Whose Goal Is It Anyway?

Have you ever had your heart set on something, but when you got it you wondered what you were thinking? When coaching someone, I ask about their goals. Sometimes they tell me what they think their goals should be, but they’re not really what they want. What is it that they truly have their heart set on?
To identify true goals, I ask three questions based on a technique described by Lisa Marshall and Lucy Friedman in their book Smart Work:

• What is it you want or need?

• What will achieving it get you? Ask repeatedly until the real goal is uncovered.

• When you get what you want or need, what will you see and hear, and how will you feel?

I used this process with a senior manager at a large accounting firm. He told me his goal was to become a partner. Having coached many partnership-track leaders, I knew the requirements and what was expected to get there. I could have stopped there and begun coaching him on next steps, but something wasn’t ringing true about his goal, so I continued with the next question.

“What will becoming a partner in your firm get you?” I asked. My client said he would have more free time and more choice in the kind of work he would take on. Based on my experience with senior leaders, I knew that becoming a partner was not likely to give him what he wanted.True Goal

Repeating the second question, I asked what his goal of more free time would get him. He said he owned a small plane and in order to maintain his pilot’s license he needed to log a certain number of flights within a three-month period. During tax season the weather was conducive for flying but his workload wasn’t, and he worried he might lose his credentials. He thought becoming partner would free up time so he could continue flying.

I turned to the second part of his goal — having more choice in the work he did — and asked what he preferred to do. He gave an agonized look and said that doing individual and corporate taxes made him want to quit and move to an island. Unfortunately, that work constituted the bulk of his responsibilities. When he explained what he liked to do — merger and acquisition (M&A) work — his face lit up with a smile. He said he was especially skilled at combining two company’s assets and liabilities and producing balance sheets and income statements that fairly represented each. He loved the intellectual challenge of solving M&A puzzles and was his firm’s go-to person for that kind of work. Sadly, for him, it only accounted for 30 to 40 percent of his workload.True GoalI continued to drill down on the goals of being able to spend time flying and doing more M&A work: What would achieving those goals get him? The answer to both were obvious and required no further questioning: they would make him feel happy and satisfied.

True GoalMoving to the third question, I asked him to describe what life would be like — what he could see, hear, and feel — if he had more free time and could concentrate only on M&A work. He thought for a moment then said he envisioned working four days a week and being able to fly three days a week. At work he visualized difficult M&A balance sheets coming together, felt a sense of accomplishment, and heard his clients expressing their appreciation for his work. On the other days, when the weather was nice, he saw himself taxiing down an airport runway, heard the purr of the engine as he flew above the clouds, and felt a sense of peace and joy.

My client’s goals were finally clear, and he was surprised to realize they weren’t really about making partner. Now we could concentrate on how he could shift to a four-day workweek focused on M&A work that provided him enough income to support himself and his flying habit. Had I taken his initial goal at face value and not drilled deeper, he might be a partner today, still doing taxes, rarely flying, and continuing to dream about moving to an island.

This process of examining goals recently helped a colleague who was working for a consulting firm as a coach. She realized that she wanted to start her own business. Visualizing what her life would be like if she achieved her goal was so compelling that she couldn’t let it go. Within five months she had quit her job and started her own company and today is very happy and successful.

When you have a goal, dig deep to understand why that goal matters to you. Be intentional about your true desire. Once you have that clarity, imagine the final state: what you see, hear, and feel when you have achieved your goal. This exercise will help you identify specific steps to take to achieve the goal and will make the outcome real for you. If you imagine yourself as a successful business owner, your mind is open to that reality. And the more vividly you can imagine something, the more possible it can become in the real world.

The time you spend examining what you really want will pay off. Visualizing your goal allows you to put yourself in that reality and see if it is what you want. Don’t be disillusioned if you have to go through this process multiple times to identify your true goal. What we want isn’t always obvious; questioning assumptions and long-held notions will help focus energy in the right direction.True Goal