Communicating goals: another lesson learned

Autumn brings hurricanes or falling leaves in different parts of the world, and for many of us it also brings annual goal-setting sessions. Here is a brief post summarizing a recent “aha moment” about the way leaders communicate these goals and how this communication style impacts results and team morale.

I’ll assume you are already a fan of the “Start with Why” principle popularized by Simon Sinek (if not, brush up here). When communicating goals: the Why must be clear, the What must be firm, and the How must be flexible.

Be Clear about Why

The underlying principle or strategy behind a goal is “the Why.” Each goal must be linked back to a core principle of the organization or a pillar of the business strategy. In organizations where the strategy is already well defined and understood throughout the team, articulating this link might seem redundant – if this is your team, congratulations. Larger, more complex organizations in the midst of a strategic transformation or “pivot” will benefit from a direct explanation linking the goal to the Why. Without linking the goal to the why, team members tasked with executing the goal can question its value and apply less effort, focus, and rigor.

Be Firm about What

Define the desired outcomes of the goal in unwavering terms. If the strategy, business model, and cash flow forecast require 15% margin expansion next year, state this explicitly in the goal. If there are hard deadlines about when the team must put pencils down and complete a project, lock in the dates. Directional and ambiguous goals (“improve,” “accelerate,” “expand,” “transform”) expose everyone to misalignment before, during, and after the work.

Be Flexible about How

Leaders who are inclusive and empowering (see Multipliers) expect the team accountable for achieving the goal not only to understand the problem best, but also to select the best approach to resolve it. In an agile approach, we expect to learn and adapt as the project evolves. Rigidly defining the methods and tools that a team must employ to achieve a goal risks disenfranchising them, or even missing the goal. If we knew all the answers already, how could the problem exist?

As you define and communicate your goals for next year, keep these principles in mind. If the goals aren’t clearly linked to the underlying strategy, ask for clarity. If the goals themselves don’t have firm definitions of how far and how fast, help to define them. And if the goal itself constrains the method of achieving it, push back for flexibility. Setting goals isn’t easy – and achieving them is even harder without clear, firm, and flexible communication.


Podium Finish: Top 3 Speaking Tips from TED

Regardless of your opinions on the topics of TED talks, they stand as fantastic lessons on compelling public speaking. I’ve generalized a few concepts here that I hope will help you during your next leadership speaking opportunity, regardless of the size or location of the audience.

  1. Start with why: Simon Sinek
  2. Get “out of the screen” with props or interactive questions: Tristram Stuart
  3. Make it personal and live your “call to action” (tied): Tony Robbins and Tim Ferris

Are you selling the what or the why?

Whether or not your job title reflects it, you are a salesman. We sell to our customers, to our managers, to our family and friends. We are constantly selling what we believe, asking others to buy it and come along to where we want to go. My three year old is my toughest customer, especially when it comes to selling her the idea of washing her hair before bed!

Simon Sinek always starts with why.

Ideas resonate strongest with me when I hear them confirmed in unexpected places. Recently I watched a classic Ted Talk by Simon Sinek about how leaders inspire action. The same day I heard part of a sales training webinar featuring Tim Wackel about improving conversion rate on leads. The main message is that people are much more interested in “why” you are talking than “what” you are talking about.

Sinek uses Apple and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to illustrate his concept of the “Golden Circle:” three concentric circles containing why, how, and what.

Tim Wackel’s “value proposition 101” states the issue, action, and outcome.

He proposes that “why” appeals to the center of our minds, the part without language that controls emotion and relationships. Wackel calls it “value proposition 101:” state the customer’s issue, the action you propose, and the outcome they can expect.

In both cases, when we make an appeal to the belief, aspiration, or concern in the hearts of other people, we capture their attention and signal alignment. If we build on that alignment with an action or solution that fits their rational needs, we are much more likely to get to “yes.” Just as importantly, if the initial statement of “why” does not resonate, both parties move on without wasting time over fruitless discussions about “what.”

So the next time you are selling an idea, at work or at home, start with your statement of “why.” You’ll find the approach to be much more enjoyable for everyone involved in the conversation–I know that bathtime at my house certainly is.