Lost and Found
I think it was Zig Ziglar who coined the phrase, “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” Planning is a critical component of any successful business. But what if planning and the setting of goals becomes a problem?
We create business plans, strategic plans, marketing plans, and action plans. And sometimes, in the midst of all our planning and goal setting, we lose our way.
Pursuing Goals without Direction
Recently, I was sitting with Diane (not her real name) who was describing her dissatisfaction with the way her life was going. Some of the decisions she found herself making were, by her own description, irresponsible. This hard-working and successful executive woman was making choices that were making her work much harder and held the potential to be harmful for her and for her organization. Even though she was aware of the implications, she could not stop herself from taking this self-destructive path.
Diane is one of the most organized people I have ever met, working at or near her capacity nearly all of the time. She obtained this skill through necessity when she was juggling a full-time job, family responsibilities and school all at the same time. When things got difficult, she worked even harder and always found a way to make it work. She has made great strides in her career by applying the lessons she learned along the way. Then a member of her family became seriously ill. She adjusted her time and directed her energy to meet this new crisis. The quality of her work did not initially suffer, and she still made time for her family. But she noticed that she was making decisions that were negatively affecting her on a personal level. And, although she was aware of the problem, that awareness was not changing her behavior. She also knew that she was emotionally exhausted and worried that it was beginning to affect her work. Trying harder was not working anymore.
As we explored the problem, I asked her to comment on the things she did to “play.” Where did she find fun in her life? Initially she could not think of anything – everything she did was work. Gradually, she noticed that even her “play” had become work for her. She did nothing without a goal in mind. She became very quiet at this point of our conversation, and I asked what she was thinking.
“I feel so lost,” she said.
She was responding to the needs of her work and her family but she lost herself in the process.
Is there an alternative way to do business?
In his book Leadership from the Inside Out (Executive Excellence Publishing, 2000), executive coach Kevin Cashman relates a story about a priest set in pre-revolutionary Russia. In this story the priest is confronted by a soldier who aimed his rifle and demanded,
"Who are you? Where are you going? Why are you going there?"
Unfazed, the priest responded "How much do they pay you?"
The soldier, surprised by his question, responded, "Twenty-five kopecks a month."
The priest paused and said, "I have a proposal for you. I'll pay you fifty kopeks each month if you stop me here every day and challenge me to respond to those same three questions."
Sometimes we confuse our pursuit of goals with having a direction. It is not that planning and goal-setting is wrong. It is an essential part of effective work. Goals are concrete and measurable. There is a sense of safety in tangible progress that can be assessed. But goals need to be in the service of something larger and more meaningful in both our personal and organizational life or we risk piling up accomplishments but losing ourselves in the process.
Goals that are disconnected from a meaningful purpose easily lead to job burnout. Talented and skillful workers are lost to organizations because their jobs do not bring real satisfaction. Some continue to hold the position and become "workaholics" but cannot generate any enthusiasm or creativity.
Where to begin
The priest in Kevin Cashman's story recognized the importance of asking three questions. He also recognizes that asking the questions must be done with regularity. Many organizations have spent time and energy creating a mission statement. When was the last time you looked at the mission statement, or thought about how your goals fit within it?
Who are you?
This question starts at a very personal level. What are my core values? What are the talents (inborn abilities) that I bring to the workplace? It expands to the organization. What is the mission of this organization? What does it contribute to the human community? This is a question of identity and it demands that the questioner look deeply.
Where are you going?
Suppose that you spend your life climbing the corporate ladder, and when you finally get to the top, you discover it was leaning against the wrong wall! It is easy to pursue activity that generates a sense of security, but much more difficult to pursue a path that leads to satisfaction. The path to satisfaction usually involves taking the risks necessary to be true to our talents and our values. This often conflicts with our need for security. We might need to let go of the need to be secure in order to be truly satisfied. This is a question of destiny and it demands that the questioner look to the future.
Why are you going there?
The answer to this question is a unique response from every individual (person or organization). I cannot set my direction and expect to achieve something meaningful by doing it because someone else did. There is a reason why an individual is drawn towards a specific career or an organization comes into existence. While the pressures of the day-to-day operations can obscure those reasons, it is important to re-connect to them. This is a question of purpose and it demands that the questioner returns to his or her roots.
The work that we do is a powerful aspect of our lives. It is more than a means to an end, it is also a means to express ourselves. If we lose sight of that, we are truly lost.
People in organizations are primarily looking for meaning in their work. But not many leaders act as though they believe that's what really motivates people. They think money motivates people. At the end of the day, people want to know they've done something meaningful.
- Bill George