A New Method for Setting 2020 Goals

If you’re an employee, then you will no doubt pull back the reins in setting goals for 2020. And this makes sense. So long as HR clings to that dumb meets-versus-exceeds nonsense, then you will be incented to set a low bar. I mean, let’s face it: Only losers fall into that stretch goal trap. Everyone knows that you negotiate baby steps in January, and then brag in December that you totally killed it. Any other approach makes no sense. None.

The process is simple – and you learn the math before your second anniversary. Suppose, for example, that you work in customer support for a firewall platform company. Let's say that you’re measured against a set of personally-defined annual goals. Your first draft of 2020 goals looks like this: (1) Run twenty-four customer events, (2) Select and upgrade the CRM to a new system, and (3) Increase customer satisfaction scores by 20 percent.

You then sit back and stare at your paper. Hmmm, you think, twenty-four events is two per month – and we barely did one per month this year. So, you make a change: (1) Run sixteen customer events. Then you look at the second goal, and it looks painful. You rewrite to this: (2) Assess new CRM systems. And the final goal – well, that just looks crazy. New version: (3) Increase customer satisfaction scores. (Direction counts, right?)

Sales professionals argue that they’re measured more objectively. In cyber security, for instance, it’s not unusual to make $125K per year as a base, with a $125K bonus for selling a million dollars of UEBA software, or SIEM platforms, or whatever. This is well-established – but I’ve never met a sales pro who didn’t try to set sub-goals, or other incentives for some easy interim cash. And the sub-goals are always rigged as lay-ups.

Since none of this will change, I'm afraid you will be forced to continue negotiating low bar goal estimates with your supervisor. The charade will march on in all business sectors, and across all types of corporate environments. But I hope that you’ll take a moment to ponder the following: Successful people don't plan this way. They drive themselves mercilessly. They are never happy with easy goals. They push and push and push. And push.

So, if you are in the process of setting your 2020 goals, then I have a suggestion: I recommend that you keep two sets of books. You can continue give your boss that dopey version of easy goals. But in the top drawer of your desk, keep a second version of better goals – a version that really pushes you. That’s the one you should watch each week. It should guide your entire year, and it should be tough.

Now – in my decades of experience as a worker, manager, and executive, I’ve learned that setting stretch goals requires honest, personal attention to three factors. That is, when setting a second set of books, make sure the stretch goals you are defining, exhibit three basic attributes. And yes, if you work in HR, then you can and should try to make your process more consistent with the following factors:

Factor 1: Stretch. Everyone on the planet knows that you must push to grow. Obviously, you cannot make targets ridiculously distant, but if you always jump three feet, and you want to do better, then you must honestly commit to jumping, say, four feet in the coming year. This personal goal will cause you to exercise, and eat better, and lose weight, and practice, and on and on. Even if you only hit 3.5 feet, you made nice progress.

The problem is that if you make a living from jumping, and your kids would like to eat and attend college, then the risk of basing success on stretch goals will be too much. In the jumping scenario, for example, you might have gone from 3 to 3.5 feet, which is awesome, but if your goal had been 4 feet, then say goodbye to your bonus. Oh, and expect to send your seventeen-year-old over to PNC for a student loan.

Personal goals, in contrast, are stretch goals designed to help you grow. You should not share stretch goals with your boss, spouse, partner, best friend, sibling, or other person in your orbit. Keep the list in your top drawer, under your checkbook (where no one would ever think to look). And yes – keep two sets of books: Use the stretch goals to grow and the lay-up goals for your annual bonus at work.

Factor 2: Flexibility. Everyone on the planet knows that successful people continually adjust their goals. Good objectives are flexible, so that they can be tweaked based on changes in business environment, customer preferences, organizational set-up, and on and on. What’s true in January, is rarely true in July, and almost never true in December. The problem is that HR teams rarely support goal changing. It’s too much work.

Your personal goals should thus be written in pencil. My personal approach has been to write goals on the back of an envelope to highlight their transient nature. Please recognize that successful people change their goals. Constantly. In fact, most successful people will be happy to tell you that they’ve made dozens of dumb mistakes that have required massive course corrections. (Good luck suggesting this approach to your supervisor.)

Personal goals should be flexible goals that you fully expect to change over and over during the coming year. Furthermore, a January-to-December timeframe is arbitrary and might not match up with your personal calendar. Changes can and should be made consistent with what makes sense to you – versus some arbitrary date. Bottom line: Write your second set of books in pencil and expect to make erasures frequently.

Factor 3: Effort. Everyone on the planet knows that you cannot succeed unless you really push yourself. And this push is measured in sincere effort. The problem with measuring effort in a corporate setting is that some employees can float through the year on their back and sell more widgets than anyone else. In contrast, other employees must flap their arms at a thousand RPM to achieve the same result. It’s unfair, but that’s life.

The problem is that the float-through-the-year person is not growing. And while the arm waving person might not like all that flapping, growth is occurring. Measuring this requires internal honesty and introspection. Only you know when you have pushed yourself. You also know that sometimes the results don’t correlate: Sometimes you push and get five, and other times you do not push and you get ten. That’s the crazy math.

Personal goals should thus measure effort, and this should include recognition of the effort required to make changes. Your personal goals should include an honest, introspective measure of how hard you pushed. You do not have to share this assessment with anyone. It is best done privately. But you know when you pushed. Your personal set of goals should demand that this be part of your assessment.

By the way, one issue requires some mention here, since I’ve been a bit tough on HR teams: Corporate goals – the ones you lie about – are always intended to be subjected to negotiation with your supervisor. The way it works is that your supervisor is obligated to be the control, pushing you to do twenty-four and not sixteen, and to do 20% improvement and not some unspecified amount. I understand that this is the process.

But give me a break. Everyone knows that the goal setting process is miserable, and is often combined with review of last year’s goals. In some bizarre cases, it is actually combined with a review of bonus and salary. This means that the tense meeting where you learn your bonus, is also used to review goals. This is a bat-crap crazy, and yet, it occurs in many corporate and government organizations.

I hope you decide to keep a second set of books for your annual goals. I’ve been doing it for many years (don’t tell my previous supervisors). I credit the practice with having contributed more units to my personal success than maybe any other aspect of my own professional development activities. Sure, it’s a tad deceptive, but I suspect that if you adopt the approach in 2020, you’ll thank me later.

Now – please go find a quiet place, and write down five honest, personal stretch objectives for 2020. Make them difficult goals, ones you would never enter into that dumb HR app used to collect annual objectives. Write your honest goals in pencil and save them in your desk. Be prepared to change them during the year. Plan to review them every week, being perfectly happy to erase ones that turns out to be wrong.

Oh – and remember: Don’t ever share these honest, personal goals with your supervisor. That would be a bad idea. These goals are for you. In fact, don’t even forward this article to anyone. Just keep this whole little deceptive process between you and me. It’ll be our little secret for 2020. Good luck, and please make sure to let us know (privately) how the process is working for you during the year.

On behalf of the entire team at TAG Cyber, we'd like to wish you and your family a Happy and Healthy New Year. See you in 2020.