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Goal Setting and Planning Strategies for Executives

by Harwant Khush, Ph.D., Research Consultant, Tero International

"Effort and Courage are not enough without Purpose and Direction."

-John F. Kennedy

Goal setting and planning strategies provide focus and direction to the executives, business leaders, and managers to make their organizations successful and productive. These strategies are vital tools and skills that, once acquired, can help accomplish the vision and mission of their organizations. They can help answer questions such as what do they need to achieve? Where do they want to take their organization in the years to come? How to prioritize and streamline the work-flow to reach the desirable end-results? Goals and planning strategies can also be effectively used by executives to formulate their policies and procedures for successful business ventures.

What are Goals?

Social sciences literature provides a vast amount of definitions and guidelines to set up goals. According to the Business Dictionary, goals are, "an observable and measurable end result having one or more objectives to be achieved within a more or less fixed timeframe." Webster's Dictionary defines goals as "the end towards which all effort is directed." Achieving end results is the essential criteria for setting goals based on these definitions.

Another interpretation describes goals as the process of, "identifying something that you want to accomplish and establishing measurable goals and timeframes." This view highlights that goal-setting process lays out a series of guiding stepping stones or a road map to reach the desired results.

There is a slight variation on the description of goals in these and multiple other definitions. However, the common theme is that goals are future-oriented activities that lead to specific, tangible, and measurable results.

Importance of Goal Setting

"Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible."-Tony Robbins

Top-level athletes, professional and high achievers all set goals. We cannot put our lives on auto-pilot and wait for success to appear. Successful executives also need to be proactive, have a sense of control, and keep their employees on the path to reach their targets.

The general importance of goal setting has been provided by several leaders of management theories and practices. The works of Peter Drucker in 1954 and of Edwin Locke 1960 is fundamental to these concepts.

According to Peter Drucker "...having a say in goal setting and action plans encourages participation and commitment among employees, as well as aligning objectives across the organization." (Investopedia, Management by Objectives) This model was built on the hypothesis that specific and measurable goals are vital to achieve the vision and mission of organizations and to enhance their productivity.

Edwin Locke further elaborated on the importance of goal setting in his Goal Setting Theory of Motivation published in 1960s. It states "goal setting is essentially linked to task performance. ...specific and challenging goals along with appropriate feedback contribute to higher and better task performance." (Theory of Motivation)

Specific benefits of Goal Setting for Managers as described in management journals can be summarized as follows:

Goals Provide a Sense of Direction and Focus

"If you don't know where you are going, you will end up someplace else"-Yogi Berra.

Know where you are going and stay on the path is the favorite mantra for goal-setting. Goals keep team members focused and committed to achieving the end results. Having direction helps to avoid spending energy, time and resources on irrelevant activities.

Goals establish Targets

Targets and performance indicators are used to evaluate the success of organizations, companies, and of employees. Employees can judge for themselves if they are on target and it is also easier for employers to evaluate performances based on pre-determined criteria.

Goals Enhance Efficiency

Goals help to organize time and resources on productive pursuits and eliminate wasting valuable resources on unnecessary and unproductive activities.

Goals Provide Accountability

As employees take responsibility for setting their goals, they are involved and feel accountable to themselves as well as to the organization for delivering results.

Goals are Motivators

"Seeing progress is addicting" (Forbes, 2017). The excitement of reaching one's goal releases dopamine in the brain; that becomes addictive as it leads one to a new high. Attaining short-term goals builds enthusiasm and positive reinforcement to go to the next levels.

Methods of Goals Setting

Multiple techniques have been formulated on goal setting and planning by behavioral scientists and management professionals. At present, the three most popular and distinct methods for Effective-Goal-Setting are:

1. 4C F Method

Goal setting theory by Locke and Latham provide the framework for these methods. According to the authors, the five essential techniques to set goals are Clarity, Challenge, Complexity, Commitment & Feedback.

Clarity implies that goals should be clear, concise, and specific. Goals should not be vague and ambiguous. An example of a clear goal is, "to increase the sales by ten percent" rather than saying, "we need to increase sales."

Goals should be sufficiently Challenging and Complex to provide a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. Goals that are too easy are not motivators, while the non-achievement of too ambitious goals may lead to frustrations.

Commitment: Involving team members and other significant employees in the goal-setting process will enhance their commitment to achieving the goals.

Feedback to employees on a regular basis is vital. Through feedback, executives can eliminate shortcomings and keep employees on the correct path. Feedback also lessens the long-term tensions and frustration of employees.

2. SMART Method

SMART is a popular acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-Bound goals. This method of goal setting was conceptualized and popularized by Peter Drucker in his work on Management by Objectives.

According to this model, goals should be explicit and have a specific target to be accomplished. Goals should be quantifiable and measurable to keep track of progress. Goals should be achievable within an assigned timeframe. This method is highly popular amongst contemporary executives for setting personal, professional and career-related goals.

3. Backwards Goal Setting Method

Executives need to know the end-results or where they see themselves in five, ten or twenty years. This end-result becomes the guiding forces for all strategies. When executives know their vision, mission and destination, they can then work backward to achieve the results (Effective-Goal Setting).

These are just a few specific and distinct methods for goal setting. However, in actual practice, the executives may have to use a combination of these and other methods. The basic principle is that the methods used should suit the particular frameworks, procedures, and logistics of organizations.

Planning Strategies for Setting Goals

"A goal without a plan is just a wish." -Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Strategy is "the art and science of planning and marshalling resources for their most efficient and effective use." Executives' strategies are plans to achieve the desired results.

A careful and well thought out planning strategy is vital for success. It serves as the blueprint for all activities to be accomplished and implemented. The importance of planning is highlighted in an in-depth article on Goal Setting and Planning and in how to Operationalize goals. Some of these suggestions are as follows:

  1. Establish policies and plan: List the specific and detailed activities to be taken at various stages to implement the goals.

  2. Communicate and collaborate with employees and significant other partners to make sure that everyone is on-board and working for the same target.

  3. Set a timetable: Deadlines or target dates for each step of the plan should be elaborated and fixed.

  4. State each goal in positive rather than in negatives statements. It is easier to say, "accomplish these tasks," rather than saying, "do not make these stupid mistakes."

  5. Write them down and help prepare a flow chart of actions or activities to be taken.

  6. Communicate to all concerned parties and make sure they understand their role as well as the contributions of their team members.

  7. Assign responsibilities, delegate tasks and make sure members are accountable to perform their roles.

  8. Periodic Performance evaluations on a regular basis are highly helpful. They show where and how employees need help and extra resources to get their job done.

  9. Be prepared to face glitches and unforeseen problems that may come up. Adapting, adjusting and evolving are the best strategies in any fast-changing business environment. Goals and procedures to implement policies have to be flexible so that they can be easily modified and revised based on circumstances.


Goal setting and planning strategies are important to consider for any business or organization's success. It is always a challenge for the executives of an organization on how to formulate and follow this process. Executives also need to realize that they do not want to be too fixated on goals. Goals are not a cure-all for everything. They may not always deliver the desired results. In the article, "Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting," (Harvard Business Review), the authors state "...goal setting has powerful and predictable side effects. Rather than being offered as an "over the counter" salve for boosting performance, goal setting should be prescribed selectively, presented with a warning label, and closely monitored."

Following the strategies outlined above while remaining aware of possible pitfalls allow executives to select the best ways to safely pursue goal setting so that they can move their organization to the next highest level. Adequately addressed and executed, goals can be powerful tools to deliver results and make organizations profitable. When goals succeed, so do executives and their businesses.

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