Communicating your career goals to your manager can feel like a daunting task.
Sometimes our career goals don’t align well with our current role, or they may conflict directly with other personal priorities, making it difficult to find clarity. We may want a promotion, but we don’t feel ready to talk about it. Or, we might feel pressure to inflate our goals in an effort to appear more motivated.
Regardless of what might be holding you back, the fact remains: goal setting (and goal sharing) is critical for career advancement, and it often leads to more work you actually want.
The mistake we most often make when sharing goals is thinking too broadly about the end game, that career success that lies in the far-off future (i.e., dreaming), rather than paying attention to the steps right in front of us that will get us there.
When we get stuck in a “dreaming” phase, our goals may feel intimidating, unclear, or impossible… and we can’t stay accountable in this state.
Using the acronym SMART, we can begin framing our goals in a way that will feel more actionable for both you and your number one advocate: your manager.
Specific (What do I want to improve?)
Whether you want to excel within your role, explore other roles, or seize that next promotion, you first need to ask yourself: what specific thing needs improvement?
Try to envision (with a practical mindset) why and to where you want to advance your career, and don’t get lost in a daydream along the way. Consider your dreams, yes, but make them feel tangible by zeroing in on the details and giving yourself a measure of success. Get down to the bones of what you want.
Maybe you’re interested in pivoting your career into a different department, as you dream of becoming an authority in a multitude of fields. Telling your manager, “I’d like to explore roles in other departments” doesn’t help you.
There are ways to make even exploring feel like a directive if you’re able to sandwich the action between crystal clear intentions.
When goal setting, be specific not only about where you’d like to pivot (even if you don’t have a finite answer just yet), but about the steps that will get you there.
Try telling her instead: “I’m really interested in exploring opportunities within [X] business units because of my passion for [Y]. What can I do to be considered for an opportunity like this when it arises? I’m also eager to meet people you know who have experience in this area.”
Effective goal setting keeps you accountable by identifying specific steps to act on.
Measurable (How will I know I’m successful?)
To achieve goals, you need to set a metric to hold yourself accountable.
This could take shape in many different ways, but the point is to create tangible, quantifiable benchmarks for your progress along the way.
Take your goal (for example: I want to start a new role) and think of the long, medium, and short game.
When do you want to be in the new role? For how long will you invest in your goal before you might consider reimagining it? What small steps will you take in the immediate future (and how often will you take them) that will keep you on track?
Setting checkpoints that demonstrate a measure of success toward your goal will help keep you motivated, and it will show your manager that you’re not just expecting her to drag you to where you want to be. On the contrary, you’re committed to your career advancement and want her to hold you accountable to it.
Instead of telling your manager, “I think I want to pivot,” try “My goal is to start a new role by the end of the year, which means I’ll be networking 2x – 3x per week for the next four months.”
Break down your plan (for yourself and for her). This makes the route to reaching your goal feel much more like climbing a ladder, and less like catching a hot air balloon.
Achievable (What steps can I take to get there?)
Along with your goal having clear benchmarks, you also have to consider how practical and attainable those benchmarks are.
You can set a hundred solid career goals that might sound great in theory, but unless they are reasonable for you at your unique stage of career development in your industry, you’ll never be able to leverage them in your best interest.
Not to mention, it takes a toll on you to set unfair expectations for yourself. If you let impossible goals linger over your head, it’s only going to slow your momentum and make you feel like a failure. And nobody has time for that.
Your manager especially does not want to hear these types of goals. They tell her that you’re not thinking realistically about your career growth, which doesn’t put her in a great position to help you.
Think about your endgame, yes, but then pedal back… What can you work toward today? This week? Every quarter?
Focus on these things first, knowing that this measure of success will serve a valuable part in getting you where you ultimately want to be.
Say you want to “pivot into a new role, with a promotion, in a new business unit.”
Kudos to you for setting your sights high, but is this goal realistic for right now?
Typically when we make a change from one role to another (Marketing to Engineering, for instance) it may be difficult to get a promotion. There will be a lot of intermediary steps before you can expect to move up in a whole new field, and not acknowledging those will only set you back.
Tell your manager instead why you want to pivot into a new business unit, and how you’re going to begin working today to be sure you excel just as much there as you do in your current role.
Which brings us to the next SMART tip…
Relevant (Does my goal relate to my passions?)
What is the why behind your goal? In order for career goals to be effective, they must be driven by something you’re passionate about.
Your career advancement shouldn’t just be about claiming a higher salary or a more senior title. It should be about maximizing your sense of fulfillment. Every goal you set should be rooted by this one crucial end.
Just as well, it’s equally important to relay your career goals in these terms. If you don’t, they might come off as generic or insincere: i.e., I haven’t really thought about my career but I figure doing this could get me somewhere impressive.
For example, don’t tell your manager: “I want to connect with two colleagues outside of my department because I heard networking is really important.”
Do tell her: “I want to connect with two colleagues from Marketing each week because I realized I’m passionate about sales and communication.”
Vague goals aren’t attractive to decision-makers. Goals that tell them something about your personal brand… now those will get attention.
Timeline (When will I reach my target?)
Always hold yourself accountable by setting a target deadline to reach your career goals.
Just think about all of the things you’ve procrastinated on in your life that you never would have completed if you didn’t have the clock working against you. The pressure of a timeline is a tried and true motivator.
The beauty of this timeline? You get to decide the terms. And, when you crush your goal before your target date, you see personal, immediate rewards.
Without the element of time, your goal might sit on your To-Do list for months or even years. By shying away from setting deadlines, you’re also not giving your manager a clear timeline for checking in on you in terms of professional progress.
On the flip side, if you both know your timeline and you commit to staying ahead of it, this tells your manager that you:
Know yourself and your capacities well
Are organized, realistic, and practical
Are reliable and driven
This goes for every stage of goal setting. Whether you want to achieve something in the next year or the next month, set that date, stick to it, and don’t be afraid to declare it.
Go Get SMART
Take some time to sit down and create a short list of clear, attainable SMART goals. Think critically, but don’t worry about setting anything in stone just yet. You can, and should, update this list over time.
Maybe you set your first list of goals for the quarter. At the end of the fourteen or so weeks, assess what worked, what didn’t, and whether there are new goals you’d like to set for the next period, or even for further down the line.
And before you start brainstorming…
Goal setting should be be actionable and work you towards a larger dream. (“Become CEO” is a dream; “I want one leadership position this quarter” is a goal.) But no matter the short (or long) game to achieving success, always keep your passions in full view.