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8 reasons why executive teams fail to set productive goals

You’re CEO of a company that’s scaling fast. You’ve assembled a leadership team where everyone’s on top of their game. And yet you keep hitting obstacles. Maybe there aren’t enough hours in the day. The scale of the task is threatening to overwhelm you. You can’t see the wood for the trees.

What you need is structure. Part of this is setting goals. Goals are how you make progress. Yet, too often, executive teams have no system in place.  When we start coaching them, virtually none of our clients use goals.  So, they can’t be intuitive.

Goals are a central piece of the execution framework we use to guide our clients. They’re part of doing the work of the Rockefeller Habits.  If you implement them fully, there is no way you won’t get further than you’d hoped to get. No way at all. We’ve recently changed our brand promise to reflect this. We’re offering our clients an action-takers guarantee of money back if they don’t see any value from our coaching. This is how confident we are that you will reap the rewards if you do the work we suggest.

Where clients drop away from us, it’s because they weren’t prepared to stick at it.  We’ve never pretended it’s easy.  But unless you implement a rhythm of daily, weekly and monthly meetings, quarterly off-sites and a cascade of goals or OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), you’re unlikely to move forward. 

So, if productive goals are crucial to growth, why do executive teams fail to set them?

1. Accountability is uncomfortable

This is one of the biggest challenges.  It’s common for executive teams to be operating in silos. The CFO doesn’t feel it’s their job to tell the Sales Director how to run sales. The Head of Marketing doesn’t want more flack from the Sales Director. Even the people who feel they’re doing a good job don’t want more attention. There’s an unwritten rule of ‘swimming in your own lane’. 

As CEO, you may be stuck in the middle and acting as a bottleneck. You feel you should be holding people to account.  But in a high-performing team, it’s not the CEO’s job to do this. The team should hold each other to account collectively.  Peer pressure is way more potent than your wrath as CEO. 

Read Patrick Lencioni’s ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’.  It will tell you all you need to know about fake harmony in an executive team. Artificial harmony means there’s no healthy conflict. And if you don’t have conflict, you won’t have accountability. 

2. The Executive Team aren’t A-Players

Talent density is another fundamental factor.  Every member of your Executive team needs to be an A-Player.  What hope is there for the rest of your business if they’re not?  As CEO, you need to be obsessive about this.  Don’t tolerate poor behaviour. 

Spend time and effort assembling the right team around you.  Recognise that you may be an entrepreneurial CEO but structure and process aren’t your things. Your strengths lie elsewhere, so you need team members to support you.

Watch that people don’t play on your lack of process. If it’s not in your DNA to enforce goals and reporting, hire an Executive Assistant or Chief of Staff who can do this for you. Let them be the police officer. They can hold weekly meetings, drive agendas and ensure the rest of the team has updated the OKR tool. It takes persistence to build habits, which may not be your trait. Don’t set yourself up to fail.

3. Too many goals

Ah yes – prioritisation.  It’s so easy to talk about and so hard to put into practice.  Everyone’s busy, so how will they fit in even more? 

Work backwards.  Start with your longer-term BHAG.  Then work back to a three-to-five-year goal.  So what do you aim to achieve in the next 12 months to achieve this goal?  Break this down into quarters to work out the plan for the next 90 days. Then break this down by function and what each needs to get done.  Don’t forget the key results – how will you know when each objective has been achieved? 

One of the reasons we like OKRs is you set them as a team. You can work on these goals collectively and decide whether they’re reasonable.  I suggest teams think about t-shirt sizes – S, M, L and XL.  Maybe you only have the capacity for one XL goal in the next quarter.  That’s fine.  Better to do one thing well than three things poorly. Or maybe only one person in the team can make it happen.  If so, the rest of the team takes on their usual workload to give the goal complete focus

4. Everyone’s too busy

OKRs are about change. They need to be fitted in around BAU (Business As Usual). No wonder there’s resistance. People fling their arms in the air and say they’re too busy to do them.   

But your business will never scale if you don’t focus on change. Often the perception of being too busy is linked to something more fundamental. People misunderstand their role in life. They think their job is to get their team’s work done. But it isn’t. The job of a leader is to make themselves redundant. Again, we return to talent density.  The more A-Players you have in your teams, the more people can be coached instead of managed.

5. No sanction for underachievement

Let’s say you’ve introduced goals. At the end of 90 days, someone hasn’t made any progress. They’ve blustered, prevaricated and made excuses every week. What do you do? 

If there are no consequences, the whole thing will fall apart.  Either the team pulls together and works at their goals, or you give up and accept mediocrity. Make sure it’s clear. Whether it’s a demotion or loss of responsibility, there needs to be a consequence for lack of commitment. To be on your Executive Team, people must live up to high expectations.

6. No shared passion or purpose

From a neuroscience point of view, doing something new and challenging depletes your dopamine. It can make you f*cking miserable. To counteract this natural effect, the team needs a clear purpose that everyone can get behind.  Something that instils passion and excitement. 

Change is hard.  So as a team, you need to look five years into the future.  Share the excitement of this place you want to get to.  And commit to doing whatever’s necessary to take this journey together. 

Unfortunately, the early weeks and months will be the toughest.  Winston Churchill said, ‘When you’re going through hell, keep going’.  But unless something sustains you, you’ll want to stop the pain.  We tell our clients we’re going to make them consciously incompetent. They will be shit at this process until they start to turn a corner. So, they need a strong belief in what they’re trying to achieve. 

7. The benefits of goals are underestimated

As well as depleted dopamine when things get tough, people cannot envisage themselves in a future state.  They don’t know how it will feel when they get to the other side.  As a result, they underestimate the benefit of working towards goals. 

Often they think, ‘Why don’t we just get on and do the work?  It’s a waste of time debating where we want to end up.’  They fail to realise that the ROI of goals is enormous.  Research has shown that setting specific, measurable goals leads to an 18% increase in output value.  Projects are completed faster, teams feel happier, and there’s less need to hire new people.

8. Goals feel constricting

Sometimes, creative people might feel that goals are limiting their creativity. They prefer spontaneity.  Their reasoning? The industry’s too fluid for goals. They don’t want their options to be narrowed down. 

What these people fail to realise are the benefits of structure. And the fact that structure brings freedom. If you keep all options on the table, it can be stressful and overwhelming.

Look carefully at the performance of these creative people, and it doesn’t bear scrutiny. Their lack of structure leads to chaos. They might be successful as individual contributors.  But as leaders, their approach can be damaging. In our experience, they are often B-Players or even borderline Cs.  And there’s no awareness of the gulf in their performance.

Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here.

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