Leaders won’t stay without stretch goals

There is a tendency to shrink the goals of an organization to something attainable, so as not to demoralize the staff. The result of this kind of behavior, unfortunately, is the exact opposite of what was hoped for. The leaders leave and the folks that are left will need the goals lowered again. High performing organizations need to embrace stretch goals.

I have heard and read tons of material that talks about leading from the front. Unfortunately, this model of leadership also ends up creating a limiting factor – you can only move as fast as the person in the front. And if the person in the front is human, the reality is that they’ll be great at some things and not amazing at others.

This is why I appreciate a different model of leadership – as characterized by Nelson Mandela’s quote below.

“A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” – Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

stretch goals

One of the key reasons leaders quit organizations

When you interview high performers and ask about their previous jobs, you’ll notice a subtle and yet consistent pattern of responses to the question, “Why did you leave that job?” More often than not, and I’ve interviewed hundreds of seriously smart and capable folks, you hear something like, “I felt like I had done everything that I needed to do there.” Or you might hear it more negatively, “It was clear I’d gone as far as I was going to go.”

Some people hear those statements as limits to promotions. And sometimes that’s the case. Others will hear those responses as statements related to their own learning. And sometimes that’s the case as well.

But if you dig in a little deeper, you might discover that the actual dynamic underneath those statements is something else – boredom.

It’s one of the biggest reasons I’ve seen for highly capable and high capacity leaders to leave a perfectly good company. They’ve met every goal, hit every target, and get bored. And so it’s clear, to them, that it’s time to move on.

One of the biggest mistakes managers make with goals

At the same time that the above dynamic is occurring, there’s another process that accelerates the departure of key leaders – goal setting.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to goal setting. One approach is to define goals in a way that the person (or team) that’s responsible for meeting the goal is completely capable of accomplishing it without anyone else’s help. The focus on these kinds of goals is execution. Accomplishment. Ownership. The second approach is to define goals that require interdisciplinary cooperation. The focus on these kinds of goals is also execution. But with a greater sense of the bigger picture and a recognition that many worthwhile goals will require more than a specific person (or team).

In the first case, goals are set and may or may not be missed. In the second case, many goals that are set are missed. It’s a natural consequence of the complexity of dependencies when creating these goals.

I once worked for a company that defined a specific target of 64 new deals by the end of the year. Ok, that’s a sales goal, right? Not exactly. In a SaaS (software as a service) company, selling a large client may mean custom features (from the technology team), special pricing (requiring legal and/or business development), specific support requirements (from the support team or uptime-related from the tech operations team).

Without several teams working together, they weren’t going to hit 64. And the reality was, they didn’t hit it. But they worked hard to try to get there.

So what’s the mistake? Is it type two goals? Nope.

The mistake that managers make is that they lower the bar the next quarter. They go from 64 to 24. Then they go from 24 to 4. Their focus is to just keep moving the bar to something more realistic.

After all, the logic goes, if people are demoralized they won’t be able to deliver. So let’s move the goal to something more reachable.

And that’s the mistake. Lowering the sales goal to the target from 8 years ago (see the comic above) doesn’t help. Sure it will be pleasing for some. But for the wrong “some.”

Leaders need stretch goals

Those sheep that Mandela was talking about – the ones at the front – they need room to run. They need the opportunity to stretch their legs and move at a pace that is comfortable to them. Those sheep at the front – those are the leaders you’re looking to keep engaged in your business. What happens when goals start shrinking? Those are the first to depart because boredom sets in too quickly.

Leaders won’t stick around without stretch goals – mostly because it’s what allows them to face a challenge. It’s what allows them to demonstrate mastery while also engaging the parts of their experience and skill that demands the best they have.

You want highly engaged leaders? Then you need to make sure they’re not bored. And if you want to make sure they’re not bored, you can’t shrink their goals, you have to make them as complex, interdependent, challenging and stretching as possible.

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