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10 Steps to Setting and Achieving Goals at Work

Setting goals at work is an interesting balancing act. On the one hand, your workplace goals must support the company mission. On the other hand, they must be your own – otherwise goal-setting is just a rote check-the-box exercise.

An additional complication is that certain companies (and managers) are better at constructive goal-setting than others. The good news is that even if you work for someone who approaches the annual goal-setting session as a necessary evil, there are things you can do to get some value out of it. If your manager genuinely understands the power of goal alignment and setting and achieving goals, you have a great opportunity to use the conversation as a starting point for career growth.

Here are 10 things to keep in mind before setting goals at work and filling out that goal sheet.

1. Get clarity on what your team’s structure.

First things first – you must understand the functions and interrelationships of your team in order to set workplace goals that will make your team more productive and helpful to the rest of the organization. In a practical sense, every team serves as a supporting unit and a consumer of support at the same time. Get the mapping right, and you will be able to identify specific and measurable things you can do better to help processes and projects run smoother.

2. Talk to your boss. What can you do to make their job easier and make them look good?

No matter what your job description says, your job is really all about making your manager’s life easier. I have never viewed that as a negative thing, but more of an opportunity to be of service. Having a frank conversation about how you can support your boss will go a long way towards defining your workplace goals.

3. Focus on what you can control, have a plan for the rest.

For every workplace goal, there are factors you can control and factors that are out of your hands. Be clear on the distinction, and have a plan for what to do if the out-of-your-control factors don’t line up.

Imagine that you are a supervisor within an accounting department in a hospital. Let’s say you set a goal to shorten the month-end close timeline by 2 business days. Success will depend on the skill and collaboration of your accounting department (something you can contribute to and control), and on the ability of other departments to deliver critical data on time (something that is out of your control). It is smart to have a plan to coordinate the month-end close with other departments, remind them of the deadline and keep the communication lines open – but you must have a plan and an accountability agreement in the event they fail to deliver.

4. Think about your career path in the long run.

What is your ideal next professional role? What qualifications and skills do you need to qualify? What success stories under your belt will make you a suitable and impressive candidate? Line up your personal goals for work in a way that allows you to gather those accomplishments and learn the skills.

5. Go beyond immediate tasks to the big-picture.

Your growth as a professional is bigger than productivity and proficiency at your desk! Career progression often requires a broad scope of skills and experiences. Add professional seminars and other educational opportunities to your goal list, because continued learning is critical to your ability to expand your responsibilities and get promoted.

If you would like to move into a VP or a C-suite role in the future, consider looking at rotations in other departments. The knowledge of how different parts of the company fit together will prove useful and may set you apart from competing candidates.

Finally, if you see yourself growing into a management or client-facing role, Toastmasters is a fantastic way to sharpen your public speaking skills.

6. Get clarity on what goal achievement would look like.

You know the basics – a good workplace goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. I encourage you to go beyond those basics and visualize what goal achievement would look like. Would it make a particular project flow easier? Would it allow the team to work together more effectively? The image of a goal achieved will keep you motivated.

7. Schedule periodic check-ins.

Setting work goals is not limited to one conversation at the start of the performance period. Any plan must be flexible in order to retain its usefulness, and professional goals are no different. Sit down with your manager to talk about status and progress throughout the year. These conversations can be formal and regular (at the end of every quarter) or more ad-hoc. No matter which frequency you choose, the important thing is to keep the communication channel open, so that your goal plan can adapt to reflect today’s reality and priorities.

8. Ask for support if you need it.

Superstar performers in sports and at work don’t have to do it alone. Moreover, they know that they can achieve more and do it quicker with the help of a mentor or a coach. If you wanted to get better at golf, you would probably hire an instructor who would help you improve your swing. Your career is no different. Look for allies, both within your company and outside of it, and build a network of professionals who care about your success. Talk to them, ask for advice and listen carefully.

9. Do a periodic comparison of your annual goals with your to-do list.

Setting goals at work is great for mapping out big-picture targets and wins for the year. The unfortunate reality is that fire-drills and urgent reassignments can make it difficult to focus on the things that everyone had agreed were important. Continued professional education is a good example. Everyone knows it is valuable for your expertise and proficiency. It is also a requirement for retaining many professional certifications and licenses. However, continued education so often falls by the wayside because of client demands, deadlines and last-minute assignments. If you have ever had to cram a year’s worth of education credits in the last three weeks of the year, you are in good company.   

So, do a periodic check of how well your daily to-do list aligns with your big-picture workplace goals. If the two have nothing to do with each other, talk to your manager and take action.

10. Track your accomplishments.

We have all been there – as you’re preparing for your annual evaluation (or revising your resume for your job search), you draw a complete blank on your past accomplishments. You know you have been busy, and your manager is generally happy with your work, but you cannot name a single specific success over the last year.

The lesson here is that it can be difficult to recall success details at the end of the performance period. After all, you have a full year of projects to think through! Save yourself the trouble and keep a running list of your wins (a simple Word or Excel document will do just fine). List everything from meeting regular deadlines, to stepping in to help with an urgent research project, to completing successful client pitches and presentations.

In closing, remember that setting goals for work is best when it is an ongoing practice. Do yourself a favor and treat it as a conversation that never stops. Every time you get a new assignment, ask your manager to clarify expectations. What does he hope to accomplish through your work? Where does he anticipate difficulties? What is the timeline, and why is this project important? After the project is wrapped up, have a conversation to debrief and talk about what went well and what could have been done better. Many professionals are apprehensive of performance discussions, but the truth is that you can only get better if you know what skills and habits need more work. Keep the communication lines open, and you will set yourself up for more interesting work and a faster career progression in no time.

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Write your resume like a pro.

TopResume's resume worksheet is just like the one our pros use. Download it now for free and start getting more interviews!

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Write your resume like a pro.

TopResume's resume worksheet is just like the one our pros use. Download it now for free and start getting more interviews!