Mike Robertson headshotWritten By Mike Robertson

Published on January 11, 2023


One of the most impactful decisions a leader can make for their team is determining the annual or quarterly goals their team push towards. These goals should work their way into every action the team takes over that time period, and every project, presentation, or plan a team member creates will (or should) support these goals. If it sounds like a tall task, that’s because it is. Charting the course of action that leads to bottom-line results and inspires a team to action is fraught with challenges and pitfalls. 

Without effective goals, for example, chaos can ensue and the team will bear the weight of this very common error. In fact, one survey found the top cause of stress in the workplace was “unclear expectations from supervisors.” which will frequently result from unclear and ineffective goals. This stress will lead to turnover and underperformance and your organization will quickly find itself in a rut that is hard to get out of. 

With so much on the line, ensuring your goals are effective should be a cornerstone of every leader’s development, regardless of seniority. The next time you are tasked with creating goals, keep the following in mind:

Be Clear

An effective goal acts as a north star to guide all members of a team toward a collective purpose and objective. In order for a goal to live up to that lofty expectation, it must be clear.

The goal not only needs to be clearly defined but clearly understood by the leader and in turn clearly communicated to the team who will be working towards it. 

Far too often,  a leader may direct their team to “grow the brand over the next year” or “increase sales”. While these are surely worthwhile objectives, the first question a team member will ask their leader is “Ok…but how?” It is easy to see how these vague goals would cause stress within the team.

A time-tested way to create a clear and concise goal is to ensure it is SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.

Let’s explore each facet of what makes a goal SMART:

  • Specific: Can you provide a clear and concise explanation of the objective?
  • Measurable: Is there a quantifiable metric involved in the goal? For example, changing our goal from “grow the brand’ to “increase reach by 10%” provides much-needed context to the goal.
  • Achievable: Understanding the bandwidth of your team and organization overall is also essential when creating plans. Any leader would want to increase sales by 100% or double new client acquisitions, but can the organization handle an increase of that size? Is the team equipped with the tools to undertake such a lofty goal? If the goal cannot be achieved, you are setting your team up to fail, and you will lose their trust in the process. 
  • Relevant: How does this goal tie back to your organization’s mission and overall strategic plans? Is this a goal worth putting resources towards? These are some questions that may arise when considering the relevance of a potential goal. It will be important to keep goals in line with your mission to avoid scope and mission creep.
  • Time-Bound: No goal is complete without a timeline for implementation. Goals that are placed in an annual business plan may also benefit from benchmarks within the goal. Where should progress be after one month? 6 months?

 If your goal can hit each component of the SMART equation, you are on to something.

Connect it to the Day to Day Work

Ensuring goals are SMART will cover many of the shortfalls many leaders fall into, but it will not smooth over all of them. Another question must be at the forefront of every leader’s mind when evaluating goals: “Does it connect to the work my team is doing?” While the “relevance” portion of a SMART goal will cover this, some additional thought should go into this connection. 

What is the best way to ensure a goal connects to the work your team is doing? Bring the team into the planning process. In fact,  having your team be part of determining the goal can take engagement and ownership to the next level.

Engage your team by building these goals collaboratively. Team members want to be a part of this process and they will connect with these goals more if they place a role in deciding the direction of the team.

Frequent communication with the team will be crucial for a leader who embraces this tactic. They may set up monthly one-on-one meetings with members of their team and encourage them to bring ideas for new goals and initiatives to team meetings. 

Team meetings can then become a safe space for team members to showcase their initiative and ideas. Occasionally, using the last 15 minutes of one of these meetings to provide the team a chance to shine and present ideas that they are passionate about can be an invaluable resource for a leader. 

Put in the Legwork

Developing the goals that will guide a team is a task that a leader should devote time to year-round,  and understanding the foundation of what makes a goal effective will ensure that this time is well spent.

Challenge yourself to lead by example and show your team that you are invested in both the organization’s and its success. Don’t wait to try these tactics until it is time for the annual business plan, but instead use smaller projects, or even goals you chart for yourself, as a way to put these ideas into action. 

The leaders who rise the fastest, and who have the most impact, are the ones who can effectively set goals for their teams.

Few things can transform an organization faster than implementing effective goals. As a leader, the power to make these changes are in your hands, and the best time to start is now.