Goals for 2023? Let’s Start with January

As employees depart and conditions shift, leaders are focusing on short-term planning instead of year-long goals.

The executive had set 2023 team and departmental goals before the holidays, communicating them with great enthusiasm. But as employees started to trickle back in January, mobilizing teams around those goals proved unexpectedly difficult. Some remote employees had already forgotten some of them. What to do?

For decades, January has been the month to launch key yearlong strategies and goals for most big businesses. The C-suite would announce corporate objectives before the holidays, then would hope to hit the ground running in the first week of the year.

But flash forward to 2023. In today’s business environment, experts say, announcing too many yearlong goals at once is a recipe for failure. The stakes are high. “Doing this wrong risks failure on goals that leaders identify as critical,” says Mark Royal, senior client partner at Korn Ferry.

In a dynamic and uncertain business climate—one in which everything from interest rates to supply-chain structures is fluctuating substantially—yearlong goals are not even under discussion in most cases. No executive could have predicted that wages for workers who stay at their jobs would jump 9.2% over the last two years, or that the S&P would close 2022 down 19% from the year prior. And then there are the employees themselves. Call it “short-termism”: many are thinking about their jobs in terms of months, not years, says Royal. An employee who plans to depart this summer has no interest in October 2023 goals.

In a short-term environment, the new trend is three-month goal-setting, says Deepali Vyas, global head of the Fintech, Payments and Crypto practice at Korn Ferry. “Over three months you can really understand where the puck is going, and iterate, and pivot,” she says. “It should be the gold standard for leaders”—especially for companies that already report quarterly earnings.

Selectivity is critical. A laundry list of goals can demotivate weary employees. A handful is ideal, possibly as few as three. “Define must-win battles carefully,” says Royal. “You can really energize people around a few goals that are specific and clear.” He encourages leaders to connect the dots between a goal’s importance and its positive impact on the team and organization. He also advises leaders to free up time specifically for employees to accomplish the goals. “It’s identifying what the team can de-emphasize in order to focus on new priorities,” says Royal.

To get ahead of the retention problems that many organizations may continue to face this year, goals should include very clear individual development targets for employees. “These are not nice-to-haves,” says business psychologist James Bywater, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “Give development goals a lot more focus than you might have previously.” Development goals are necessary skill sets for the future of the business, which might be learning new technologies or mastering behavioral skills. Employees who are learning and growing their capabilities are more likely to stay motivated and stick around, he says.