty, failure of imagination and belief will hold us back.”

The world of sports is filled with we-can-do-this triumphs and the coaches who brought out the best in underdogs. And it’s hard to beat the famous locker room speech Herb Brooks gave to the U.S. hockey team during its 1980 Olympics game against the Soviets, as depicted in the movie Miracle: “If we played them 10 times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.” (Cue the soaring music.)

And now for the reality check. There are considerable risks for leaders in being too ambitious. A stretch goal that is unrealistic may be more enervating than energizing for your team. It’s a theme that has come up often in my hundreds of interviews with leaders, who shared how they had to learn through experience how to find the right balance.

There are considerable risks for leaders in being too ambitious. A stretch goal that is unrealistic may be more enervating than energizing for your team.

“We do see the incredible power of setting stretch goals,” Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, a network of people who commit to teach in low-income areas for a minimum of two years, told me. “But if you set a goal that’s really not within reach, people will just give up on it, and you really don’t have a goal. We’ve seen this over and over. I think there’s as much talking down of goals around here as there is of actually saying, ‘You’re not thinking big enough.’”

For leaders, the question has to be: Can you see a path to success? Even if it’s a long shot, can you envision the steps to get there?

Andre Durand, the CEO of Ping Identity, a software company based in Denver, said that his goal-setting strategies are built around a simple insight into human behavior: People tend to work harder when they feel like they are winning.

“You have to make sure that when you’re setting goals for people and the organization, they aren’t so far out that they’re unachievable, which will leave people demoralized,” he said in an interview. “You have to be careful and thoughtful about the way you set expectations. You don’t want them to be slam-dunks, but you don’t want them to be unattainable, either. They need to be within the realm of attainable. Even though you don’t have every step of the way figured out, you’re pretty confident that you’re matching the resources and the talent and the goals, and that all of those are aligned.”

Durand added: “You can either create a circumstance where you build this positive vortex where everything right out of the gate is leading you toward more and more success, where you’re more motivated to not miss, or you can become trapped in what I call a cyclone of doom. And they start with these very small, seemingly innocuous decisions almost out of the gate and then they build on one another. So, you’re either heading down or you’re heading up.”

Amid the pandemic, there are countless cyclones of doom. The challenge for leaders is to create a positive vortex. It is as simple — and as hard — as that.

Adam Bryant
Adam Bryant is senior managing director of the ExCo Group, a leadership development and executive mentoring firm. His next book, The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership, will be published in July 2023 by Harvard Business Review Press.

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