The science of achieving goals

People set goals all the time, but the ma­jority end up unfulfilled or abandoned. Mark Murphy, founder and CEO of Leadership IQ and author of Hard Goals, talks to us about the secret to getting from where you are to where you want to be.

EL: What’s the biggest mistake people make in setting goals?

Murphy: Thinking that goal setting is as simple as picking a number. People may write down the job they want or the money they want to save, and they believe that just by writing it down, it will magically happen.

EL: What if you’re the leader tasked with helping the company achieve a goal?

Murphy: A litmus test for goals is: Have you given people a reason to care about this goal? There has to be a heartfelt, emotional attachment. It’s not going to be enough to say, “Do it because I told you to do it.” It sounds idiot simple, but the more you care about a cause, the more you’ll ­exert for that cause.

Tough Talks D

EL: Can you give an example of a company that was able to create that sort of caring?

Murphy: A financial services company I consulted with had a call center that was notorious for churn and burn—a Cubeville, where no one seemed to care. They were doing a terrible job of dis­tinguishing between the needs of customers at different ends of the life cycle.

So we asked them to start doing something at weekly staff meetings. Employees were asked to talk about a customer for five minutes. “This is Bob, he’s 72, here’s what’s going on in his life …” Customers were shunted to a regular representative, so reps were able to learn what made them tick.

Then we asked employees to consider, for each customer, “How is this person like you or someone you know?” So they could start thinking, “Bob is a lot like my grandfather. OK, I care 10% more than I did 20 minutes ago. By virtue of that, I’m willing to go that extra step and be less irritated when Bob calls four days in a row.”

All of a sudden, these employees had a reason to care.

EL: What else is important when you’re asking a team to work toward a goal?

Murphy: Visualizations are motivating.

I gave a talk recently to 1,000 salespeople, and about 200 of them had just found out that they’d hit their stretch numbers and had won a much-promoted trip to the Cayman Islands.

I said, “For the 200 of you who made the goal, how many of you had a picture of the Cayman Islands hanging in your cubicle for the past few months?” Of the 200, about 180 hands went up. Then I said, “For the rest of you, how many had a picture of Caymans hanging up?” About 20 hands went up.

Everybody knew the stretch goal. But some people had spent 200 workdays star­ing at a picture of the Cayman Islands, and searing it into their brains. It’s what helped them make one extra call every day and push themselves over the line.  

EL: Are you saying leaders need to help their teams visualize a goal?

Murphy: Leaders need to make folks aware that visualization will help. There are companies, like 800-GOT-JUNK, that go the vision board route. In other cases, a manager might say to his team, “Here’s my visual.”

The problem is that employees are often left to their own devices. If you want buy-in, you have to provide some resources. Creating the visual is a means to an end. The end is that you have people who truly care about the goal and who will drip sweat to achieve it.