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Goal Setting

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It’s goal-setting season for companies and individuals alike, but not all goals are created equal. Some goals are far more likely to propel people into senior executive roles, and some goals are far more likely to turn average executives into legends.

In the study “ Are SMART Goals Dumb? ,” my firm Leadership IQ studied more than 16,000 people to discover what types of goals lead to breakthrough performance. And among the dozens of findings, here’s one that will immediately impact your career trajectory.

Top Executives Are 64% More Likely To Set Difficult Or Audacious Goals

What separates the people who become top executives from everyone else? Is it luck? Or talent? Or ambition? The answer varies based on the exact circumstances, but there’s one factor that seems to have a big impact, and it’s the extent to which someone sets really difficult goals vs. more achievable and realistic goals (e.g., SMART Goals).

As you can see in the chart below, when we analyze goal-setting behaviors by a person’s level in the organization, we discovered that 54% of top executives set difficult or audacious goals, while that was true for only 33% of frontline employees. In other words, top executives are about 64% more likely to set difficult or audacious goals.

Data from the study "Are SMART Goals Dumb"

Leadership IQ

Now, it’s no guarantee that setting difficult or audacious goals will propel someone into the senior executive ranks. But the linear relationship between one’s rung on the career ladder and difficult goals is striking. And for anyone interested in discovering the secrets to becoming a top executive, this is critical data.

Top Executives Are 91% More Likely To Enjoy Leaving Their Comfort Zone

It’s not just difficult goals that are strongly correlated with being a top executive. Using an online test called “ Do You Set HARD Goals or SMART Goals? ,” the study revealed that top executives are far more likely to enjoy learning new skills and leaving their comfort zone.

The 12,801 people who took the online test were asked to choose between the statements, “I don’t like to leave my comfort zone,” or, “I will leave my comfort zone on occasion,” or, “I like to leave my comfort zone.” And the data revealed that top executives are 91% more likely to enjoy leaving their comfort zone in pursuit of their goals.

There is a very strong linear relationship between how high a person ranks in the company and how much they are willing to leave their comfort zone in pursuit of their goals. Frontline employees and junior managers are more likely to enjoy the traditional status quo. By contrast, top executives are far more likely to enjoy leaving their comfort zone.

Steve Jobs And Elon Musk Set Really Difficult Goals

In a 1985 Playboy interview, Steve Jobs uttered his famous “dent in the universe” line. While his exact words have been misquoted countless times, what he actually said in reference to the types of people that Apple was hiring is still pretty difficult and audacious:

“At Apple, people are putting in 18-hour days. We attract a different type of person: a person who doesn’t want to wait five or ten years to have someone take a giant risk on him or her. Someone who really wants to get in a little over his head and make a little dent in the universe. We are aware that we are doing something significant. We are here at the beginning of it and were able to shape how it goes. Everyone here has the sense that right now is one of those moments when we are influencing the future.”

Imagine instead that Steve had said, “We’re working eighteen-hour days because we think that we can reduce the fees you pay at the ATM from three dollars to two dollars.” Does that statement rise to the level of making a little “dent in the universe?” Would that goal count as difficult and audacious? Probably not.

Elon Musk is considered by many people as one of Silicon Valley’s most adventurous entrepreneurs, and he exemplifies setting difficult goals and leaving his comfort zone. From building a superhighway to the Moon to colonizing Mars, Elon doesn’t set his sights on average goals. Tell him that something is a safe bet, and it’s a safe bet that he won’t want to do it. Blogging about Tesla’s founding, Elon wrote:

“I thought our chances of success were so low that I didn’t want to risk anyone’s funds in the beginning but my own. The list of successful car company startups is short. As of 2016, the number of American car companies that haven’t gone bankrupt is a grand total of two: Ford and Tesla. Starting a car company is idiotic and an electric car company is idiocy squared.”

It’s not everyone who will invest their own millions into an endeavor that has a strong track record of failure. But when you consider that Elon’s definition of success, then you begin to understand the drive to set difficult goals and leave his comfort zone.

Here’s How You Can Get Started

Name the most significant and meaningful accomplishments in your life. Achievements that may have been professional or personal, or whatever. For example: “When I started a new business,” or “The day I ran the Boston Marathon (and all the training that led up to it),” or “Standing in the starting gate at the Olympics,” or “That breakthrough product I invented,” or “When I nursed my sick child back to health,” or “When I got my college degree.” Remember, it’s no one’s call but yours to name the victories that have been the most important to you.

Now I want you to take whatever response you gave and ask yourself the following question; “Is my goal for 2021 as difficult and audacious as those goals were?”

If your 2021 goal passes the test, congratulations. But if it doesn’t, then make your goal more difficult and extend past your comfort zone a bit more. And remember that you’ve actually pursued and accomplished these types of difficult and audacious goals before.

Not all goals are created equal. Some goals are far more likely to propel people into senior executive roles, and some goals are far more likely to turn average executives into legends.

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