Please Don’t Make Me!: Why You Should Care about Setting Development Goals

It’s that time of year again. The fun of the holidays has come and gone and in the first few weeks of the New Year you’re flooded with renewed energy, renewed purpose…and renewed click-bait on how to maintain your New Year’s Resolutions.

You see articles entitled, “Four Easy Steps to Keep Your New Year’s Resolution,” on Facebook and LinkedIn, and you see photos of your friends lifting weights or running on the treadmill on Instagram and SnapChat. You even hear morning talk show and radio hosts offering segments on how to make sure that you stay with your goals.

And while all this content is meant to be inspiring and useful, the truth is that by now, we’ve heard it all before. The theme of starting fresh in January has become so cyclical that it has lost its edge. We have gotten used to the exercise of setting goals for ourselves at the start of the New Year, but we’ve also grown more complacent to when “life happens” and we miss, forget, or even drop the goals we set for ourselves. After all, if we don’t achieve our goals this year, then there’s always next year!

This pattern can prove especially true for young professionals. At first, second, or even third jobs, it is all-too-easy to put on blinders. We want to impress our managers, land a big sale, or develop a solution that will get the attention of senior executives. And while this focus is important, it can actually lead to neglecting the development of skills that will help you long-term in your career.

Chances are, you may have heard something like this before when your manager asked you to type-up your development goals for the new year. And, if you’re like me, you likely tuned it out and put off turning anything in, because they were far more important priorities on your desk.  So you got your project work done, and then eventually, after a lot of groaning and dawdling, you sent your manager a list of half-hearted goals to check the box. And then you don’t think about them again until your next year-end review.

So, what’s the point of this exercise? Does it really matter that I write down a list of goals? I work hard at my job and having to turn in a written list of goals at the start of the year feels kinda childish. Can’t I just have a discussion with my manager about what I need to improve on, and then move on?

Unfortunately, professional development isn’t that simple. While it may seem like a tedious or even unnecessary exercise (trust me. I fight it every year!), setting development goals and making strides to reach them will actually do more for a young professional’s career than just making a sale or solving a business need.  The key to successful goal setting, and the point that is often missed with early-mid career employees, is that it isn’t just the setting of the goals that’s important, it’s the measurable follow-through that sets a vision for the year ahead and helps us track our own professional growth.

And while that may seem obvious, goal development can become a pain point between young professionals and their managers. And so, in the spirit of the resolution season, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why young professionals can struggle with development goals and how we can bridge each communication gap.

Riding Solo: Development goals are not something that we can keep in the back of our minds as something we’ll get around to eventually. The truth is that if your goals aren’t top-of-mind, you’ll always find a way to put them off, or you’ll eventually neglect them altogether. And if you don’t involve others in the process of setting goals, then you’re only listening to your own opinion. And that likely won’t help you grow very much.

Your manager should be an equal partner in setting your development goals, and as tedious as finding time to type-up your goals may be, having a physical record to hold yourself accountable to is one of the easiest ways to help others keep you accountable as well.

Checking Out Instead of Checking In: One of the most common trends when young professionals are asked to think about their development goals is that they simply don’t do them. The truth is that writing down or typing up a laundry list of goals is not going to be an exciting task for everyone. And when a task isn’t an exciting or meaningful one, it gets put it off indefinitely or ignored. It’s a frustrating thing for managers to witness and it can easily make an early-career employee come across as arrogant or disinterested.

However the gap is rarely ever that young professionals are disinterested, they just haven’t been able to see the reason to buy into investing the time in the exercise. Just because setting development goals is a yearly exercise, doesn’t mean that it’s one that automatically resonates with everyone each year. Managers taking the time to check-in with their employees and actively collaborate on the goal setting process are far more likely to make that connection than if goals are treated as another handed down to-do.

Goal setting is a yearly journey and active participation from both young professionals and their manages will lead to far better results.

Setting Only Stretch Goals: Another common occurrence when young professional set their development goals is that they set too many unrealistic goals. Instead of spending time focusing on their own specific development needs or interests, many early-career folks make their goals about promotions or company revenue.

And while long-term goals can be part of a development conversation, setting a year-end goal solely on becoming a Senior Director by the end of your first year isn’t likely to do you much good. If you don’t achieve that goal you’ll be disappointed, and you’ll become frustrated when you don’t have any other measurements at your year-end review. Development goals are meant to be a full-picture of year long journey in a career, not just an end-point you may or may not reach.

Foundation Over Fluff: In addition to keeping goals relevant and collaborative, perhaps the most challenging part of setting goals for young professionals is learning how to critique ourselves in an impactful way. Development goals are not meant to be fluff pieces that your manager looks at once and then throws in a file somewhere.

Real development comes from setting goals that require a lot of self-reflection. And it can be hard to be honest with ourselves about where our professional gaps may be. Chances are, we even have a few blind spots. Setting goals of simply “improving in…” won’t lead to any meaningful development and certainly won’t paint the picture to managers of an employee who is open to and even eager to improve.

Goals have to set expectations that pull us in new directions and allow us to grow in a way that will be beneficial not just for our company or our manager, but for ourselves. And as tedious or daunting as the process may seem, in order to continue to develop as future leaders, we have to invest the time and effort into making sure that our development aligns with a business need as well as personal aims.