July 17, 2018

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The Value of Being Planful

As children, most of us have big dreams and ideas about what we'll be and what we'll do when we grow up. Our imaginations soar with visions of how successful we'll be or what kind of job we'll have or the kind of house we'll live in. I can still remember (some three decades later!) my pre-teen dream of becoming a great novelist or journalist.

As we mature and our talents and interests are shaped and honed, those childhood dreams and hopes are shaped, too. We make conscious decisions at critical points that will set us along a seemingly well-defined path. Think about the first time you had to select your own courses in high school, or when you were called upon to pick your major as an undergraduate.

Then comes graduation day, and rarely is someone there to tell you what to do next, other than 'It's time to find a job.' And maybe share a few pointers on how to write your resume. From here on out, we're pretty much on our own. Precious few of us will have the luxury or benefit of having a mentor who walks us through our career, helping us take stock at critical junctures and set our course in very deliberate measures.

So somehow, some way, we manage to land our first jobs. According to a 10-year study and survey by the Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 70% of college graduates actually get work, either full or part time, in their major field of study. That means that 30% either don't get work or find work in an area other than their major area of study. The US Department of Education's annual tracking survey reports that only 39% of graduates get full-time work in their major field that really requires the degree and has career potential. Our planning and study efforts, according to these statistics, leave a lot to be desired.

Maybe a more realistic picture of our planning approach is that 'life happens.' Those best laid plans get derailed or adjusted when other circumstances arise - and we react to them rather than deliberately modifying our plans or creating new ones that put us back on track.

'Going with the flow' is not a strategy. It's a passive reaction that is not likely to help us to reach the lofty goals we created as children or as idealistic students. Creating solid, well-defined plans is critical whether the goals you have are for life's major milestones or for getting a project finished by the end of the day. The strategy you employ will largely determine if you will be able to recognize your success if and when it happens.

The Value in Being Planful

The value in being 'planful' comes in two key parts.

  1. A clear-eyed, detailed definition of what your ultimate or interim goal is. 'What will it look like when I achieve XYZ?'

  2. A realistic, detailed path to actually get there, including both checkpoints and 'negotiation opportunities.'

The comment that I hear most often from clients who have a tough time with setting goals or planning is, 'It just feels so overwhelming to try to lay it all out.' In a series of conversations with Nancy, a 40-something senior manager, she expressed a great deal of frustration with laying out annual goals for herself and her team. 'This is so pointless,' she said of an exercise required for the company's performance management process. Read here a paraphrased snippet of our exchange:

My Question - 'How do you know when you are successful?' Nancy - 'When I meet my sales numbers.'

Q - 'How did you know what those numbers were?'

N - 'I got them from my manager, of course.'

Q - 'And where do you think your manager got them?'

N - 'Well, from Corporate.'

Q - 'And Corporate got them how??'

N - 'OK, I get your point. They created goals based on last year's performance.'

What Nancy finally got - even though she clearly knew it on an intellectual level - was that she could not expect to effectively and objectively measure her success or her team's without divvying up those goals and responsibilities and clearly defining what each person or group needed to achieve at key milestones. She was being resistant to the process on an emotional and maybe even functional level. It felt like a lot of work, and she had to get specific about her expectations.

The second part of the problem was that she had previously had another member of her staff complete that annual planning process. This time around, her boss was insisting upon Nancy's personal involvement and accountability. Nancy had lost touch with the 'bigger picture' goal-setting process and was, as her boss put it, 'living deep in the weeds.'

The Key to Achieving Big Goals

So Nancy's mission at the outset was to define the needed outcomes for herself and for each of her team members (admittedly a daunting task as there were 39 people in her group!). As we worked together on this process, we looked for ways to ease the obvious pain of such a broad-based project. A key element was to break the top-line goal into smaller 'chunks' that allowed for measurement at key milestones.

This is an important key for any large-scale goal and even for meeting your day-to-day mission. It can be utterly overwhelming to think about everything you have placed on a 'To Do' list. (We'll tackle that nugget next time!) Once you have defined where it is you want to go, based on your individual or business goals and the things that you value, it's time to get realistic. Take those goals and set milestones or check-in points at pre-set junctures. Those junctures can be time-based, say every 30 or 90 days, or event based, such as when 70 contacts have been made.

What you do at those milestones is take stock of where you are and whether it is still in alignment with where you intended to go. If you are on course, great! Keep moving! If you are off course, this is an opportunity to correct anything that's gone astray, or to re-negotiate the goal. One important lesson that Nancy learned during the first year she was personally accountable for the group's goal setting was that things change. A major downturn in the industry meant that her division's overall performance outlook was considerably weakened. She used this opportunity to go back to her boss with a concrete proposal to realign individual and group goals based on new projections of performance.

There are very few goals written in stone, but a goal completely unwritten is a goal highly unlikely to be achieved. Next time, we'll explore some concrete methods for creating goals and plans that really work.

- Paula Roy, StaffingU Vice President of Learning & Development

Paula Roy is a recognized expert in behavioral interviewing and in developing comprehensive selection strategies. Using a comprehensive project management system, Paula has developed the productivity and effectiveness of sales teams, project teams, and executives. She earned her degree in communication and management and has completed extensive study and research in adult learning theory and methodology.