Help employees take small steps to reach big goals

One of my favorite aspects of being a manager is coaching my employees to reach some of their big goals. I like learning about what motivates an employee and what their ambitions are. As a manager, I consider it my job to my employees to remove obstacles, push them when needed, and provide them with opportunities to reach their goals.

One possible reason things aren't going according to plan is that there never was a plan.I have a postcard of Pot-Shots #571 by Ashleigh Brilliant hanging at my desk: “One possible reason why things aren’t going according to plan is that there never was a plan.” Working with a plan to hit goals doesn’t have to be overly cumbersome and complicated. Here is a strategy I use to drive my 1-on-1s with employees to help them identify their goals and take small steps regularly to reach them.

Your job as manager: coach your employees to learn and grow in the time you work together

It’d be nice if our best and brightest employees worked for us forever. Ain’t gonna happen. So, let’s stop pretending that’s the case and stop managing employees that way. Look beyond your own current needs when developing an employee. Work with your employees to help them grow in their career, whether it’ll be at your company or elsewhere.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, has a new book coming out July 8 for managers called The Alliance. He shared some of his advice in the Fortune magazine article “Reid Hoffman: You can’t keep your best people forever.” Hoffman suggests considering the time an employee works for you as a tour of duty (like in the military). During that tour, your employee will undoubtedly help you and your company hit your objectives. As a manager, you should work with your employee in that time to hit their goals.

In the time that my employee works for me, I want to find out what their big goals are. If they can accomplish that goal at my company (“I want to be promoted to software architect.”), I figure out how I can provide opportunities for them to grow and let that happen. If their goal will take them elsewhere in their career (“I want to be a software developer at Google.”), I figure out how I can help them grow while we work together so they’re closer to reaching that goal.

As I explained to one of my new employees: I want to find out what will make you happy and how you want to grow in your career. I hope we can help you reach your goals while working on my team and at this company. But, if reaching your goals takes you away from this team or company, that’s OK, too.

Write down goals to make it happen

It's a dream until you write it down, and then it's a goal.A strategy I use with my employees is writing down goals. I learned about the value of writing down goals when I worked with life coach Kristin Taliaferro to help reach some big goals in my life.

Research backs up the value of writing down goals. A Forbes article explains one study on written goals and their financial outcomes conducted on graduate students of the 1979 Harvard MBA program. Students were asked whether they had clear, written goals for their future and plans for reaching them. The researchers then followed up with the students 10 years later. Ashley Feinstein explained in her Forbes article that, “The 13% of the class who had goals, but did not write them down was earning twice the amount of the 84% who had no goals. The 3% who had written goals were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97% of the class combined!

Admittedly, writing down goals and breaking them into achievable steps is more natural to folks like me that have a “planner” type of personality. If I know what I want to do in 6 months, writing it down allows me to get clarity about how I can accomplish it. (What do I need to have done in 3 months to reach that 6 month goal? What needs done in 1 month? In the next 2 weeks?)

Luckily, writing down goals is a skill anyone can pick up! And, you can make progress toward a goal even if you’re not quite sure yet how you’ll achieve the end result.

Have employees take step-by-step action to hit a goal

Coach Kristin Taliaferro uses a written form as a weekly check-in with her clients to help them reach their big goals. I adopted a similar style to help drive my bi-weekly 1-on-1 conversations with my employees. Prior to each 1-on-1, I have my employee write down their answers to the following questions in an emailed worksheet and bring it with them to our 1-on-1:

Your Goal Progress:

  1. What did you accomplish toward your professional goals since our last 1-on-1? (For each goal you worked toward, jot down the goal and your WINS on advancing that goal.)
    Goal #1:
    Win(s):Goal #2: (and so on, if needed…)
  2. What did you NOT accomplish toward your goals even though you planned to? Why not? What were the BLOCKERS?
    Goal #1:
    Blocker(s):Goal #2: (and so on, if needed…)

Your Goal Plan:

  1. What professional goal(s) will you work on before our next 1-on-1? What are the ACTIONS you’ll take toward those goals? (List them out for each goal you plan to work on. If you need help figuring out steps to take, let me know, and we’ll figure them out together in our 1-on-1.)
    Goal #1:
    Planned Action(s):Goal #2: (and so on, if needed…)

Writing down goals and plans before we talk in a 1-on-1 is not about meeting a documentation requirement. Writing steps down encourages my employee to reflect on their own progress and plan their next steps for hitting their goals. It allows us to have a good conversation around goals in our 1-on-1. This isn’t about writing a TPS report.

In our 1-on-1, I have my employee walk me through their answers on the worksheet in a conversational format. I ask questions on what they tell me and we explore how they’re doing and how we can keep them advancing toward their goal.

The first question on wins helps an employee acknowledge the steps they’re taking toward their goal. It will also serve as a diary for the employee to be able to look back at their progress. I explained to one of my employees that she’ll be amazed when she looks back at what her action items were six months ago versus what they currently are for the same big goal. Seeing in black and white how your steps have gotten more advanced is proof that you’ve learned and grown. That’s a catalyst to keep learning and growing.

Hearing about their blockers in my second question allows me to be aware of issues to help remove them. (Hey, even though I’m a manager, I can still use my ScrumMaster utility belt! Removing impediments is needed in more than just project work and writing code.)

The third question lets an employee consider what little steps they can take in the next week or so to hit their goals. The burden of planning and taking action falls on my employee. But, there may be opportunities for me to help out in this step. For example, perhaps I can suggest a special project that will let them stretch and learn.

The best way to achieve big goals is to take small steps

The best way to achieve big goals is to take small steps.Writing down goals is a simple yet helpful way to map out what you want to accomplish and what little steps you can take to make it happen. As a manager, use the “one step at a time” approach with your employees to coach them to hit their goals.

This might be more organized than your employees are used to. (After our first 1-on-1, one of my employees chuckled that it was the most organized 1-on-1 with a manager she’s ever had.) But, give it a try and see if this drives your employees to hit their own goals.

Feel free to use the questions I wrote above with your employees and let me know how it goes. If you’ve used a different approach that’s worked well, let me know about it!

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