I’ve wanted to write this article for several months now. The truth is long-term goals have been a sort of relic of the past since COVID-19 hit and changed almost every facet of our lives.
Though spikes and disruptions will hit and the future is far from clear, many businesses would benefit from taking a step back to reassess not only their long-term goals but also the process by which we establish those goals.
This is one of those areas that, if was as leaders are not intentional, we could end up suffering from a side-effect of COVID-19 for a very long time: a heightened emphasis on urgency.
You see, before COVID, most of us didn’t have a solid handle on long-term goal setting.
Signs that long-term goal-setting wasn’t working
- Recent short-term problems have heavily influenced our long-term goals. I know this was a tendency for my team and me. It was amazing how long our long-term strategy sessions were dominated by problems experienced over the last two weeks. We’d come back from an offsite meeting thinking we’ve solved all the world’s problems, only to find three months later that our goals were almost entirely irrelevant (or at least uninspiring).
- Our long-term goals were too difficult. We didn’t take the time needed to assess the efficacy of our goals. They were so out of reach they amounted to little more than corporate propaganda.
- Our long-term goals were too easy and failed to inspire our employees and us. We ended up just cruising along, setting ever more achievable goals but failing to create or innovate truly.
- Our long-term goals didn’t align with our mission, vision, and values. Many companies were mission-weak before COVID. Without the spark and passion of a compelling vision and strong values, many of our employees and our leaders drifted along this year, moving forward, but solely by virtue of the momentum of yesteryear.
- Our long-term goals didn’t translate into action. Our goal announcements were met with enthusiasm and cheers, but even after several months, little tangible progress was made. We failed to achieve lasting change or transformation.
Then COVID hit
The pandemic was the very, very heavy piece of straw that broke the camel’s back.
Our collective response to COVID is the most compelling evidence that our long-term goal setting is broken. While no corporate goal-setting regimen could have accounted for the pandemic, consider the following:
- Our first response was to ignore it (January through mid-March)
- Then, whether business went up or down or stayed the same, just about everyone went into full-on firefighting mode, abandoning plans, and priding ourselves on pivoting (March through July). During this time, employee satisfaction spiked. Why? Because people could stay home and entirely avoid the two worst parts of their lives: road traffic and office politics.
- With no vision to carry us forward, we collectively started hoping things would go back to normal, and employee satisfaction plummeted. Why? Because we realized we only avoided the traffic. The politics followed us home but enjoyed the company of isolation and low-quality (not in-person) communications (July through September).
- Then, as we looked back on the year, the best we could say was we made it (October through December).
But did we?
The real damage
I think the real damage to our organizations is yet to be seen. The real disruption is still ahead, not because of further outbreaks (though those look like they will continue for some time) but because we have lost what little common purpose we had to begin with.
While I understand the perks of working from home, the current dialog concerns me. While I saw countless LinkedIn posts and employee survey statistics, not one time did I see anyone ask which working environment would allow employees to move the business toward its long-term (or even medium-term) goals. Of course, people will prefer working from home, especially in the short-run, if there isn’t a compelling vision to bring them together. Our only real quantitative measure was the employees’ (or managers’) qualitative opinions as to whether they were more productive or not. This is an efficiency metric, not a measure of effectiveness. And efficiency will always outweigh effectiveness when we lack a compelling vision of a promising future.
So 2021 brings with it a great opportunity. Sure, COVID isn’t behind us, but the excuse, “It’s 2020” is behind us. And if most companies are still struggling with their long-term goals, think of the opportunity that lays in wait for those who can push through.
Here are four simple steps you can take to transform how you set long-term goals and make 2021 a pivotal year for your business.
- Revisit and rework your mission, vision, and values. You can’t set powerful, compelling long-term goals in a vision vacuum. Take some time to review your pandemic response. Collins calls this conducting an Autopsy Without Blame. When you do, focus on what your decisions and actions said about your values. How has it changed or clarified your mission? Where did you get it right? Where did you get it wrong?
- Set new long-term goals. Long-term may not be 5 or 10 years out but set the horizon out as far as you can, which should be farther than you can see or reach today. Make sure it’s exciting. If you aren’t fired up and challenged by your goals, no one will be. What is your “man on the moon by the end of the decade”? What is your big hairy audacious goal? You need to fight for this. It’s too important to let slide.
- Map your goals all the way to your employees’ actions. Don’t skip this step. Our average employee is microscope-focused on their own productivity. They are naturally going to resist any move toward long-term effectiveness. It’s scary and uncertain (during an already scary and uncertain time), and therefore, it will require you to go the extra mile to drill down to front-line workers’ practical actions. For more information, I wrote a full article on this topic called 5 Ways to Align Every Every Person and Every Action.
- Stop settling for excuses. If you take the time to complete steps 1-3, you must be prepared to follow-through. There will be more problems. There will be more disruptions. There will always be excuses. You need to push past all of this and keep the vision front and center. About 300 years ago, Samuel Johnson said, “People need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed.” That still rings true for today. When it comes to our goals, reminding is equal parts repetition and accountability.
The one thing this pandemic has highlighted for me more than anything else is our need for leaders today—those who will rise to the challenges we face and lead their organizations forward. One of the responsibilities reserved for leaders is goal-setting. It is for us leaders to create the clarity we all need. It is for you as the founder or leader of your company to clarify your mission, vision, and values and create a set of long-term goals everyone can rally around and work toward together.
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