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3 Smarter Goal-Setting Tips to Achieve Your Objectives

Law Dept. Management Column
A major part of managing any legal department is managing the people that comprise it — creating an individualized development plan for each member of your team, undertaking efforts to implement and foster that plan, and evaluating the ultimate success or failure of your efforts at regular, periodic intervals. In fact, I’ve stressed in this very space the importance of developing and managing people as a way of retaining the talent you’ve amassed.

If you missed that piece, I encourage you to take a beat, avail yourself of the search function at the top of this page, and treat yourself. Although not required reading, it will improve my overall clickability score and perhaps convince the powers-that-be to increase my pay.

I kid, of course (and if you went back and read that piece, you’d probably understand why).

Despite the fact that it’s vital to talent retention, many of us fall short when it comes to people development — perhaps not failing outright, but certainly not doing all that we should be. Even then, I’d wager that most of what we do is carried out somewhat begrudgingly at the behest of the HR department, rather than as the result of our own internal processes and procedures.

Why? It’s certainly not that we don’t care to develop our people, or that we don’t value them. Rather, many of us are simply spending most of our days trying to survive — dealing with those day-to-day functional tasks that are necessary to keep the lights on and our clients out of hock (or prison). While those efforts may develop skills and support the company’s underlying operations, that type of inward focus leads to the neglect of efforts necessary to provide for the parallel advancement of personal and professional goals for ourselves and our team.

So, in an effort to build some forward momentum, the next two columns will offer some advice on two vital elements of professional development: goal setting and performance evaluations.

Goal-setting

Many of us are familiar with the notion of SMART goals — an approach that suggests that the goals you identify for your team should be specific, measurable, agreed-upon, realistic, and time-based. Many HR development professionals will tell you that this approach is a foolproof way to outline strategic initiatives for your team.

It might be a start, but I believe it’s only the first layer — simply meeting the criteria for each of the SMART elements is likely not enough. After identifying that SMART goal, ask yourself to consider its magnitude. Odds are, it’s a relatively broad-brush idea that would represent a significant step forward for the individual, team or company. If that’s even remotely true, you’ve focused too much on the macro and need to take a step back — consider what incremental victories must be achieved to accomplish it. Those smaller, more discrete and identifiable steps? Those are your goals to be assigned to your team.

"It’s what I’ll call a Wile E. Coyote gambit — aspirational and admirable, but unfortunately shortsighted and doomed from the outset."

Take for example “implementation of an effective compliance program.” While on its surface this appears to be an admirable goal, representing a considerable victory for any in-house legal department (and arguably supported by our acronym above), it’s what I’ll call a Wile E. Coyote gambit — aspirational and admirable, but unfortunately shortsighted and doomed from the outset.

Remember him? This Looney Tunes character devoted his many, many lives and apparently considerable financial resources to destroying his obsession — a relatively innocent Road Runner who, without much effort, managed to foil every one of the Coyote’s grand schemes and escape into the desert horizon.

The Coyote’s stated goal was to catch the Road Runner. Sounds simple enough: It’s specific (not just any Road Runner would do — it had to be that Road Runner), measurable, agreed-upon (well, in this case it was a unilateral goal, but we’ll count it), realistic (at least in cartoon terms), and time-based.

But as a goal on its own, it’s far too vast and unwieldy for our Acme-loyal antihero to apply individualized steps to achieve.

But as a goal on its own, it’s far too vast and unwieldy for our Acme-loyal antihero to apply individualized steps to achieve. His true objectives were broken down into each one of his individual plans which, although often poorly-executed, were typically quite well thought out (even if ultimately unsuccessful, often in hilariously painful ways). One such method was painting a tunnel on the side of a flat rock face, enticing the bird to run smack into it and rendering him unconscious, leaving the Coyote to collect him at his leisure. Another was quite literally strapping himself to an Acme-branded rocket while wearing roller skates and lighting the fuse, intent on keeping up with his speedy nemesis. Consider those objectives in the context of the SMART rubric — each of them fits much better (although we’re playing fast and loose with the term “realistic”), and still encompass the overall theme of the originally stated goal of capturing the bird.

Back to reality and our compliance program. Consider and list the potential approaches to achieving this goal. If it’s massive in its undertaking, much like the proverbial eating of the elephant, then consider how to break it down. Take it on, one bite at a time with the following steps:

  1. Oversee and coordinate expert review of company policies, and consider any gaps in coverage that necessitate modification of those — or adoption of new — policies.
  2. Assemble a compliance committee, and schedule regular meetings to facilitate interdisciplinary involvement in the compliance effort. 
  3. Develop an annual compliance certification program, pursuant to which company personnel should review and acknowledge their commitment to comply with the policies adopted by the company.
Each of these, although more granular and less sweeping than the overall objective, represent more attainable, realistic, and identifiable goals for your team.

Does this mean that larger-scale goals don’t have a place? Of course not, but save those for overall department or company-related objectives. Alternatively, these goals can be assigned to supervisory members of your team — in which case the expectation is that the identification and delegation of the smaller goals will be left for them to sort with their direct reports. This in and of itself will be a management-oriented goal for those supervisors to attain and, whether explicitly identified or not, will lead to their own development.

Once these goals are identified, presumably at the beginning of the year, set routine and periodic follow-up to track — and perhaps modify — progress. If the stated goal was too simply attained, broaden the scope. If it has proven too broad, drill down at least one more level as discussed above. These meetings should occur at regularly scheduled intervals, no less than every six months, so that there are no surprises in the evaluation of progress at the end of the year.

Speaking of segues, join me next month when we delve into the world of performance evaluations. How should you be judging your people (if it is you who should be judging them at all)? Moreover, how should that performance be rewarded? The answers just might surprise you.

Stay tuned!

About the Author

Carl J. PetersonCarl J. Peterson is the general counsel of Mid-Atlantic Business Unit at Titan America LLC.


The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.