The Secret to SMART Goal Setting—and Why It’s Crucial to Your Career Success

Pop quiz: What do you have in common with elite athletes and leaders at top organizations?

Answer: You’ve all got goals.  

No matter what field you’re in—finance, art, law, or science— chances are, you want to grow professionally; this could mean taking on more responsibilities, earning more money, or simply doing better, more fulfilling work. What sets the best people apart is that they excel at reaching those goals.

The key isn’t just willpower. No, after working with hundreds of clients to achieve their career goals, I know it is all about how they go about setting those goals in the first place—no matter how big or small. This is why I spend so much time with my clients up front, setting not just goals— but what George Doran termed—SMART goals. And you can, too. After all, regardless of job title, you’re the boss of you—and you decide the steps you take to get to where you want to be.

What Are SMART Goals?

SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

Saying “I need a better job” is not SMART goal setting (though it’s planting the seed for one!). It’s too vague, and it doesn’t tell you where to start or how to keep track of your progress; before you know it, weeks, months, and even years go by and you’re exactly in the same place you started. In contrast, SMART goal setting is a way to know exactly what you need to do, where, when, and how.  Ready to get SMART? Here’s what you need to know.

S is for specific. To make inroads into your career goal of “I need a better job,” you need to set a clear, specific path. A stronger, more specific, and actionable goal would be: “I want an executive-level job in an advertising firm in New York City by September 1, 2018, and I’ll apply to three jobs a month and invite two contacts in that field for coffee each week to get me closer to that goal.” See how those details place you immediately at the starting gate, primed for action? You’re positioned to put together a master list of firms to target and people to contact. The deadline also helps keep you on track—we’ll talk more, below, about how to use deadlines to optimize any goal you have.

M stands for measurable. You need a way to determine if your efforts are successful. This means you need a way to quantify your efforts week after week—which is why the actionable part of SMART goal setting (i.e. apply to X number of jobs, call Y number of people) is so crucial. Not only is this helpful from a practical standpoint—it lays out exactly what you need to do—it also provides an emotional lift. As the weeks go by, you see exactly what you’ve done—and the progress you’ve made.

A is for attainable. Here’s where you’ve got to be honest with yourself.  How feasible is it for you, in your current position and salary, to score an executive-level spot along with its monetary perks? To find out, do your research. For instance, if you’re a manager itching to be promoted to director, talk to a mentor in your field. If you don’t have a direct contact, search for people who you aspire to be on LinkedIn and take note of the paths they took. Better yet, be bold and reach out to them.  At a minimum, reach out to your connections (and their connections) and ask them about their career paths. Join a professional group. Make use of your college’s alumni network. Not everyone will respond, but that’s OK. Taking a risk—using all available tools— is key. You can also find salary intel on Glassdoor or ComparablyYou want to be realistic, but you also need to know your worth and avoid leaving money on the table. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with reaching for the stars— but, to get there, you may need to lay the groundwork with smaller goals first and use them as tools to achieve your ultimate career goal.

R is for relevant. If your career goals lack relevance to you or to the world at large, simply consider making adjustments. After all, jobs don’t exist in a vacuum, so you need to look at the big picture. First, jobs are affected by the economic climate, consumer trends, technology, and a swirl of other factors. So, for example, given the current disruption in the publishing industry, your dream of being an ad-sales exec for a glossy magazine may need to evolve into being one for a luxury-goods digital venture. Second, don’t forget the other (very important) aspects of your life!  If you value family time and you’ve got young children, then an ad-sales position that requires 80 percent of the time traveling may sound good on paper, but not when you’re stuck at the airport during your kid’s first piano recital.

T is for time-based. While this can overlap with “specific” and “measurable,” it’s also worth highlighting separately. Once you zero in on a deadline, you can work backwards on your calendar. For example, give yourself a task to end the week with and, for each day, break down the steps to get there. In our ad-exec example, our deadline is September 1. That may mean signing up for a spring-semester data-analytics course, so you’re ready to speak intelligently on the topic when you’re on an interview by May. Having a timetable for your career goals helps you stay on track, but if you find that you’re consistently missing your mark, don’t feel bad about adjusting it. The point of SMART goal setting is to make progress every week, even if you’re taking the smallest of steps.

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Photo Credit: Samuel Scrimshaw

So there you have it! The ABCs of SMART goal setting—exactly what high-power executives do to achieve and to keep achieving career success.

Looking for more advice on setting the right SMART goals specifically for you—or creating a happier work life overall by transforming your career? Click here to listen to my Career Boost Call:

The Biggest Mistake You Could Be Making That is Keeping You from Career Success

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