Rachael Gacs, Resources Manager, Forum Strategy and Editor of #TrustLeaders Magazine

“Directing attention toward where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership.”

― Daniel Goleman, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

Life, we’re told, is full of choices; and that has never been truer than in 2020. In today’s world, CEOs and their organisations can be readily overwhelmed by a raft of new agendas, priorities and ideas coming at them from all angles. The pressure to address technological change, the sustainability agenda, and meeting the growing expectations of regulators, amongst other things, brings opportunity, but also growing demands on executives. Demanding or undisciplined boards can also add to the pressure.

CEOs only have a finite amount of time and using that precious time wisely and strategically (rather than reactively), can be the difference between success and failure. That is why diligent goal setting matters. As a Chief Executive, goal setting is unlikely to be new territory for you. Goals are, of course, essential for the success of any organisation, and for every individual within it. This is because they guide our focus, trigger and mobilise our behaviour, sustain our momentum, and ultimately (we hope!), bring about our most desired results [1].

Yet, the problem for many Chief Executives is not a lack of goals, rather it is having too many of them! Research tells us that what sets the best CEOs apart from the merely average is the number of goals and priorities they have. According to Mark Helow, founder of ‘The CEO Project’: “The top CEOs spend a lot of their time on a few things. They spend more than half their time on what they determine as their three top priorities. Contrast this with as average CEO who will spend time on a whole myriad of priorities and never gets to many of them. This ability to focus is one of the key things that sets top CEOs apart. They will focus on a small number of priorities at one time – they will not give up and they not get distracted.”

“CEOs only have a finite amount of time and using that precious time wisely and strategically (rather than reactively), can be the difference between success and failure.”

Don’t confuse goals with tasks

Some CEOs – like others – use ‘to do lists’ and employ great executive assistants as a way of staying organised. This is good practice; however, this focus on short term tasks should not be confused with goal setting. In an experiment cited by authors Baumeister and Tierney, researchers monitored college students to improve their skills at studying. One group “was instructed to make daily plans for what, where and when to study. Another made similar plans, only month by month instead of day by day. And a third group, the controls, did not make plans.”

It transpired that the monthly planning group did best in terms of improvements in study habits and attitudes – and, a year on, the monthly planning group were getting better grades whilst the daily planners had largely abandoned their planning.

Unlike daily tasks, longer term goals provide the space for flexibility and adapting to circumstances as they arise. They are also likely to be far more ambitious and inspiring, generating the desired focus and momentum – as well as enjoyment of work! The trick then is for CEOs to be able to justify their daily tasks, meetings and actions against those bigger goals.

Prioritising and limiting goals

The word ‘limited’ can sometime have undesirable connotations, but in this context, limitation = greater focus, and greater focus = a much greater likelihood of success. There will always be a large number of goals that ambitious boards and their executives would like to achieve. Research by Emmons and King shows that pursuing too many goals at once is, unfortunately, a recipe for divided focus, stress, and frustration; and it will most likely yield mixed results at best. We need to avoid this at a time when, generally speaking, CEO turnover is at unprecedented levels.

Limitation will mean shelving some of the things you would ideally like to achieve. That’s no easy task – choosing not to do something can be a big decision in itself, and requires great discipline from CEOs (and the backing of their boards). However, the pay-off is that this technique will increase the likelihood of your success in the areas that are strategically most important for you and your organisation right now.

Indeed, Ray Dalio tells us: “It is essential when you approach this process to do so in a clearheaded, rational way, looking down on yourself and the organisation from a higher level and being ruthlessly honest.” CEOs must give themselves the time and space to do this.

Tip!: It may even be possible for you to identify what is known as a ‘keystone goal’; a single goal that, if accomplished, will make everything else easier or more attainable [2].

“choosing not to do something can be a big decision in itself, and requires great discipline from CEOs”

How to identify the most important goals

Your most important goals should correspond to the most significant matters and issues currently being faced within your organisation. Ask yourself, what change would lead to the most essential and significant progress, and yield the greatest returns? Also ask, are there any key challenges that are currently holding the organisation back?

It is often difficult to think about and confront our greatest challenges; it may induce feelings of anxiety, or even cause you to feel overwhelmed, but don’t let these temporary feelings win. Ignoring the most significant challenges will only result in these feelings becoming all the more intense, as the problem will undoubtedly escalate over time if it remains overlooked or disregarded. It will then become an even greater challenge to resolve.

Remember that within the greatest problems lie the greatest opportunities, and ultimately, the greatest rewards.

Visible Progress

Limiting your goals not only increases the rate of progress, but also helps that progress to become much more visible and apparent. When you set a large number of goals, the incremental progress made in each area can be difficult to spot. However, when pursuing a select few goals, the attainment of key milestones in progress will be much more frequent, and also easier to identify.

One thing we encourage boards to do, with encouragement from their CEOs, is to ensure that CEO performance management reflects the need for a small number of goals and focused metrics of success. This ensures that CEOs remain ‘on track’, and that the board can be confident in monitoring progress.

This will help to keep levels of motivation high throughout the process.

Knowing when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’

Warren Buffet famously said “successful people say ‘no’ far more often that they say ‘yes’.” It is a common occurrence for Chief Executives to find themselves saying ‘yes’ much more frequently than they should, and then subsequently becoming snowed under with tasks! This can be especially problematic if the tasks you find yourself completing are not the most productive use of your time.

When you are focussed on achieving two or three key goals, it becomes much easier to discern what tasks will support these goals, and which will not, and to say ‘no’ to those tasks which will not. You will then be able to focus much more easily on the things that really matter, by only saying ‘yes’ to those tasks that are genuinely vital to attaining your most important goals.

Don’t be afraid to think big

While it is important to limit your goals in number, that by no means entails limiting their ambition. Don’t be afraid to think big. If you are setting goals which you know that you, or your organisation, can easily achieve, you are probably setting the bar too low, and should take some time to think about how to make your goals bolder.

Make sure that your goals are ambitious, and always have high expectations of what can be achieved.

Rachael Gacs is Resources Manager at Forum Strategy and Editor of #TrustLeaders Magazine

Forum Strategy delivers the #BeingTheCEO programme and the #TrustLeaders network.

[1] Forbes 2017

[2] Harvard Business School