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21st Century Management

Industrial Management's quarterly column by Dan Carrison

Keeping goals realistic

There is something exhilarating about an empty calendar at the beginning of the year. The blank pages seem to hold such promise, as if the appointments and contracts were already there, scribbled in the invisible ink of the future. It seems that we only have to do our part by working hard for the inevitable successes of the year to be revealed to us. And it is in this hopeful mood that managers at all levels receive, and then distribute down the line, the annual goals set by the leaders of the organization.

Annual goals generally are not presented to us as negotiable items. The terms, although unspoken by civilized CEOs, are basically “take it or leave it.” Very ambitious goals often are accompanied by much backslapping and hearty expressions of confidence in our ability to achieve them, as in “You’re just the person who can do it.” We fear that any attempt to mitigate the goals may appear unseemly, as if we don’t share management’s confidence in our abilities. So, despite our better judgment, we swallow the lump in our throats and accept our assigned goals. The last words we hear on leaving the board room are, “Go get ’em, Tiger!”

When a general commands a first lieutenant in the heat of battle to “Take that hill!” he doesn’t expect a counteroffer; the lieutenant is expected to follow orders unquestioningly. But let’s imagine the officer, who is eager to take the hill, requesting additional resources as a prerequisite to success — additional troops for the mission, an artillery barrage beforehand to soften up the target, and coordinated tactical air support during the assault. Would it not be clear to the general that his lieutenant had a pretty good grasp of the requirements for a victorious mission?

We corporate soldiers, too, are expected to salute and follow our marching orders. But, like the lieutenant in our example, we can agree enthusiastically with the assigned mission while asking for more resources to get the job done properly. Perhaps the company has not done its part in support of our mission in terms of an advertising blitz or ramped-up manufacturing capability or increased delivery capacity. Maybe the timeline is too ambitious or the budget inadequate. Maybe we need administrative support in order to free our hands for the tasks at which we really excel. With every request we make, we are not being defeatist; rather, we are demonstrating our knowledge of what it will take to succeed. It must be clear to our leaders that we share the goal and only wish to make it a reality at year’s end.

While we would be wise never to accept a mission impossible, we never should assign one, either.

Some managers seem to feel it is a harmless policy to assign arbitrarily difficult goals, perhaps on the assumption that employees who are prompted to “reach for the stars” may at the very least “hit the moon.” Secretly, these managers may be delighted at the performance of employees who “failed” to meet their assigned goals, but significantly increased their output in trying. Publicly, these managers may put on a serious face because the goals were not met. The problem is: The employee hasn’t tasted the fruits of victory, say, with a year-end performance bonus. He may feel that his income has been capped by unrealistic, unachievable goals. Worse, he may suspect that a cynical management team never expected him to achieve those goals in the first place.

Winning can become a habit, but so can losing. As managers, we want to see our people win and win again. That doesn’t mean we assign goals that are met easily, but it should mean that all goals are imminently realistic.

Dan Carrison, a business writer and consultant, has authored or co-authored four management books: Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way, Deadline! How Premier Organizations Win the Race Against Time, Business Under Fire and From the Bureau to the Boardroom. Carrison is a general partner of Semper Fi Consulting and founder of www.ghostwritersinthesky.com. Carrison lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches corporate communication for the University of La Verne. He can be reached at dan.carrison@gmail.com.

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