By David Castlegrant


In general, goal setting is defining what an individual is trying to accomplish. Goals are the objects or aims of an action or a series of actions. Goal setting works because it directs attention, regulates effort, increases persistence and fosters the development and application of task strategies and action plans.

In order for goals to work, they must have the following characteristics:

  • Be specific so they can lead to greater performance
  • Be quantifiable (measurable)
  • Have a feedback system to encourage and enhance the probability of achievement
  • Be participative – both assigned goals and self-set goals are equally effective as long as there is involvement with both the employee and the manager.

Individualized employee work goals do not exist in a vacuum. These are subject to the inconsistencies, ambiguities and capabilities of the company and its management. In order to improve the probability for goal success, the company’s managers also have some responsibility. First, there must be an overall action plan created to facilitate goal accomplishment. Action plans outline the activities or tasks that need to be accomplished in order to obtain a goal.

Everyone wants to know, “What’s in it for me?” Goal commitment and monetary incentives affect goal-setting outcomes. An incentive program must be developed and communicated at the front end of an individualized employee work goal program in order to support achievement. Last, the extent to which an individual is personally committed to achieving a goal must be considered. Goals must be doable, which is why it is good to have the employee self-prescribe. They must also be meaningful for the company, which is why management must ultimately partner with the employee to make goal setting work for both parties.

When managers take on the role of coach, the probability of better performance increases. When coaching is done correctly, it results in acknowledgement and engagement of the frontline employee. Coaching involves preparation followed by actively listening and asking probing questions. These behaviors guide the employee through the process of self-discovery (teach versus tell approach). Asking probing questions results in teaching the employee in finding their own way, thus building knowledge and skill.

This approach can be extremely worthwhile when solidifying goals during a one-on-one interaction with the employee. Focus on one or two behaviors at a time. Ask questions to help lead the employee to what the goals are. A helpful acronym to remember is SMART, developed by Dr. Edwin Locke (Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives, 1968):

Small business is all about being entrepreneurial. And, being entrepreneurial is all about taking risk. The true entrepreneur is set apart by a willingness to take on risk to maximize potential gains. On the other hand, risk management is necessary as a systematic process of reducing exposure to risk for the sake of predictable outcomes. So, how can the entrepreneurial spirit exist in an environment that requires risk management? Three ways to cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit include:

  1. The strategic plan: Clearly account for risk acceptance in the strategic plan. This approach will communicate top-level entrepreneurial propensity throughout the company.
  2. Problem solvers: Identify people with a “can-do” attitude and appoint them to leadership positions and as project champions. These are the folks who have a knack for creative solutions and do not shy away from a good challenge.
  3. Failure is acceptable: Past failure is the foundation for future success. A culture that incorporates lessons learned is a culture that creates new opportunities.

Goals need to be set by the problem solvers and should be published within the company so they become common knowledge. Each goal should be approached as indicated by the table below. For each goal, there are major milestones, high reach measures, must dos, identification of the partners for success, and a feedback cycle. (To start the process, I recommend six-month goals.)


Five key questions for great goal setting:

  • What should we focus on to do our part to help the company be successful?
  • How high do we need to reach to help the company be operating at its optimal performance level, and what are our must-dos?
  • How can we partner and coordinate across functions so we succeed together?
  • How will we measure progress and results?
  • When should we re-prioritize or reset goals?


So, what comes first? The overall strategic plan initiated by leadership? Or individualized employee work goals? In most cases, both can occur simultaneously for this first round. The rationale assumes that many of the individualized employee work goals will more than likely support the larger goals created by leadership.


Plan and execution


1. Identify the problem solvers who will complete the goal worksheet.

a. Keep the goals to a maximum of three per individual.

2. Create the incentive for goal achievement.

     a. Levels recommended include:

          i. Total goals achieved (achieving all three is significant)

          ii. Achieving two is very good

          iii. Achieving one is better than none

     b. Goals achieved that had the most significant impact on the business (hopefully there will be a few of these) may come out of this activity and should also be celebrated. These are a win-win for everyone and should achieve the highest incentive, too.

3. Create timelines and effective dates (goals submitted date, launch date and end date), establish review dates and review criteria, evaluation timeframe and award presentation framework.

4. Meet with problem solvers to review program and introduce goals worksheet.

5. Collect goal worksheets; combine into one document and publish.

     a. Create a master list of goals.

     b. Create a tracking mechanism so all can see progress. (Publish and post.)

This sample chart can be used as a graphic reminder of the goal setting activity. The chart includes all elements necessary for a successful program: identified goals; any important milestones needed to achieve the goal; the optimum measurement for the goal; others within the company who must be part of goal achievement; and lessons learned from the process toward goal achievement.

When completed, the goal setting process will have a positive impact on all those who participate; it will foster teamwork and channel energies toward the common good of the company.