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Why leaders must help others set goals

By Randy Hall

Several years ago I was teaching a leadership workshop for a group of managers, and part of my team was teaching selling skills to their sales reps at the same meeting. Part of that selling class involved the sales reps writing down their personal and professional goals as a foundation for the work they were doing to achieve greater success. As part of the manager’s workshop, I asked them to write down the names of their highest potential salespeople and also to write down the personal and professional goals of those people.

Most of them didn’t know. Those who thought they knew were mostly wrong. One manager got pretty close, he was also leading the number one sales team in the country. This is not a coincidence.

If you are leading a team of people and you don’t know what their goals are, you are missing an opportunity to lead them more effectively. You may not need to know every goal they have. Maybe you have no idea what some of their more personal goals are, that’s understandable. But if you know where they want to go in life and work with some level of specifics, then you as a leader have a strong foundation for helping them improve, develop, and succeed.

Understanding and showing you care about the goals of others is essential for these 3 reasons:

  1. It allows you to care more about what they want, than what you want for them. It’s impossible to achieve someone else's goals for you, if you don’t also want that goal for yourself. We can get trapped as managers by trying to help someone achieve the things we think they should. We are far better off to find out what they really want, and then focus on helping them achieve the goals that also align with achievements we want for them, or that would be good for the business, team, or both. If we start with their goals, this is a relatively easy connection to make. If we start with our goals for them, we may end up using authority or other tools to try to get them to move in the direction they want.  That creates a disengaged, ineffective team, and our job becomes herding them with force toward our intended destination. No one wants to be on that team.
  2. It starts the conversation, and makes them think. If I tell someone what I expect of them and then help them move toward that expectation, I will find that they don’t know how to get there, at least not in great detail, which means they can’t execute well. If I ask someone what their goals are or what their expectations are for themselves, they have to create that picture with much more clarity, understanding, and detail because it is theirs.  And ultimately, if people miss on our expectations, they sometimes just blame the expectations, resources, clarity, or lack of support. After all, they were our expectations, so we should be responsible for making sure they are achieved. It’s a lousy foundation for success. Causing someone to think through what they want, why it matters, and how they move toward it is a key ingredient for helping them achieve it.  They will build a much more complete and executable picture in their minds that way, than if we just tell them what good looks like from our point of view.
  3. It builds trust that is essential for effective leadership. Many people tell you that trust is important for leaders, but they don’t tell you how to build it. Here’s how to build it.  Find out what is important to the people on your team and then make it important to you too. Period. Trust happens when I believe someone is working in my best interest. If I am leading you but don’t know what you want to achieve or care about, I can’t possibly work in your best interest. Taking the time to understand it, at a very deep level, is a critical component of beginning to care about it like they do. If you have ever had a boss that desperately wanted you to achieve the things you wanted in life, you understand how much loyalty was present in that relationship. Leaders like that can make a ton of mistakes and still have a fully engaged team, because every member of the team knows the leader is showing up for them and their future.

Helping people set goals, understand those goals, and care about them is a simple process, that if we execute well, will change how we lead others, and the degree of success they have.  It’s a foundational tool for any leader, no matter where they are in their career. Double down on your consistency with it and see just how quickly it can change your results as a leader.

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