Monday, October 1, 2012

5 Steps for Goal-Setting Success

I had a fascinating conversation with a friend last week who runs a very successful company.
"I hate setting goals," he said.

"Why?" I replied.

"If I set a goal for 10% annual growth and we hit 8% I'll be disappointed.  But 8% growth is nothing to sniff at, especially in this economy.  The thing with goals is that they can set you up for failure or success.  And how you set goals is as important as the goals you set."
The conversation got me thinking.

Goal setting is one of the most critical keys to success both personally and professionally.  Any change management book or program from Jenny Craig to Couch to 5K to Finding Your Soul Mate will tell you that having and articulating a concrete goal is critical to success.  Still, my friend is right that goal setting, while critical, is not easy.  And, in fact, if done poorly it can backfire.

How many times have you given up on your personal goals because they were too aggressive?  How many businesses tank because they set and fail to meet unrealistic projections?  It's important to realize that goal setting is both science and art.  Here are my tips for how to set and ACHIEVE your organizational goals!

Step 1: Understand the Past

Every goal setting exercise should begin with an intimate understanding of the past.  What have we done before?  How much can we move the needle?  When we've raised the bar in the past what good and bad happened?  I'm not saying that you have to be wedded to past results or that the past determines your future but you do have to a sense of realistic optimism about what can and cannot be achieved and this comes from having a deep understanding of how the organization has performed in the past and WHY.

Step 2: Involve the People Who Do the Work

In almost every context, the achievement of goals is dependent on many people.  Even a "personal" weight loss program is not a singular endeavor.  For example, in order to lose weight, you need to change your eating habits and exercise more.  This means working with your partner and kids to budget for and buy different foods and make time to get to the gym.

In organizations, goal setting and achievement is even more complex because it involves many people and systems.  This is why it is critical to INVOLVE the people responsible for goal achievement in the goal setting process.

For example, before setting your annual fundraising goals, ask your Database Associate what it will mean to increase the size of your database three-fold.  How will this affect her workload, processes and the timing of Thank You gifts?  Ask your Communications Manager, what it will take to increase traffic to your site and what she needs to do it.  Ask your Major Gifts Officer how many more prospects he can successfully steward and close.

These insights, driven by the people who do the work, will help you accomplish three things.  First, as a leader, you'll gain a greater understanding of the possibilities and challenges inherent in moving the needle.  Second, you'll gain the respect of your team for involving them in the process.  Third, you'll help ensure that your team feels OWNERSHIP for achievement of results.

Step 3: Understand and Budget for Critical Dependencies

In addition to understanding how goal setting affects the people in your organization, you must understand the structural changes that will make your goal a fantasy or reality.  For example, if you want to launch a new online giving program to diversify and increase giving, you may have to purchase technology to enable donation processing and build ongoing relationships with your new donors.  If you want to develop a new event, you'll need to understand expenses for space rental and electronic ticketing.

Step 4: Don't Set it and Forget It

One of the critical mistakes we make when setting goals is setting and then forgetting them.   New professional and personal issues arise and we get distracted.

If you want to achieve your goals, you have to be a good goal setter and you also have to be good at EXECUTING and MONITORING your progress.  Create milestones on your route to the end of the rainbow.  For example, if you want to increase your annual fundraising goal by 10 percent, this means that you'll have to increase your donor base too.

Use these milestones to evaluate progress and be willing to increase or decrease goals based on an audit of your performance.

Remember goals are projections aka guesses.  And stuff happens.  Projects get delayed, people get sick and go on vacation, etc..  As a leader, you have to be willing and able to change course when plans go awry.

Step 5: Plan for Success

Several years ago, I ran a very successful award program to recognize nonprofits making innovative use of technology.  It was so successful that we tripled the number of applicants for the program.  This was GREAT and HARD because I didn't plan for success.  As a result, the night before the summaries were due to the judges, I was up until midnight processing applications. :(

In addition to setting good goals, remember to plan for success.  What will it look like when you double the number of individual donors to your organization?  How will you manage your new giving circle?  These are great problems to have but they are problems nonetheless.

The bottom line is that goal setting is all about change and change is hard and does not happen in a void. Use the steps above to become a better leader and manager and ensure you hit your targets every time! 




Shar McBee said...

This is a terrific blog. So glad I found you.

Re: goals. I like to think of flowing water. When it comes to a rock it flows around. When it comes to a precipice, it flows on. We have that ability, too.

I'd love to hear you speak sometime, Jocelyn. Where do you post that info (if you do post it)?

Shar McBee, author of "To Lead is to Serve"

Jocelyn said...


Thanks for your comment. I sincerely appreciate it! I'm excited to check out your blog! You can view my speaking decks at

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