Organizing Theory & Artistry

Be Smart with Professional Goals

"Monopoly Committee told huge corporations control American business. Washington, D.C., Dec. 2. Dr. Willard Thorp, Dun and Bradstreet Economist," (1938). Photo by Harris & Ewing. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Anyone who is employed and anyone who runs a business should understand the difference between personal versus professional goal-setting.  In the business setting, the stakes are far higher.  Your goal-statements are not just “aspirations” but rather a strong promise of what you intend to achieve in a given year.  They are the basis for sustaining the investing confidence of your shareholders.

While in our personal lives, it is perfectly normal and acceptable to announce a big goal, make some attempt to achieve it and then give up when it gets too hard or we get bored with the task, or postpone the implementation or change the goal, this strategy doesn’t work in the business environment.

Our starting point for business goals is the well-known maxim of corporate culture:

under-promise and over-deliver

In my corporate work experience, it was interesting to see how the business world views “goals.”  In our personal lives, we view a “goal” as something that we will have to stretch to achieve, something that may or may not happen but we will “try” to accomplish.  In the business world, when you set a goal, it is effectively considered a commitment.  I almost never saw a corporation announce a “goal” publicly that wasn’t almost already substantially achieved.  Big change ideas were never announced as “goals” but were rather treated as just ideas percolating under the surface.

Why should you care about this distinction?  The area that you are most likely to encounter this goaling distinction is performance evaluations.  Have you ever been asked to list your own goals for the year?  The first time I had to do this, I wrote down a bunch of ambitious things.  Fortunately, my seasoned boss coached me to scale my list down to things that I didn’t really consider “goals” but rather aspects of my everyday job responsibilities that sounded good and that I would definitely deliver on no matter what.

As an extreme example, you may be thinking that your boss wants you to write down “Cure cancer.” as your goal while your boss really just wants you to put down basic job description requirements like “Respond to all client inquiries.” or “Issue the payroll every two weeks.”  You know you are on the right track if your list of goals reflects duties that if you didn’t perform them you would likely be fired.

For example, your first draft goal list might say “all of my regular duties” plus:

  • Answer all emails within 24 hours.
  • Write white paper on social media marketing strategies.
  • Complete training course on financial analysis.

But if you thought again about this list and said to yourself, “If my regular workload increases for unforeseen reasons and I am really short on time, which of these things can I guarantee will get done?”  Your second draft might say:

  • Answer all emails within one week.
  • Begin research for white paper on social media marketing strategies.
  • Research options for financial analysis training.

Or, you might ditch all 3 of the above goals altogether and just rewrite your goals to reflect increasing demands on your current job responsibilities.  For example, “Continue to issue payroll on time every two weeks, expected to increase by 10% to 5,000 employees.”

Corporate Goals are Clear and Measurable

Another distinguishing characteristic of business goals is that they implicitly require a measuring stick and a clear judgment.

The mnemonic SMART is often used for business goals and, while definitions vary, the most common is usually






At the end of the year, it should be easy to judge whether you achieved your goal.  Did you issue the payroll on time or not?  Did you complete the training course or not?

The harsh reality is that no one really cares why you didn’t do something, even if it was for a very good reason.  If, at the end of the year, you can point to your goals and say, “See, I told you I would do A, B and C and I did A, B and C as evidenced by these data points.  Plus I also did D, E and F.” you are doing as well as anyone can expect.

While there is no need for us to be so harsh with our personal goals and it is still OK to make outlandish goals that we may never realistically achieve, trying out some of these corporate goaling strategies provides excellent discipline.

Ruly Challenge:  Revisit your current list of 2012 goals. Apply the harsh discipline of business goal-setting strategies to them.  How could you re-word them to guarantee achievement?  If it helps, imagine that you will have to pay a $10,000 penalty for every goal you don’t achieve.

What have you learned about goal-setting in the business environment?  Please share in the comments.