This is the second of three articles designed to support leaders in maximizing the value they receive from participating in a leadership development program.
Leadership development programs can take many forms, but one common version involves three key phases: 1) collecting and debriefing in-depth assessment data, 2) building a goal document called a development plan (often informed by the assessment results), and 3) working with a coach to make as much progress against that plan as possible.
In this article, I will offer suggestions on how leaders can prepare for the second of these three phases, and build a set of motivating development goals.
As a reminder I’m approaching this from the perspective of someone who most often assesses executives using 10-20 interviews of key raters, combined with some personality testing. I'm also assuming a leader will work with a coach or facilitator to support them through the development planning process (doing it solo would likely be less rewarding and effective).
1. Create an early version development plan while waiting for feedback
In my approach to assessment there is often a lag between kicking off the engagement and debriefing the feedback.
During this period of data collection, it can be helpful for the leader to start thinking about what goals they might like to set for themselves, in advance of receiving any formal feedback. In an ideal situation they can create a ‘straw’ or draft version of their goal document, based purely on their intuitive sense of their development needs.
Taking this step has three purposes. First, it gets leaders thinking in more introspective ways about what they might like to develop. This is a skill they will need to exercise once they receive feedback, so it’s helpful to ‘warm it up.’ Second, if leaders set goals that resonate with them, they can start working on them right away. I find leaders can often identify at least one important development theme on their own, which they later discover aligns with the assessment data. Third, once a leader receives feedback, having a straw plan can accelerate the goal writing process (e.g., a leader can build off of their ‘straw’ plan rather than starting from scratch).
2. Remember that the early stages of goal setting are messy and iterative
Start with asking questions like ‘now that you’ve reviewed all of your feedback, what’s resonating with you? What’s sticking with you? What themes do you think about in between meetings? What do you feel motivated to work on?’
Identify broad themes, categories, or buckets, and make some general notes on each of those themes.
Keep things loose, and informal in the early stages. There’s no need to feel like you’re making a long-term commitment when drafting goals. In this early stage you’re just putting ideas down on paper. Think about making ‘guesses’ on how you might like to develop your skills.
Iterate this process a few times by revising your goals and actions where it makes sense.
Meet with your coach during the drafting process to organize your thoughts through dialogue. Ask them to challenge the way you’ve written the goals, and if you’ve omitted any important themes mentioned in the assessment data.
I find after 2-3 iterations of the goal document, it’s ready to review with the supervisor (see step 15 below for suggestions on how to approach this review meeting).
3. Find the intersection between your assessment feedback and what you feel motivated to work on
It’s important to pay attention to prominent themes emerging from the assessment feedback. These represent consensus views about how leaders are perceived at work, collected from trusted sources who know them well.
At the same time, leaders need to examine these themes in light of what they want to develop about themselves. Just because a development theme appears in an assessment report, it doesn’t mean a leader has to set a goal about it or spend time working on it.
It’s important to find intersection points between feedback themes and what the leader would like to develop. In the end the leader gets to choose what goals they want to set for themselves.
4. Consider linking goals to your values
Linking goals to deeper values can unlock significant motivational energy.
This is a principle mentioned in two prominent therapeutic techniques, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Motivational Interviewing.
To animate this principle leaders could ask themselves, ‘what values if any, relate to the goals I’ve set?’ If leaders can identify a linkage, they may become much more motivated to achieve that goal.
5. Set difficult but realistic goals
Research suggests that higher difficulty goals tend to produce better results.
In my experience, busy executives often feel saturated with many other challenging demands, and so adding another difficult development goal to their portfolio can sometimes demotivate them.
As a result I’ve adopted a principle of ‘progress not perfection’ when it comes to goal setting in general, and to calibrating the difficulty level of goals in particular.
We need goals to focus our attention on important behaviours, to move beyond automatic thought and action patterns, and to motivate us to reach higher standards. Those goals require some challenge, but if that added challenge in the context of many other demanding work/life objectives ‘crowds out’ the motivation to take even small action steps, that’s counterproductive.
Based on this, in my opinion leaders should set development goals that are as challenging as possible while also remaining attainable (whatever those terms mean to the leader).
6. Three goals, three actions
Building on the previous point, the degree of challenge in the plan can be measured not only in terms of the difficulty of individual goals, but also in terms of the total number of goals a leader takes on.
Keeping with the idea of moderating challenge for executives who face many other competing demands, I suggest leaders write just three goals, with about three actions linked to each. Let's focus our priorities, and not try to boil the ocean.
It’s also helpful to keep the goal document short so that leaders can remember it as they go about their daily work. Being able to recall in real-time what they’re working on can help leaders initiate or practice new behaviours when opportunities arise in the moment.
7. Think about the next year
I find it’s helpful to set the general timeline for the plan at 1 year.
With the leaders I work with, they sometimes attach timelines to individual actions, but not always. They may do this to preserve flexibility amidst a busy schedule, or it could be a by-product of setting mastery-oriented goals that aren’t easily measured and perhaps never fully achieved.
If leaders want to fix some general timelines to their goals, they can categorize them into the ones they will achieve in the first half vs the second half of the year.
8. Give your goal a heading
The heading identifies a single general theme that the leader wants to focus on. This is a general category or description of the key behaviours the leader will pursue. Two goal headings might be 'Improve conflict management' or 'Increase assertiveness in key situations.'
9. Consider the many forms that actions can take
Actions can take many forms, and can be much more nuanced than a behaviour that you might capture on your ‘to-do’ list. They could includes any of the following:
Skills/knowledge to learn – e.g., ‘learn 5 new influence tactics by reading Robert Cialdini’s Influence.’
Skills to practice - e.g., ‘practice each of the 5 influence tactics once in the next three months.’
Recurring routines/habits to develop – e.g., ‘block time every Tuesday from 1-3pm for strategic planning activities.’
New experiences to acquire – e.g., ‘volunteer to lead the next sales team offsite.’
Behaviours to demonstrate in specific situations often written as ‘if/then’ statements) – e.g., ‘if engaging in development coaching with a team member, then ask open ended questions only.’
Behaviours to start or continue doing – e.g., ‘schedule meetings to discuss the development of my direct reports once per quarter for the next year.’
Small behavioural experiments to conduct – e.g., ‘schedule a meeting with my 2-up supervisor and share three reasons why I think I’m ready for a promotion; afterwards write down what I observed and learned and select next steps.’
10. Add specificity to make goals seem easier to accomplish
Adding specificity to a goal, like a mini-plan for how you want to accomplish it, can help leaders make progress against that goal in a more automatic, frictionless way.
In other words, specifying where and when you will act, how you will respond in different situations (perhaps using if/then statements), and what repeatable routines you can establish can make it seem mentally easier to accomplish a goal.
For example, setting a goal to send an email newsletter to your team once per week may seem more daunting than one stipulating that you will send the newsletter on Fridays at 2pm, and that you will block time each Thursday from 2-4pm to draft the newsletter, and that in that block you will consider a) key team objectives and b) challenges mentioned in the previous team meeting.
Knowing exactly how you can accomplish a goal creates a sense that achieving it requires less effort.
11. Smash complex goals into smaller pieces
When goals are too large, complex, or intimidating, break them into component parts that feel more manageable.
Think about the short term (proximal) and the longer term (distal) parts of the goal. Can you focus more on the short-term components for now?
In addition, if the short-term components still feel complex, can you break them down further until they feel ‘doable’?
Keep ‘smashing’ until the pieces feel controllable and attainable.
12. Use learning goals for highly complex objectives, or where skills are underdeveloped
Performance goals unleash energy and motivation to reach a higher standard.
Learning goals by contrast focus attention on acquiring important knowledge needed to accomplish a task.
Performance goals tend to drive motivation for tasks where a leader already has the needed skills, and they just need a boost of energy. Learning goals tend to drive knowledge acquisition when a leader has a deficit of skills or ability, and need to build their knowledge base first before increasing their motivation.
Learning goals are useful when goals are overly complex, because they encourage leaders to first embark on a ‘knowledge finding mission’ to gather the ideas or strategies required to succeed.
13. A note on behavioural experiments
Behavioural experiments are instances where leaders try out or practice new behaviours, gather data on the results, and then reassess how or when to continue practicing that skill in the future.
Think of this example: You’re standing in an elevator with one other person. All of a sudden you turn to face them and start staring at them, just to see what happens. How do they react? How do you react? Whatever takes place in this awkward moment, you will learn something about them and yourself.
Think of behavioural experiments in this way. They are low stakes attempts to poke, prod, and provoke the work environment around you with a new behaviour. The leader’s job is to deliver the ‘poke,’ see what’s revealed, evaluate the results, and then decide what to do next.
14. Use positive wording
Defining goals using positive (e.g., I want to do X) rather than negative or avoidant terms (e.g., I want to avoid doing Y) increases the likelihood of achieving them.
15. Schedule a review meeting with your supervisor
Once leaders draft their plan, they should meet with their supervisors to share and ask for feedback on it (often times the coach attends this meeting as well).
In this meeting, leaders have the option of sharing any insights gathered from the assessment/feedback stages, although the choice of whether to do so is up to them.
To generate feedback from the supervisor, some key questions to ask could include the following:
- What would strengthen the plan further?
- What’s missing?
- What would the supervisor be willing to do to support this goal or the overall plan? (Sometimes it’s preferable for the coach to ask this question.)
After the meeting, leaders can make any needed revisions to the plan and send the finalized version to the supervisor and coach.
16. After setting your goals, debrief with your raters
After finalizing the development goals, it’s a good idea for leaders to meet with their raters to share their insights from the process and the goals they’ve set.
There are three purposes to taking this step. The first is to increase the likelihood of achieving the goals by making them public. The second purpose is to enable others to provide regular and ‘real time’ feedback in areas related to the goals. A third purpose is to build a set of allies who feel invested in and supportive of the leader’s development.
I find my clients more often conduct these meetings one on one, but some have opted for group settings.
A general format leaders can consider using for this meeting is a) ‘Thanks for the feedback, it was really impactful,’ 2) ‘here are some themes that I heard from my raters’ (optional), 3) invite any reactions, 4) ‘I also want to share the goals I set for myself based the feedback I heard,’ 5) invite any reactions, 6) invite the rater to provide feedback related to the goals in the future if they see opportunities to do so.
17. Build mechanisms to keep the plan alive with your supervisor
I recommend that at the conclusion of the development planning process, that leaders schedule quarterly meetings with their supervisors to review and discuss progress on their development goals.
These regular contact points help to remind the supervisor about the focus of the goals, and create a formal setting for the leader to receive regular feedback about goal progress. This meeting cadence will keep the goal plan ‘alive’ and top of mind.
The purpose of this article was to provide suggestions to help leaders build a set of motivating development goals after receiving in-depth feedback inside of a leadership development program.
I hope these suggestions provide helpful food for thought as some of you shape goals on how to advance your leadership effectiveness.
As always I would welcome your feedback, positive or constructive, on any of these points, and would love to learn from your unique perspective.
In my next article, I’ll offer suggestions for how leaders can prepare for and think about the stage of a leadership development program that often follows development planning, the coaching phase.
Tim Jackson Ph.D. is the President of Jackson Leadership, Inc. and a leadership assessment and coaching expert with 17 years of experience. He has assessed and coached leaders across a variety of sectors including agriculture, chemicals, consumer products, finance, logistics, manufacturing, media, not-for-profit, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and utilities and power generation, including multiple private-equity-owned businesses. He's also worked with leaders across numerous functional areas, including sales, marketing, supply chain, finance, information technology, operations, sustainability, charitable, general management, health and safety, and quality control, and across hierarchical levels from individual contributors to CEOs. In addition Tim has worked with leaders across several geographical regions, including Canada, the US, Western Europe, and China. He has published his ideas on leadership in both popular media, and peer-reviewed journals. Tim has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, and is based in Toronto.