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Goal Setting for CEOs – beyond SMART and HARD

One of the CEO’s deliverables is creating a Culture. One way to strongly influence that culture is by the example the CEO creates when she sets goals — for herself or others.

Here’s how to set goals even better than you’ve been doing it — and how to follow up on those goals to make them even more effective.

Written, Smart and Hard

The good, better and best of goal setting is Written, Smart, and Hard.

An unwritten goal is just a wish or intention.  Improve this by writing down your goals.


Once you have the habit of writing down your goals, improve them by making them “SMART” — there are many versions of this; here’s the one I use, which I find most useful:

S – Specific – expressed so clearly that one can visualize the outcome.

M – Measurable – expressed in a way (or with a proxy) that can be measured.

A – Achievable – requires only those external supports, tools, etc. that you already have or can easily get.

R – Realistic – requires only those internal skills and abilities that you already have, or are willing and able to get.

T – Time-Bound – expressed with a deadline for accomplishment.

When goal setting for or with a group, the SMART goal is a good baseline — it allows for much greater accountability.

HARD Goals

Even more effective than SMART goals, says Mark Murphy (author of the book HARD Goals) are goals that are HARD — these take advantage of the way the human brain is wired:

H – Heartfelt – connect this goal (losing weight) with something you care about a lot (being able to play with your grandkids).  The stronger the positive emotional pull you feel toward accomplishing the goal, the more effective the goal is in motivating behavior — and making you feel awesome when you hit it.

A – Animated – create a moving 3-D image in your head of the end result. Create a vision board.  People who draw pictures of themselves as skinny, reports Mark Murphy, are three times more effective at losing weight and keeping it off.

R – Required – attach a sense of urgency to this goal.  Convince yourself (even ‘trick’ yourself) into seeing the results coming immediately and the work happening later.  Or, focus on just starting.  As Rory Vaden (author of the book “Take the Stairs: 7 Steps to Achieving True Success“) describes it, failures keep asking “if” they should do something; winners only ask “when and how” they will do it.

D -Difficult – embrace a goal that, as Jim Rohn put it, “will make something of you to achieve it.”  When a goal forces us to grow our skills, or our knowledge, or our character, the accomplishment of that goal feels ten times better.  The goal itself almost pales beside our commitment to personal growth.

I recommend only a few HARD goals at any one time.  Start with just one. 

Once you have a Hard goal and some Smart ones, how do you ensure you get them done?

Actioning your Goals

As Peter Drucker once put it, no decision (or goal) becomes effective until someone has a work assignment.  If your goal is to lose weight or open a new branch office, in each case there are specific tasks you need to schedule — so create action items each week to serve the goal.

A major risk with goals is hitting them, then losing steam. Some of the first astronauts, says Jim Rohn, had major problems after they flew their space missions — because they saw no new goals to achieve.  It felt that their careers were over.  To avoid this, do what later astronauts were trained to do — set “Progressive Goals” — lifelong goals that are fed by shorter term goals.

You can combine “Actioning” and “Progressive Goals” in a single document like this. Note that only This Week needs specific actions — don’t over-plan:

Lifetime Be physically fit enough to be able to play with my grandkids
5-Year I am jogging 3 miles, 4 times a week
1-year I am walking 2 miles, 3 times a week
Next Month I am walking at least 1 mile, 2 times a week
This Week This Tuesday and Friday at 7 AM, walk to the park and back (1.1 miles)

Feedback on Progress

As we learned in The Progress Principle, the most motivating things most people experience in a normal work day are:

  • Small Wins
  • Breakthroughs
  • Forward Movement
  • Goal Completion

Tap into these natural motivators by amplifying them and drawing attention to them. Graph them. Chart them. Bring them up in staff meetings.

Even a simple graph can have powerful motivating impact.

Coaching, Goal Failure, and Accountability

I find that creating a progressive goal list like this starts off exciting at the “Lifetime” level and starts to feel uncomfortable at the “1-Year” and “Next Month” levels — because that is where I start to think “hey, this is going to be work — and I might fail.”  This is where you should create some form of personal accountability, such as sharing goals and progress with a peer or friend, or retaining a good coach.

For exercise, get a workout buddy.  For a business, find a comparable business in another market and benchmark each other and get competitive — or benchmark yourself and beat your prior self.

When I started working with a coach, it was very uncomfortable.  I hated it when I didn’t make progress and there are witnesses.  (This is why so many of us love our unwritten goals — failing to hit them doesn’t hurt as much.)  The trick is to keep working, learn from the failures, and recommit to the goal.

A good coach never uses blame or shame.  (Nor should you.) If you’re the coach, and your ‘client’ (spouse, business partner, subordinate, child) sets a goal and misses it, ask these questions in this order:

  1. “What were some of the reasons this didn’t happen?”
  2. “Of those reasons, which ones were under your control or influence?”
  3. “What could you do differently next time, to get a better outcome?”
  4. “What is your new goal or target?”

When the Goal No Longer Fits

Sometimes you’ll need to ask, “Is this still a goal you care about?”  If the goal no longer works, drop it and move on.  Only pursue goals that take you someplace you still want to go.

A Culture of Goal Achievement

When you personally are achieving goals, and modeling the behavior of accountability, your direct reports will start to emulate you, and will encourage their directs to do the same. (Such mirroring of the boss is often unconscious — it is still powerful.)

In a few months, your organization has an improved culture of setting goals, tracking progress, and achieving results.