April 2022

Aligning and Accomplishing Goals

by Kevin Boyd

Several years ago, I was a second-tier leader in a consulting company that provided training solutions for customers implementing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) applications. One of my new hires was an experienced technical writer who had previously specialized in scientific documentation. Because of his previous experience I placed him on the team of one of my newer first-tier leaders. On his first project with us, it became clear that he was struggling. As I considered how to best support him, several questions arose in my mind:

For this article, I'll call the new hire Steve. He had both Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Biology. He was older than most of his peers, having been in the workforce for a couple of decades. This was the first time his Team Leader, who I'll call Joan, had been in a leadership role.

As Steve began working. He had difficulty understanding the ERP system, learning the system tasks, and achieving the project deliverable deadlines. Typical deliverables consisted of PowerPoint presentations explaining how the system worked, step-by-step work instructions, and often an exercise to practice a transaction in a live training system. It was a common practice for our people to work in project teams, led by a Project Manager who was often different than the team members' Team Leader. That was the case with Steve. His Project Manager was not Joan, his Team Leader. When Joan received the less-than-glowing project performance evaluation from the Project Manager, she came immediately to me to talk about what we should do.

Being a relatively new Team Leader, she was at a loss. Should we consider letting Steve go? If not, what could we do that would both provide the support he needs to succeed while not endangering completion of the project? Our company had a strong performance culture and a bias toward doing whatever was necessary to help our team members succeed. We had well-defined processes for performance management which included Performance Improvement Plans. Joan and I decided we would place Steve on one of those plans.

Everything we did in the company was focused on customer projects and excellent delivery performance. The heart of the plan was defining and monitoring clearly-defined goals that not only addressed the individual's performance deficit, but also contributed toward completion of a project's deliverables. In addition, the goals were required to be SMART: Specific; Measurable; Agreed-Upon; Realistic; Trackable. Once the goals of the Performance Improvement Plan were created, they would be reviewed by the HR Manager and my Department Director to ensure they met all the required criteria.

Joan and I developed the plan together. I used it as an opportunity to coach her on creating SMART goals. We developed about five SMART goals that met the primary criteria listed earlier. The difference this time was the project was one in which Joan and I managed. That way we could monitor Steve's progress to achievement as closely as necessary. Each goal had interim and final KPIs to help monitor Steve's progress.

Steve completed the plan successfully. He applied what he had learned to subsequent projects, becoming a valued technical writer, and eventually a Project Manager and Team Leader himself. Joan applied her lessons learned from the experience, rising to increased levels of leadership responsibility to become one of our Vice Presidents. The power of well-crafted goals and determined leadership support can't be underestimated.