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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

The Management Lessons I Learned From a Road Trip

A few years ago, my friend Samantha was making a life-changing move across the country, and I signed on to ride shotgun from Chicago to Portland.

A cross-country trip with a good friend—sounds fun, right? But, does it sound like a management metaphor?

Turns out, it was.

Think about it: If you were heading out on a road trip, you’d plot your course and schedule, identify landmarks, and keep the trip on track and on time. And as a new manager, one of your many roles is just that: You set goals—both long-term and short, and you make sure your team members make progress toward them.

Here’s what I learned about goal setting and management, inspired by our road trip.

Plot Your Course

Samantha’s road trip wasn’t just a few days of cross-country driving, it had an overall goal: “Drive to Portland in four days, and arrive safely.” Each day, we had specific cities or landmarks we wanted to reach in order to stay on track for the whole trip.

Similarly, the reason managers set goals—rather than simply assigning duties—is because goals give us points of focus. Like stops on a map en route to a destination, they tell us what we should work toward, and how, in order to be successful.

I’ve found a particular tool to be useful in setting goals: the SMART framework. It dictates that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. For example, instead of telling a team member to “be responsive to clients,” it’s more effective to give her a goal like “within 24 hours of an inquiry, provide a complete, accurate responses, without typos, slang, or jargon,” or “positively resolve 100% of client issues within two days of receiving an inquiry.”

By outlining that extra level of specifics, everyone can share the same understanding of what it means to “be responsive.” This clarity will also help you to evaluate people’s performance: When a goal meets the SMART criteria, you can answer whether it’s been met with a simple yes or no.

Build in Checkpoints

Our road trip had a map, checkpoints, and timelines. So should you. All too often, managers get pulled into a rush of activity right before annual performance reviews. But this is actually the worst time to talk about goals.

The best time? All the time.

Set goals with your employees early in the year, then discuss them regularly, year round. Make sure everyone is staying on course. You should be systematic, setting and tracking deadlines for goals at specific intervals, but you can also use informal occasions—team meetings, one-on-ones, and impromptu hallway chats—as checkpoints.

Regular touch points allow you to celebrate when team members hit their goals—at the time that it happens—or redirect their focus when necessary. You’ll learn quickly when people need your help, and you’ll build relationships, too.

Plus, when you integrate performance into your ongoing discussions, no one will be caught blind-sided by a project that’s wandered off course, and your year-end reviews can focus on wins, not on what wasn’t accomplished.

Change Course if You Need To

At the same time, keep in mind that goals—both high level business goals, and day-to-day employee goals—often change. You could have new pressure from a competitor. You could win some new business, and all of a sudden everyone will have more work to do. You could get a new CEO, with a new set of priorities.

This is OK. In fact, prepare for it. Just be sure to bring your people into the conversation. It won’t only keep them informed and bought into what’s going on, it will give all of you the opportunity to create solutions together.

Our second day on the road, a furious storm forced us to stop early. After finding a motel, we regrouped and looked at the map—we had lost a lot of ground. So we changed course. Instead of making a couple of the “fun” stops we had planned, we decided that the next day would be “Drive Like Hell Day.” We rose early, drove the extra hours, and got back on track.

Remember the Big Picture

Finally, it’s important to realize that giving your team well-articulated goals with plenty of regular checkpoints is still only a piece of the challenge. Good goals require context—showing your employees how their goals fit into the overall goals of the team, department, and organization. Remember to communicate your goals—and your boss’ goals, and the company’s goals—to your team on a regular basis.

Samantha and I driving safely to Portland wasn’t actually the only goal we had. Arriving with our friendship intact—that was a big piece of it, too. Stopping at landmarks and making unfortunate purchases—those were part of the plan and part of the fun, but they could be abandoned when we had to prioritize the bigger-picture goals.

Samantha and I arrived in Portland on Day 4, with enough daylight to meet friends who helped unload and return the truck. We’d made it!

This is a great feeling to have at work, too. And you can get there. With clear goals, context, good communication, and course correction, you and your team will be on the road to success.

Photo courtesy of Patxi Izkue.