Long-Term Purpose, Short-Term Goals

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman explains how top firms use a critical tool to infuse purpose throughout the organization.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now.  

What’s a higher business priority: quarterly goal setting or promoting a deep and connected sense of purpose?

Likely your first thought is that, of course, it’s hitting quarterly targets.  But there’s a surprisingly strong argument for the importance of purpose in the long-term over profits in the short-term.

Take it from companies like Twitter, LinkedIn, Airbnb, Walmart, Google, and ING Bank. These successful brands have one thing in common: They all use Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to set goals and measure progress. And that puts purpose in top place.

Developed in the 70’s by Intel’s Andrew Grove, OKRs have been adopted by thousands of businesses around the globe. Grove was Intel’s first hire, and it was under his leadership as CEO that the company went from $1.9 billion in revenue to $26 billion while increasing its market value by 4,500%.

To be even moderately successful, OKRs have to meet certain criteria, answering the key questions: What and How? Objectives are “what” you want to accomplish. To be effective, they have to be significant and action oriented. Key Results are “how” you will determine the objectives are met. KR’s have be time-bound and measurable. Explains Grove, “At the end you can look, and without any arguments: Did I do that or did I not do it? Yes? No? Simple. No judgments in it.”

OKRs work, which makes the process so popular among the best and brightest organizations.  Based on Peter Drucker’s Management by Objectives (MBOs), the process discourages a focus on accolades and “looking busy” and, instead, measures success through clear and obvious results. 

OKRs require every employee, from interns to the CEO, to take responsibility for setting their own objectives. Gone is a top-down approach to goal setting. Instead, every single person is asked to engage, linking their own objectives to those of their team, leaders, and organization at large. Explains Grove, “We see a nesting hierarchy of objectives: if the subordinate’s objectives are met, the supervisor’s will be as well.”

On paper, OKRs look like they have nothing to do with purpose; but on a closer look, they do. Take this example from John Doerr, the American investor and venture capitalist who brought OKRs to Google in 1999. This is the OKR Doer shared to introduce his Objective of building a planning model for Google in their first year.

Key Result 1: Finish presentation on time.

Key Result 2: Create a sample set of quarterly Google OKRs.

Key Result 3: Gain management agreement for a three-month OKR trial.

This list might seem meaningless to anyone but John Doerr or Google. But remember, this is the OKR that inspired a succession of other OKRs, helping to take Google from the company of 40 they were in 1999 to the 70,000 plus they are today.

Now back to purpose. It may not be so evident in the wording of an OKR, but the process of goal setting is filled with opportunities to inspire meaning and connect individuals to the organizational mission.

As Grove said when he designed the process, objectives have to be significant. It’s not enough to articulate “what” you want, you must articulate “why” you want it. Whether the ”why” is personal or collective, the question offers everyone an opportunity for deeper understanding. The search for “why” can unearth motivations, beliefs, and values.

Employees are then are encouraged to align their own goals to the goals of others all around them. This creates a clear line of sight between their own work and that of their peers, leaders, and organization. It now makes sense how work that once seems inconsequential, actually moves the needle.

Lazlo Bock, Google’s former head of human resources, comments “One of the beautiful things John Doerr taught me about OKRs was how they force a different conversation about key results. You want to drive certain behaviors, not have everyone be a machine. It’s not just about dollars. It’s about, 'what's the higher order objective I'm going towards?’”

That “higher order objective” can lead to thinking about personal or organizational purpose, not just deliverables and results.

In their leadership institutes Korn Ferry helps leaders “move from viewing performance as their sole purpose to a broader outlook—of enduring value creation across multiple constituencies as well as ensuring that purpose drives sustainable performance.”

Here’s a hypothetical set of OKRs:

Objective: Use goal setting to ignite purpose.

Key Result 1: Every employee has developed at least two measurable, personally meaningful, and organizationally relevant, goals for the coming quarter.

Key Result 2: 98% of the workforce can articulate how their role contributes to the greater mission.

Key Result 3: Employee engagement increases by 25%.

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