6 Ways to Turn Leadership Goals into Reality

by Marshall Goldsmith

Today, sustaining peak performance requires a commitment to developing leadersleadership development skills and achieving goals who develop other leaders–helping people set and achieve meaningful goals for personal change. Often, however, goals are not set in a way that ensures the follow through needed to turn great plans into successful outcomes.

By understanding the dynamics of goal-setting and the challenges of goal achievement, you can better see why people often set great goals, then lose the motivation to achieve them. And you can help them stick with the plan and reach their desired targets.

Why do goal-setters often give up in their quest? Why do most New Year’s resolutions fizzle by February? People give up on goals for six reasons:

1. Ownership: I wasn’t sure this idea for changing behavior would work in the first place. I tried it, and it was a waste of time. A common mistake in leadership development (LD ) is the roll-out of a program that promises, ‘This will make you better.’ If you hope to help your people develop as leaders, you need to communicate a clear message–‘ultimately, only you can make you better.’ The more leaders commit to coaching and behavioral change because they believe in the value of the process, the more likely the process is to work. The more people feel that the change is imposed upon them, the less likely the coaching is to work. In goal-setting, you need to ensure that the change objectives come from inside the person you are coaching– and are not just imposed. People being coached need to know that they are ultimately responsible for their behavior. Leaders need to communicate the same clear message.                                       

2. Time: I had no idea this process would take so long. We underestimate the time needed to reach targets. Everything seems to take longer than we expect. When the time to achieve a goal starts exceeding our expectations, we’re tempted to give up on the goal.

Busy professionals can be impatient, especially when they make a change but coworkers ignore their new behavior.

We all tend to see people in a manner consistent with our stereotype–and we look for behavior that proves us correct. The long-term follow-up and involvement of coworkers tends to be highly correlated with positive change in the perceived effectiveness of leaders.

This positive change in perception does not occur overnight. Harried executives assume that once they know what to do–and communicate this to others–their problems are solved. If only it were that simple! In helping others set goals, help them to be realistic about the time required to produce a positive, long-term change in behavior. Habits that take 30 years to develop won’t go away in a week. And as they change a behavior, others may not recognize it for months. Ultimately, changed behavior will lead to changed perceptions and more effective relationships.

3. Difficulty: This is harder than I thought it would be. The optimism bias of goal-setters applies to difficulty. Not only do most achievements take longer–they also require more hard work! We want to believe that once we understand a concept, it will be easy to execute a plan and achieve results. If this were true, everyone who knows they should eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly would be in shape. Our challenge for getting in shape–and changing leadership behavior–is not understanding, it is doing! Long-term change in leadership effectiveness requires real effort.

For example, it can be challenging for busy leaders to have the discipline to listen patiently while others say things they do not want to hear. While leaders may understand the need to change –and even desire to change–it is still hard to have the discipline to change.

key leadership skills videosReal change requires real work.

4. Distractions: I’d like to work toward my goal, but my company is facing a unique challenge right now. Goal-setters tend to underestimate distractions and competing goals. You might tell the person, ‘I’m sure that some crisis will emerge next year!’ The distraction or crisis may come from a problem, or from an opportunity. It is hard to focus on long-term LD when the company is facing either a short-term financial crisis or a ‘once in a lifetime’ short-term profit opportunity. Assume that unexpected distractions and competing goals will occur. Expect the unexpected. By planning for distractions, you are less likely to give up on the change when problems or opportunities appear.

5. Rewards: Why am I working so hard at becoming a more effective leader? After all my effort, we still aren’t making any more money! People tend to become disappointed when achieving one goal doesn’t translate into achieving other goals. There’s a positive, long-term connection between a company’s investment in LD and its long-term financial success, but no connection between investment in LD and greater short-term profits.

Increasing leadership effectiveness is only one success factor. For example, a company may have the wrong strategy or sell the wrong product. If a company is going down the wrong road, increasing people management skills will only help it get there faster. If managers think that improving leadership skills will lead to short term profits, promotions, or recognition, they’ll likely be disappointed and give up when these benefits don’t occur immediately.

If they see personal change as a process that will help them become more effective over time–they’ll likely pay the short-term price needed for long-term gain.

6. Maintenance: I did get better when I was being coached, but I have let it slide since then. Once a goal-setter has put in all the effort needed to achieve a goal, the reality of the work required to maintain changed behavior can be tough to face. This mind-set leads to the yo-yo effect. Leaders need to see that LD is a process–leaders can never ‘arrive.’ Leaders are always ‘getting there.’ Leadership involves relationships–when people change, relationships change–and maintaining any positive relationship requires ongoing effort over time.

Knowing these six roadblocks to goal achievement can help you to help others set goals and achieve them.

Life is good.


My newest book, MOJO, is a New York Times (advice), Wall Street Journal (business), USAToday (money) and Publisher’s Weekly (non-fiction) best seller. It is now available online and at major bookstores.

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