How to Achieve Your Most Important Career Goals in a Fraction of the Usual Time
Plan like a CEO. Execute like a ninja.
How well do you set meaningful career goals (for yourself and others) AND execute on your plans effectively?
Are you satisfied with the professional progress you make every year — or do you feel stuck in the “same old”?
Do you work consistently on the two or three things that will help you advance in your career, or do you often find yourself “busy” or fighting unproductive behaviors?
If you are like most people (including myself), you’d probably admit that there is sometimes room for improvement in executing on your most important goals.
As a multipotentialite with a career in professional racing, a 3-time founder of businesses in Europe and Africa, and a 15-year career in investment banking, I learned first-hand the power of goal-setting combined with focused execution.
Today, I combine that experience with my training as a performance and career coach to help others achieve success.
In this article, I will describe my end-to-end methodology to define your most meaningful career goals, craft a realistic and actionable plan, and execute effectively—without relying on willpower. Instead, you’ll use proven processes, habits and routines to give you unstoppable momentum.
This methodology will help you define your goals, determine the high-impact actions to take, and then actually take those actions.
Direction and path are theoretical wins only. They’re necessary but not sufficient conditions for achieving our goals. We need to walk the talk. Welcome to “responsibility” territory.
In this article, I’ll exemplify the methodology using the example of a real investment banking coachee I’ve worked with, who I’ll call “Bob”.
Bob has been stuck at director level at a well-known global investment bank for some time now. He was comfortable in his role, but he is now approaching his 40’s. He feels his current contribution is not reflecting his true potential and he wants to gain clarity on where to go next and how to get there.
In this article, I’ll share the step-by-step process to define Bob’s true aspirations, craft a plan of action to trigger the promotion he’s seeking, and maximize his ability to execute at his peak.
This method will help you reach your goals faster than anything else I know—yet change and transformational insights don’t happen overnight. My example work with Bob happened over the course of a few months.
Define the Person You Want to Be, Rather Than Just Stating Goal Targets (The “Why”)
Why Setting Goals in Isolation Never Works
There is a big difference between deciding to “drop weight” vs. aiming to “become a stronger, leaner and healthier individual” and lose 5kg as a result. It matters to set your goals as a function of the person you want to become. This is the power of identity-based goals.
Note how different it feels to say “I want to write a book” as opposed to “I am a reliable writer who publishes one book per year”.
Identity definition forces a mindset shift, which in turn makes us adopt principles that become powerful behavior drivers. “Writing a book” is no longer a goal, but a result of who we want to become.
Goals alone aren’t behavior drivers. As Simon Sinek notes, it is worth starting with “why” before defining “what” and “how”.
Defining Our “Desired Self”
Our identity, however, is rarely made of a single dimension. We can count one identity (or one “desired self”) per each of our areas of responsibility in our lives. These may include our family, our work, our partner, our intellectual and spiritual growth, etc. We all have our own.
Writing Down Our Mission Statements to Design Our “Desired Self”
This a powerful practice made popular by Steven Covey and his best-selling “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. A mission statement is a sentence or a brief paragraph which sets out the key principles informing the person you aspire to be for each of the areas relevant to your life.
They need to answer questions like “What kind of professional do I want to be?” “How do I want my partner to feel about me?” “What value do I contribute, and to whom?” “What do I want my family and friends to see in me?”. The example above — “I am a reliable writer who publishes one book per year” — is a good mission statement for someone who wants to write.
Let’s look into our coachee, Bob, and his “work” mission statement:
After some introspection, Bob defined his professional mission statement as: “I am a respected thought leader in the industry and a driver of the transformation of the bank in the age of the fintech revolution.”
Let’s take a look at the process for getting to this kind of mission statement yourself.
Define Your Professional Mission Statement
Grab a pen and paper or fire up your favorite text editor and get started right now:
- Rate your professional situation 1 (not happy at all) to 5 (as happy as you could reasonably be).
- Based on that rating, consider what would need to change to make your professional life a solid 5/5? Be as detailed as possible.
- Re-phrase those necessary changes as a function of who you are. What person do you need to become for those changes in your professional life to occur?
- Define yourself in the present tense for each, as if you already had arrived at your “Desired You”—the “You” that can take your work life to a 5/5 rating. This is your “work” mission statement.
Your work mission statement should ideally contain the following ingredients:
- Present tense.
- Operating principles—the values that will rule our behaviour in the moment of truth, when you have a choice to act consistently — or not. They serve as criteria for making those choices.
- The value you create by putting those principles to work, or the expected outcome of you being that person.
We can revisit our previous statements for these ingredients: “I am [present tense] a reliable writer [“reliable” shapes identity as an operating principle, and “writer” refers to the intended behavior] who publishes one book per year [the value or expected outcome]”. That complies with this recipe.
Here’s Bob’s statement again: “I am [present tense] a respected [identity] thought leader in the industry and a driver [identity] of the transformation [expected outcome] of the bank in the age of the fintech revolution”.
Unpack Your Big Career Goal Into Smaller Actions (The “What”)
Having a sense of direction matters. But first we need to see a path.
This step is all about working back from your mission statement to create a goal, and to determine milestones and the specific actions that will get you there. In other words, this is how you define the path.
Determine the End Goal, Supported by Your Mission Statement
The end goal for your career is a tangible aspiration, but one you may have little direct control over (it does not entirely depend on you). It provides us with the necessary inspiration and direction, and has these qualities:
- It is linked to your purpose and “Desired Self”, as discussed above, which is represented by your mission statement.
- The time frame is long term (1–3 years).
- Most times it is a qualitative goal (not quantifiable).
Bob defined his end goal as “be promoted to managing director within the next 2 years”.
This end goal is driven by his mission statement— his big “why” — which is, as per above: “I am a respected industry “thought leader” and a driver of the transformation of the bank as we face the financial technology revolution.” This end goal is the tangible aspiration linked to his desired identity.
Note that this goal is not in Bob’s control—it requires someone to promote him. But it provides inspiration and direction for defining actions he can take to create a conducive environment for that to happen.
Set Measurable Milestones: A Scoreboard to Remind Yourself of What You Need to Deliver
These are also called “Performance Goals” or “Lag Measures”:
- They are the direct result of your actions. So when they occur, the performance that made them happen is in the past.
- They are quantifiable and specific (in essence, SMART goals).
- They tell you if you are winning or losing on your way to the end goal.
- The timeframe tends to be shorter, between 6 to 18 months.
Let’s take a look at Bob’s work performance goals, consistent with Bob’s end goal of being promoted to managing director:
To increase revenue accrued by my direct team by 30% in the next 12 months [first order of business is for Bob to get his job done];
To improve key ratings of my leadership skills benchmark survey (across several key pillars) from a current average reading of 3.5/5 to 4.5/5 in the next 9 to 12 months. [Bob won’t be promoted unless he starts “ranking” as a leader by peers, reports and line managers]; and
To secure the promotion of at least 80% of all of my team members eligible for promotion in the next 2 years [getting his people promoted will favor Bob’s own chances of being promoted].
These are milestones that Bob directly influences—that is, they are mostly a matter of his own diligence.
Note that it pays to apply all of our energy only a few tangible goals. Our capacity to apply intense focus is inverse to the number of areas to focus on. Setting 1–3 performance goals/milestones works best.
Determine the “High-Impact Actions” That Will Drive Your Career Goals Home
These High-Impact Actions (HIA), also called “Process Goals” or “Lead Measures”, determine performance. They need to meet the following conditions:
- They are predictive of the performance goal, the desired milestones.
- They are 100% within your control, depending entirely on your proactivity.
- The threshold for action should be placed at a low level. Stuff that is easy to comply with, week in and week out.
- They belong to a more tactical timeline: quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily.
- They can be turned into habits, routines and processes to minimize your dependence on willpower and ensure consistency. They must have a habitual quality: they need to be habits that can included (and repeated) as part of a weekly schedule.
Through our coaching, Bob defined a set of HIAs that he believes can best lead him to his performance goals (and by doing that, to his end goal).
They are a combination of quarterly/monthly/weekly high-impact, predictive actions, as follows (from Bob’s perspective):
* DOING MY JOB > To make at least 3 calls (per day) to existing clients and 3 meetings (per week) with new prospects, to scan for new business that may be coming up;
* SOURCING BUSINESS CREATIVELY > To schedule and run a bi-weekly call with senior colleagues of different divisions to bounce ideas on synergies, cross-selling opportunities, and to explore joint business proposals for clients;
* GETTING MY PEOPLE PROMOTED > To schedule 1 hour per week with each of my direct reports for coaching, troubleshooting, progress tracking and business guidance, and run quarterly off-site gatherings with my team to address strategy, execution and work dynamics;
* GAINING SUPPORT FOR MY PROMOTION> To travel to other regional offices at least once per quarter to develop relationships with other senior regional leaders;
* GROWING AS A LEADER > To keep a daily log on the opportunities I encounter through the day to practice my leadership skills with others (as described in my benchmark survey). In this journal, I will note the action taken at each of those opportunities and the supporting reason for that course of action. This favors self-awareness in the moment, and also allows for more profound behavioral insights/uncovering of blindspots once the events are reviewed in my coaching sessions; and
* USING MY TIME, ENERGY AND FOCUS EFFECTIVELY > To define daily and weekly schedules set in advance, focusing on priority tasks and allowing for the right combination of “deep work”, internal meetings, and client interactions, followed by end-of-day and end-of-week review sessions.
Try it Yourself! How to Unpack Your Mission Into Action
Time to go back to the mission statement you created earlier and continue!
- Determine and write out an end goal, and makes some notes about how it links to your mission statement and your sense of purpose. What do you want to accomplish in the next 1–3 years? Keep it simple: select just one aspiration/change/goal that would make the most difference to you today;
- What are the 1–3 performance goals or measurable milestones, over the next 6–18 months that will get you closer to that end goal? Remember, achieving these will confirm that you are making real progress. You need to pick performance goals you have some degree of influence on through your actions; and
- Drill down from these and determine the High-Impact Actions — to be implemented mostly weekly and daily — that depend entirely upon you and that have the most predictive power over the desired result? How can you set up processes or habits around these actions, or run them as part of your weekly schedule?
The next section is about executing on these High-Impact Actions. Execution is all about getting to the big things (Your end goal and the related performance goals) by a combination of smaller things that we can repeatedly do (High-Impact Actions).
However, before we go there, I want to say: if you are feeling overwhelmed by this process, don’t give up! In that case, just simplify further: if you had to choose one single action that you could be doing — but you are not currently doing — which would have the most impact in your professional life, what would that single action be? Start with that and build other high-impact activities on top of the previous one over time.
Focused Execution Is — Almost — Everything (The “How”)
As we already know, getting things done is never an “information problem”, but an “action problem”. Once we have decided the “why” and the “what”, we now need to decide “how” to apply our time, energy and focus to drive our goals home.
How Do You Actually Get Your High Impact Actions Done?
For over a decade now I have nurtured a “healthy” obsession for productivity, processes and efficiency applied to our professional performance. Today I share specific tactics that will maximize your professional output and help you bridge the gap between your goals and your daily actions.
Focus on Quarterly Plans Only
We know where we are heading (end goal) and we know how to get there (performance goals). Now we need to get moving towards the targets (High-Impact Actions or HIA). And to do that, adaptability and flexibility are paramount.
According to research from Bersin by Deloitte, “Organizations that have employees revise or review their goals quarterly or more frequently were three-and-a-half times more likely to score in the top 25% of business outcomes”.
My experience has been that after the 3-month mark, new information and new developments will force us to review our tactical actions—and may force us to reconsider our performance goals too.
This is the real world; the way to get to the end goal is dynamic and may change, and you will need to adapt. The classic “month-by-month infallible plan” can become obsolete very quickly. Life happens!
But more interestingly, adopting this laser-focus 90-day “sprinting” philosophy has other positive consequences. Shorter deadlines urge us to act now instead of giving us breathing space to “contemplate” our longer-term goals in the distance. More time means more risk of procrastination.
This is why this methodology helps you make progress faster: the goal-setting framework, combined with a 90-day narrow focus and a disciplined approach to your weekly calendar management (as we will see below), leads you to achieve your career goals in a fraction of the usual time.
It is worth asking ourselves Peter Thiel’s famous question: “How can you achieve your 10 year plan in the next 6 months?”
So to recap:
- Define your HIA for the quarter, with the available information at that time.
- When in doubt, choose the simpler set of options. Pareto’s 80/20 rule applies here as well. Most times there is one specific activity/action that will give you 80% of the leverage, and the others will consume energy but won’t have as much impact. It is not always easy to go simple (we tend to reject simple stuff, we like complexity!) but committing to a only a few HIAs may help reduce noise and increase focus.
- Focus on executing on those consistently and with intent (fine-tuning as we go on a weekly basis if required).
- Review your HIA plan and your performance goals at the end of the quarter, in light of any new information that may become available or any new events that may have developed.
I have applied this framework to my own goals and I keep surprising myself achieving some of my multi-year goals in just a few months. Intention and consistency, coupled with a tight timeframe, can do wonders.
Create a Regular Weekly Planning Routine
Set aside a regular time each week—preferably Sunday night or afternoon—and review what you need to do to push your goals forward. Block out the actual time to work on those goals as appointments on your calendar.
Setting a solid intention by calendaring your time is one of the most important execution tactics I ask of clients. Making these decisions in advance helps to cut down on procrastination during the week. (My next article will be an in-depth guide to doing this weekly planning.)
Cultivating “Themes” to Support Habit Formation: A Word on the Importance of Morning Rituals
One of the biggest lessons I have learnt over time is that mindset changes sustain behavior changes. Our circumstances are a reflection of the qualities and ambitions that we foster in our minds, therefore it is difficult to create a new behavior or habit if the mindset is still anchored in our “current self” and not already projected into our “desired self”.
An effective way to foster mindset changes is to cultivate a “theme” aligned with the person we want to become. As an example, simply embracing an ambition of “excellence” can radically transform our belief system. It will then, in turn, affect our informing principles, which will force us to act in ways that are consistent with the theme of excellence that we have cultivated in our mind.
In the case of Bob, my banker client, he gradually cultivated a theme of “seniority”, and a belief that he indeed belonged to the “Managing Director’s circle”. That, in turn, affected how he acted, and through the process he started to display behaviors that were consistent with that theme. He started acting as a Managing Director “to be”. Not only by investing in himself, but for the first time in his career, elevating others with him as he developed himself.
Only when our mindset is already traveling towards our goals do we adapt our behaviors to match that effort. This is why I normally spend some time on mindset, values and principles before moving to behavioral, performance or productivity considerations with my coachees.
These themes can be nurtured, for instance, through daily rituals. These are processes in which we feed the “right wolves” and “turn on all systems” to ensure alignment with our theme and the right level of performance through the day.
Cultivating a Theme: Try It Yourself!
As a practical example: Many of us wish to cultivate a “productivity” theme, so that we can grow a “proactive” mindset and inject more effectiveness and better execution into our everyday lives.
How can we do that?
There is plenty of literature out there on how morning routines can help us start the day with a can-do and productive attitude, the same way that a top athlete tunes up body and mind in the hours before a competition to perform at his best once the race starts.
Wake up a bit earlier in the morning. Build it progressively and in very small increments over time until you give yourself a 60–90 minute window to feed your brain and soul before opening your email and getting dragged into your day:
- Feed your attention: journaling in the morning is a great way to focus your attention, as it triggers the Reticular Activating System in your brain and prompts you into action. You may try the Morning Pages technique, by Julia Cameron. I actually nurtured my interest in coaching and personal development writing to myself about it in my morning pages, over a period of a few months.
- Feed your ambition: a few sentences outlining your affirmations and your end goals will go a long way. Taking some time to visualize yourself achieving your goals (and imagining how that feels) will fuel your determination. You may do this on paper, or as you meditate for as little as 10 minutes every morning.
- Feed your love for learning: read non-fiction quality content, just 20 minutes every morning. Not only you will go through dozens of books per year without even noticing (a decent goal in itself), but you will adopt an openness to acquiring knowledge that will prove very valuable work.
- Feed your resilience: a while ago I adopted Tim Ferris’ practice of 30 seconds of cold water as I finish my morning shower. It reminds me that I can get through uncomfortable things every day. It seems like a silly act on the surface, but this will help you develop stamina and resilience.
Key Consideration: Choose daily lifestyle options over life-changing transformations, start really small, and focus on consistency over anything else when you start.
Short term, you will feel the immediate rewards for completing tasks before your work day begins, releasing dopamine which will help with habit formation. You will get used to taking small, daily action towards your goals. This will create motivational momentum and will feed your productive spirit.
Longer term, you will be cultivating the right themes: proactivity, duty, excellence. Your new mindset will influence how you conduct yourself through the day.
As you implement these methods into your life, favor decent execution over perfect planning. Focus on the process. And if you fail to execute or stick to your plan, accept it, and get back to a “doing” mentality as quickly as possible. We cannot hope to perform at our peak with 100% consistency all the time. But we can catch ourselves and get back into action when that happens.
A lot of it is in your hands. More than you think.
Very quickly, you will feel more empowered to set meaningful goals and to follow with consistent action.
You can establish your true professional aspirations, define high-impact activities, implement the routines, track your progress and adapt as necessary. Leave as little as possible to luck, and luck will come to the rescue when needed.
Acceptance of this reality is key. It releases pressure and gives you the strength to correct course and come back to your systems, to acknowledge and reset. Because when working towards the person you want to be, progress is all there is—not perfection.
And what about Bob?
Was he promoted to managing director, his End Goal?
As much as I would like to say yes by now, the process is not finished yet. Bob’s promotion was a 2-year end goal. But we have good news: his last informal management review showed strong progress on all key fronts, and Bob is on track to achieve his performance goals for the year.
The fact that he is already shortlisted for the prize only a few months into his coaching program is a testimony to how his sharpened mindset, plus a renewed focused and consistent execution, are tilting the odds in his favor in a fraction of his original timeline.
Bob is making the words of James Allen his own: “The world steps aside for the man who knows where he is going”.