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What the Ironman Taught Me about Communicating Goals

Simply measuring how close an organization is to reaching an objective isn’t enough to signal that it’s a priority.

How do you best communicate to your team what your organization’s priorities are? The old adage “What gets measured gets managed” speaks to the need to set goals, track progress, and support those objectives with metrics. But measuring is just one way to draw attention to an initiative, and it may not always be the best.

I came to this conclusion after I trained for and participated in an Ironman triathlon — 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and 26.2 miles of running.

The Ironman had fascinated me since I was a child watching the event’s world championships in Kona, Hawaii, on TV, and committing to the goal of actually doing one was a seminal moment in my life. I’m not even close to being a professional athlete — I spend my days at a desk, helping companies think through tricky issues about leadership and culture. I also have two small kids, and a (very supportive) partner. But I took the plunge and registered, and spent nine months training.

Those nine months leading up to the race were intense. I trained six days a week, including 100-mile bike rides followed by multi-hour runs. And last July I proudly crossed the finish line of my first Ironman triathlon.

Following the race, I knew that workouts would take a back seat to other goals, but I still aspired to keep up a fitness regimen. My plan was vague: work out for fun, and record the frequency on my Garmin device. I can now look back and say with accuracy how many times I engaged in each behavior in the 12 months after the triathlon: bike rides — 0; swims — 1; runs — 34.

What happened? I did not signal to myself that working out was a priority, and in the busyness of life, most of my exercise slipped off of the calendar. Simply measuring (here, counting) the number of workouts wasn’t enough to communicate that fitness was an important goal.

Don’t get me wrong — at the Katzenbach Center, PwC’s global institute on organizational culture and leadership, we believe measurement is an integral part of success. In our work, we track and measure behavior change and culture evolution, but measurement alone does not yield results. It is necessary, but not always sufficient.

In an organization with hierarchy, “What gets measured gets managed” implies that someone important cares if an individual or team meets a certain metric or set of metrics. But if a leader really wants to prioritize something in the hearts and minds of her employees and peers, she must do more than just track and review stats.

Here are three ways you can help ensure your team prioritizes the right goals.

Leadership signaling. A healthcare organization’s IT department was working on improving the resiliency of its systems. This was a shift away from business as usual, where employees were in the habit of saving the day after an issue had occurred. The department head had long held a monthly town hall meeting, during which he honored the individual who went the extra mile, and past honorees had been people who worked 48 hours over the weekend to recover from an unplanned system outage. The behavior the department was after was the development and upkeep of resilient systems that did not abruptly go down.

Once this opportunity to signal a new priority was brought to the attention of the department head, the next town hall was different. “This month, I would like to honor someone who has worked here for 20 years maintaining the same system and never once had to come in on the weekend to fix it — because the system never crashed,” he said. He announced the employee’s name and as the honoree stood up to accept the award, the room fell silent and then erupted in a standing ovation.

This was a powerful signal to the department that resilience means taking preventative measures over a long period and not simply swooping in to solve a problem after it takes a system down. We call this leadership signaling, and it can happen formally, in rewards and recognition, or informally, in what leaders say or do every day.

Leadership signaling played an important role in my Ironman training. Because I ultimately was accountable only to myself, I, as the leader, communicated that I was a triathlete in several ways. I invested in the gear, learned and used the triathlete lingo, socialized with other triathletes, and kept the schedule of a triathlete, going to bed much earlier than usual, at 8 p.m. All of these acts signaled to me — and to others — that Ironman was my priority. However, in the 12 months following the race, there were no signals that working out should be at the top of my to-do list — thus, my poor exercise record for that time.

Manager reinforcement. Direct managers play an important role in making sure appropriate priorities are set. After all, they are the ones who typically conduct performance reviews and help their team set goals. When employees see their managers prioritizing something that comes from the top, it acts as a strong reinforcing mechanism. In turn, these managers are likely the ones who will work with their team members to set goals that align to those priorities or reinforce “good” behaviors.

In my Ironman training, I took advantage of many opportunities to mimic and mirror.

I was the leader in my Ironman journey, but I needed a manager I could trust to reinforce my priorities. So I hired a coach who had experience with many successful athletes, and we worked together to set training goals. He believed that I could complete the race and he kept telling me so, reinforcing my messaging. As any direct manager should, he set incremental goals and always pushed me to my limit, which enabled me to realize my full potential. In the year following the event, there was no coach to reinforce my workouts as a priority, and so there were very few workouts.

Buzz from informal leaders. Do you ever notice that you’re immediately in a better mood after spending time with an upbeat friend or colleague? Our brains are programmed to mimic and mirror the behaviors of those around us. This happens subconsciously and it affects our thoughts and feelings. Our tendency to mimic and mirror can mean that people in organizations who have contact with different groups or are particularly influential have the power to reinforce priorities. It is important to identify these people, called authentic informal leaders (AILs), and engage with them to ensure their priorities are aligned with your own.

In my Ironman training, I took advantage of many opportunities to mimic and mirror. To get that informal buzz going for my training, I joined a triathlon club. I worked out with members of my club five days a week and saw and socialized with other athletes who were getting ready for the same event. My partner has completed many Ironman races and is a running coach, so I was lucky to have a built-in source of information and reinforcement. And because many of my friends were endurance athletes, anywhere I turned it seemed I was surrounded by AILs who reinforced my training goals. But in the year after Ironman, despite the presence of my partner and other athlete friends, there were other people at work and at social events to mimic and mirror, leading me to lose out on the mirroring of those who made exercise a priority.

Certainly, measurement is one way to communicate to your organization that a behavior is a priority. But employing and encouraging leadership signaling, manager reinforcement, and buzz from AILs will embed these priorities deeper into the organization and for a longer duration of time.

Katherine Dugan

Katherine Dugan advises clients on culture and organization for Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business. A manager with PwC US based in New York, she is part of the Katzenbach Center, PwC's global institute on organizational culture and leadership.

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