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Whose Goals Are They, Anyway?

Should the managing partner, CEO or leader set goals for the people on his or her team? Or should team members set their own goals?

Your answer could tell me a lot about your leadership style. I could probably accurately predict how people respond to you, and even how accountable they are.

Your answer also tells me about where you work. I can tell instantly whether yours is a “knowing” organization, one that already knows the answers and is therefore not very open to new learning or possibilities. Or is yours a “learning” organization? If so, you’re open and you want to grow. I can only work with learning organizations who are ready to change.

I don’t mean to sound overconfident, and I certainly don’t mean to sound critical. It’s just that I’ve observed many leaders over the years. In general, those who set the goals belong to organizations where management perceives itself as having the answers, and instructs people what to do. It’s all top-down: “Here’s where you have to go, and here’s how you need to get there. Don’t take any detours.”

Traditionally, goal setting has been the purview of management. “Naturally,” it has fallen to them to tell people what to do. And that’s a logical approach, actually—except when you remember that you’re dealing with human beings. Humans have a stubborn need to be involved in decision making, to take ownership of their own work, to feel heard and respected, and to think, learn, and grow.

So those organizations tend to have more difficulty with ensuring accountability than the organizations where people are coached around setting their own goals.

That’s why I have a different approach. I encourage leaders to guide people to set their own goals. These goals should be within the guidelines of their job description, of course. And they must be consistent with company policy, mission and values. When you coach people to set their own goals, you’ve already taken a giant step toward holding them accountable to achieve those goals.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t have input. After all, you know that as a business leader, your performance is based on the performance of your people. So your team’s goals are of utmost importance to you.

If, for example, you’re a managing partner with a team of four partners, and you’re accountable for bringing in $200,000 of new business this year, you’ll need to make certain that the partners’ goals add up to at least $200,000.

But if you pull each person’s goal out of nowhere, without making sure you’ve matched their individual capabilities, you’re fighting a losing battle before you start. That’s why leaders should be working with their people to set the goals. It’s a “we” thing.

In my example of the $200,000 sales goal, each of those managing partners needs to choose a sales target that’s based on what’s feasible for them. One might feel like $75,000 is a stretch they can work towards. Another might feel like $130,000 will be a walk in the park. If you’ve hired and trained ambitious people, those four targets might add up to more than $200,000.

I guarantee you, when people choose their goal themselves, they’ll be more motivated to reach it, and also have more faith that they can. You’ll get bigger and better results than when people are just doing what the managing partner said they should do.