Goals vs. objectives: A simple breakdown for leaders

Does your company need goals to grow?

The short answer to this question is yes. Absolutely. But, here’s the kicker: some of us really stink at conceptualizing, defining, and setting goals for our company’s growth and continued improvement. Sure, there are tons of resources out there to help you figure out what your goals should be, but many of those only lead to more confusion by mixing up the concept of goals with the concept of objectives. To us, the two are (and should be) very separate and distinct entities, which we will get into in this post.

So, what’s the difference between goals and objectives?

One of the most important distinctions you can make in business is between your goals and your objectives. Business goals are the why and what you want to achieve – your vision for the future, whereas objectives are how you plan on achieving them. 

Goals are the higher-level vision of where you want to be, the big picture. Your business goals are aspirational and are never really truly accomplished. As such, they are not easily measured since they’re based on a higher vision or desire that you wish to accomplish. For example, you want to leave the world a better place by the actions of your organization. That’s pretty difficult to measure, right? And how do you know when you are done?

Objectives are measurable activities that drive day-to-day tasks with delineated outcomes that allow you to evaluate whether you’re making strides toward or away from achieving your company’s goals.

Your job is to ensure that your objectives are in line with the goal. In other words, the what and the how are tied together. Your bigger job is also to ensure that everyone in your organization is clear on what the goals are for the company so that they can inform how to achieve them. 

Why SMART can lead us astray

To begin with, the very phrase “SMART goal” is a bit of a misnomer. These are really your “SMART objectives” – the measurable activities that will help your company move towards its overarching goals. SMART objectives can be exceptionally beneficial if and only if you have a clear vision of where you’re trying to go.

SMART is an acronym that is designed to help you outline objectives that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based. This is a simple and effective way of making progress. However, without a goal to guide them, they can lead you to make progress in the wrong direction! Without a goal to help the organization keep its head up and focused on what you’re trying to accomplish, you may not realize that your measurable progress is actually moving you away from your goal. We certainly acknowledge that there is a great benefit to the concept of SMART objectives. However, they need to be closely tied to your goals. Otherwise, they can quickly create “dumb progress.”

Objectives that don’t help you meet goals

As mentioned earlier, you want to focus on measurable outcomes to accurately gauge if you’re making progress toward achieving a goal. 

A good example of this is when a manager or leader aims to improve employee engagement and a sense of well-being. Now, that’s a good goal. However, how you go about achieving it could be where you falter.

Maybe you notice that your workspace is starting to look a little tired or run down, so you think that a fresh coat of paint in the breakroom would improve the look of the place and, thus, boost employee morale. So, you spend time searching for and selecting paint colors and shopping around for the best bargain. Then you spend the time and money finding someone to do the painting for you.

At the end of the day, you’ve got a freshly painted space that half of your employees still think is ugly, and you have no way of measuring if this was an effective step toward achieving your goal of boosting employee morale. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.

If your goals for the company aren’t crystal clear, it can lead you to execute objectives and action steps that are ineffective. This not only wastes your time by having you turning in circles and blindly trying almost any idea or task, but it also wastes money and can lead to frustration and a further muddying of your vision.

Conflicting objectives

Another thing that can hinder the progress towards your goals is conflicting objectives between teams or team members. We see this quite frequently in larger companies that struggle with clear communication of expectations. 

Let’s say you have two teams working together towards a common goal of improving quality standards. One team is being measured on the speed of this process, but the other team is being measured on its accuracy. 

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that speed and accuracy could easily become conflicting metrics that may not match up. And, of course, when they don’t, this leads to an inevitable breakdown in the system that leads to frustration, disengaged employees, a tension-filled work environment, and a failure to achieve the original goal. No one wants that! Not you, and certainly not your employees.

Understand your role as the leader

Yet another challenge when it comes to achieving your goals for your company can be understanding your true role as the captain of the ship and how to effectively steer it safely into port. 

Your leadership values and behaviors speak volumes to your organization when it comes to priorities and integrity. Conveniently enough, we discuss that at length in a separate blog post: “Leadership Behaviors That Build Success.” Check it out to learn more about that concept and how walking your talk can boost employee engagement and help you achieve your goals more easily by creating an engaged and loyal band of followers. 

Ultimately, one of your toughest jobs as an effective leader is going to be relaying a crystal clear set of well-defined goals to your organization and making sure that all of your employees are on the same page and share the same values. When you have people with values that are at odds with yours and your company’s, it can stymie growth and engagement very quickly.

How do you know that your objectives will achieve your goals?

That’s usually the crux of the problem for a lot of leaders and managers. You don’t know if the objectives you’ve outlined will provide measurable progress toward your goals.

That’s where we come in. We have seen great examples of companies struggling to achieve their goals, usually because they’re focused on the wrong thing. For example, maybe you want to have the goal of creating high-quality client delivery and experiences. Still, you’re solely focused on profits/margins/utilizations, so you do not see the results you want. 

This is where having an outside third party to help you see the shortcomings in your approach can be of immense value. We can help you steer your daily conversations away from solely focusing on the numbers and more towards how you and your entire organization can provide additional value to your clients if that’s what you need. 

Essentially, we are here to provide our expertise to help you figure out your best goals and align your objectives and action steps to accomplish those goals properly and efficiently. 

Call us or reach out to schedule your risk-free consultation to learn more about how we can help you move from good to great.

Why wait? If you haven’t gotten diamond-like clarity on your vision for your company by yourself, what have you got to lose (other than revenue, growth, and employee engagement)? Don’t go it alone if you don’t have to.


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