How leaders can set goals and organize priorities

Photo credit: Getty Images/Cn0ra

New leaders eager to prove themselves by taking a plethora of visible and impactful decisions and —aka “Caesar on a march”—can fall into a trap of doing much but accomplishing little. With respect to setting priorities and achieving goals, the problem is that even seasoned leaders can confuse important and urgent, as well as fail to realize they cannot do everything.

Important means a task needs to be done, whereas urgent means it must be done immediately. Knowing the difference between the two simplifies priorities. Leaders can forget in the moment that tasks and projects have a domino effect. If you do one task, yet fail to do another, you may have wasted effort on the first task. There are seven tactics that make goal and priority-setting easier for you and others. Read about these below.

  • Begin with the end in mind. Organizations often fail to achieve goals and strategic planning targets that are set top down and by executives who lack crucial information and are out of touch with staff challenges. Such goals are unrealistic and fail to consider organization resources and capabilities. In this situation, employees do not believe that the rewards they will receive for goal accomplishment will equal the energy they invest to achieve them.
  • Concentrate on doing the right thing, then do it right. <anagement expert Peter Drucker says: “doing the right thing is more important than doing things right.” Doing the right thing is effectiveness; doing things right is efficiency. Focus first on effectiveness (identifying what the right thing to do is), then concentrate on efficiency (doing it right). All other things being equal: Focus on opportunities and breakthroughs; the future, not the past; priorities that support your values and are of the biggest human impact; the long-term and system-wide solutions; problem-preventing; and finally, on feeding your elephants (big important stuff) and starving the ants (trivia).
  • Consider reducing the number of face-to-face meetings. Ask yourself if a meeting is absolutely necessary or will a phone call do just as well? If a face-to-face meeting is a must, try a “standup meeting” in which participants stand rather than sit; this will help to guarantee that important issues are addressed and idle time is avoided. Take care not to make the mistake of not inviting all the correct people to the meeting or becoming resistant to appropriate meetings. Meetings are not the exclusive domain of upper management. Bring in everyone who has a stake first and then reunite periodically thereafter. Once the goals, parameters, considerations and hazards are identified, smaller teams can meet as frequently as needed. The time, money and quality lost to communication breakdowns when key players have not been included and which usually requires with numerous, random, redundant secondary meetings is so much harder to earn back than any money spent in appropriately planned and staffed meetings.
  • Too many goals make nothing a priority. When an employee wears too many hats at work, s/he can become overwhelmed with the sheer number of goals s/he is expected to meet. People with too many goals experience these issues: 1) they never feel as if they accomplish a complete task; 2) it is difficult to tie their goal accomplishment to a reward and recognition system that recognizes their accomplishments; 3) they do not know what is most important to accomplish next; 4) they fall prey to the “check it off the list” syndrome in which they check tasks off their list before the actions have been integrated by the organization. Work with the employee to ensure they know their specific work priorities. Each team member works together to bring about a larger, unified outcome. Focus all of your energies on your part of that larger outcome.
  • Avoid posturing or “show goals.” It is not uncommon for some organizations to create goals based on the desire to impress or mislead outside groups or to avoid serious analysis of the company and the marketplace. In the end, these “show goals” can then be used by senior management to pass the buck and the blame for the failure to meet the goals. Their effect on employees is substantial. They produce serious morale and competency-questioning issues.
  • Maximize people’s natural rhythms. Help your employee to identify their energy flows to best manage their time and tasks. Work with the employee to modify their work schedule to maximize their most energetic and focused periods of their day.
  • Consider the environmental and organizational factors impacting the employee’s work. Go to the person’s work area with them and identify ways to make their work environment more conducive to focusing and getting tasks done. The employee may need help managing their filing or perhaps there is too little work space around their workstation (this often happens if the computer monitor is on the same side of the desk as the employee’s dominate hand; i.e., if a right-hander has their monitor on the right side of the desk, that leaves no work room in the area of the employee’s most efficient hand). Set an action plan for making changes to their work environment and follow up with the employee.

Finally, share this simple set of heuristics with your team. It can guide them to look for the most effective solutions. All other things being equal:

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  • Focus on opportunity
  • Focus on the future, not the past
  • Focus on priorities that support your values
  • Focus on long-term fixes rather than the “quick fix”
  • Focus on problem-preventing rather than problem-solving
  • Focus on system-wide solutions rather than a local solution
  • Focus on high-impact priorities that matter to a lot of people
  • Focus on breakthroughs rather than perfecting the status quo
  • Focus on feeding your elephants (big important stuff) and starving the ants (trivia)

Keith Kefgen and Dr. James Houran are the CEO and managing drector of AETHOS Consulting Group, a hospitality-focused human capital advisory, and the authors of Loneliness of Leadership—the result of a three-year study of C-suite executives in lodging, restaurants, gaming and other hospitality sectors. They are also the founders of 20|20 Assess—a wholly owned subsidiary of AETHOS Consulting Group—a proprietary suite of hospitality-specific HR and leadership software for performance management. Keith can be contacted at [email protected] and Dr. Jim can be reached at [email protected].