From the January 2003 issue of Startups

The year was 1966, and I had just completed my enlistment in the Marine Corps and was looking for a job, any job. A friend recommended a company that might be hiring part-time employees, so I applied. The application has all faded from memory, except for one question: How much money do you want to be earning in five years? Even though the starting pay for this job was only $1.60 an hour, I wrote down $50,000 a year as my goal. Now that was, I was certain at the time, more money than anyone in my family earned in a lifetime; I figured it was an amount I could live with.

It took a lot longer than five years for me to earn $50,000 a year, but I've been setting goals for myself ever since. And I've encouraged many others to do the same. Certainly I work with my own employees to help them set goals that are meaningful to them and to our company. But many young people I know ask me about starting their own businesses, and pretty soon the conversation turns to goals. Why set them, and how to set them?

Once we get past the reason they want to start a business, we can discuss the goals or targets they might want to shoot for. I want them to have a burning desire to go into business for themselves. I don't care if their reasons make any sense to me, as long as I'm convinced they really are entrepreneurial material. When we talk about goals, I let them know why I consider them to be so important. Quite often we hear that we need goals as a measuring stick; this is certainly true. But, in my opinion, the most important reason for setting goals is the feeling of accomplishment and renewal one gets when a goal is achieved. Reaching even a single seemingly unachievable goal gives us the drive to set additional goals--and the second time we set a goal, we give it much more thought than we gave the first goal.

Goals come in many varieties: business, family and spiritual, to name a few. At one company I work with, there is one salesman. He receives a commission based on all company sales even if he had no hand in a particular sale, so he never has to worry about losing commission if he's at another client's or on vacation. However, the structure of his commission is such that no matter what profit is generated by a job, his commission rate is the same. As a consequence, he tends to sell large jobs that put stress on the company's manpower capacities. This particular company would rather have, for their own reasons, 10 smaller jobs than one large one.

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So, next year, they are planning to work with the salesman to set more specific goals. They will probably develop a commission schedule that will generate more income for the salesman if he sells more of those smaller jobs. Not that they want fewer large jobs. But they want more smaller jobs because, for them, those smaller jobs create the manpower pool that allows them to handle larger jobs with less stress and fewer problems, resulting in a higher profit.

It would be great if we could just wave a wand, set a goal and achieve it. The real world has a way of putting up unforeseen roadblocks. So when the company works with its salesman to set new goals for next year, it will have to make sure the goals are achievable and help the salesman reach them. Now, when I say achievable, I don't mean easy. The salesman, just like everyone else in the company, will have to stretch to make it happen.

To summarize the seven-step procedure I like to follow for setting and achieving goals:

  • Identify the goal.
  • Review the goal. Is it necessary? Is it achievable? If, realistically, the goal is not achievable, you will have created more problems than had you not set any goal. What hurdles need to be overcome? What are the downsides?
  • Discuss and refine the goal with everyone involved. Insist that those performing the work are fully committed by accepting every reasonable suggestion or idea they have to offer.
  • Put in place every asset that will contribute to its success.
  • Periodically and regularly review the status, make adjustments if necessary.
  • Celebrate the goal's ultimate achievement.
  • Analyze why the goal was or was not met.

Don't despair if you don't achieve every goal. No one is successful 100 percent of the time. Just be sure you know why you did or did not achieve it. Each time you set and work toward a goal, you will gain greater self-confidence, and your victories will far exceed your defeats.


Rod Walsh and Dan Carrison are the founding partners of Semper Fi Consulting in Sherman Oaks, California and the authors of Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way