Mission Impossible: Leading a Team Without Goals

Imagine a team working on projects or initiatives that don’t ladder up to or support the goals of your company.

These teams are often nicknamed dead weight, redundant, or “the first to go.” They are the antithesis of a high-performing team.

Now imagine a person that doesn’t have specific goals that ladder up to or support their vision for their life. These folks can often feel lost, stuck, or seen as someone “still trying to figure it out.” They generate their own dead weight, and, dare I say it, are a risk to a high performing team.

In full transparency, I don’t know how to lead a team of people that don’t have goals for their life.

Without knowing where they want to be or what they want to become, I can’t properly advise them on what work should be a priority, give them feedback on their performance, develop their skill set or give them enriching experiences, nor can I reward or promote them effectively.

I once led an incredible staff member who wanted to run his own company in five years. When reviewing the work he’d submit to me — I would ask him “is this the standard you would accept if you ran the company?” While his work already exceeded my expectations — I knew his goals and gave him an opportunity to see himself as the owner of that company he wanted to open. He’d usually reply no — and then deliver an even more polished version of the work. If I didn’t know his goals, he’d never deliver better than expected results.

One of my previous teammates wanted to get her MBA later that year and was studying for the GMAT after work. Knowing this goal, each one-on-one we had, I pulled out my old studybook and spent 3 minutes quizzing her on questions. Like mini-tests each week. It had nothing to do with work, and everything to do with supporting my teammate’s development. Knowing this goal, I could keep her engaged at work while also being involved along the way in planning out when she wanted to take her leave from the company. No surprise resignations — tons of time to find her backfill.

Another staff member wanted to be a people manager at the company but had never managed anyone before. So I gave her the opportunity to have one-on-ones with a junior staff member to see how she was going to handle that one aspect of being a manager. She quickly realized that she actually didn’t want to manage people — and that made all the difference in her career goals. Supporting goals develops new skills and understanding… for everyone!

Leading a team with vision and goals, however, is not a walk in the park. 

Here are the three things I’ve learned over the years:

When you ask about your staff members’ goals — they’ll likely ask about your own goals. 

Which means, in order to lead a high-performing team with goals, YOU need to be in the practice of setting and chasing your own goals. That ‘ol “lead by example thing” ain’t just a pretty saying.

Keep a copy of their goals on file — in your notebook, a reminder on your computer or in your calendar — and explicitly check in with them.

Write down the few goals that your team members really, truly care about or the ones that they are currently working on. Mark any important dates related to their goals in your calendar. And then, in your one-on-ones or casual conversations, make a point of checking in specifically with those goals. Not “how’s everything going?” Rather “I remember that we spoke about that big fundraiser a while back. It’s coming up later this week. How are you feeling about it?” The later shows that a) you were listening to them when they told you about their goals, and b) you care enough about them as a person to check-in on something other than the project at work.

Use personal goals as a tool to help you fulfill company goals. 

Often times personal goals are seen as a risk to company goals — or rather an area of mis-alignment. When I know my team’s goals, however, I know who has career aspirations to work on what kind of projects and what roles they may find captivating or important for their long-term career plan. This helps me in managing workflow, allocating resources, and also supporting people pipelines and promotions. And when I come to the table to say “I have the perfect person for this project/role” — usually that project lead/hiring manager is delighted … and my team member really feels that I have their best interest in mind.

Having goals on a wall or tucked away in your back pocket can feel good. For me, knowing where my people want to go or who they want to be in their life is a not-so-secret tool for managing a high performing team.

Setting goals is a nice first step. Leading through goals is what actually drives results.

Matt Corker
matt@thecorkercompany.com
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