Don’t be the leader who works hard on the wrong things


Published on: March 2021

Written by: Elizabeth Freedman

The CIO of a large manufacturing company was frustrated, exhausted, and feeling rather unappreciated.

He and his 1500-person organization had overseen a complicated, multi-year technology transfer and integration resulting from the company’s largest acquisition in its history. Add to the mix an ongoing digital transformation and the day-to-day responsibilities that come with keeping the lights on, and it’s all the more impressive that this IT organization was able to deliver as many projects as successfully as it had.

Yet, talk to most business leaders around this same company, and you’ll find a tepid reaction to IT and the value they bring. Far from praising the technology team, you’re more likely to hear comments that amount to, “What have you done for me lately?” Not surprisingly, the CIO was concerned about low team morale and talent leaving the company. As he put it, “The team feels like they are in a no-win situation. No matter what they deliver, it is never enough.”

Most CIOs, including this one, would tell you that they don’t expect a pat on the back for a job well done, but if their team meets their goals in an above-and-beyond way, they look for their organizations to receive an acknowledgement. When this doesn’t come, it may not be a case of a company that’s stingy on praise or a needy leader, but rather, an interesting misalignment that comes with meeting goals in the first place.

“You met the wrong goal!”

Consider the case of the consulting firm that worked around the clock for a beverage company looking to expand operations overseas. When the firm delivered a set of recommendations to the business leader who hired them, they were surprised to be met with a “meh” reaction, given that they had delivered on exactly what the company had requested. Rather than being pleased with the outcome of the project, the business leader who hired the team looked at them and said, “You met the wrong goal.”

Turns out, what this leader really cared about was being a leader in the market. The overseas expansion was something his CEO wanted, and certainly, the business leader was obligated to address the CEO’s priorities. But this leader had his own priorities, too, regardless of what the contract said or whatever goals had been agreed-upon. Fair or not, he expected the consulting team to meet his priorities for market leadership and felt they had insufficiently done so in their solution.

It seems like an unfair bait-and-switch to meet a goal only to be told you achieved the wrong thing after the fact. After all, it would seem logical that if we agree on a goal, state that goal, and achieve that goal, we’d also agree that we have met the goal. In practice, the opposite is often true, and that’s because we didn’t meet the real goal in the first place: the unspoken goal.

What is an unspoken goal? Put simply, the unspoken goal is the goal that really matters – to the board, the CEO, your functional peers, your client. It’s the “why” behind the strategies, the projects, the initiatives, and it’s the real highest priority, and the objective against which performance is ultimately assessed. Poor communication, lack of enterprise thinking, the tendency to make assumptions—all of these play into why the “why” often remains hidden. It’s also one reason why good leaders and teams are given less-than-stellar reviews. Look carefully, and you might find that they missed delivering on the unspoken goal despite doing everything right on paper.

Before marching ahead, ask yourself: “What is the unspoken goal?”

As the name suggests, unspoken goals are tricky because they aren’t always explicitly articulated or emphasized. In fact, the idea of unspoken goals isn’t even on the radar for most of us who work inside companies where setting goals is a long-held practice. Not only does the thought of questioning the process seem unnecessary, but also needless given that the average company is not shy about communicating goals to its workforce.

Even so, before you and the team work overtime to meet a goal, it pays to ask yourself, “What is the unspoken goal?” before moving full steam ahead. Consider the outstanding senior finance executive who was given a “needs improvement” rating on his performance review, the first sub-par rating ever received in his exceptional career. Despite the fact that he had moved the needle on several corporate priorities that were championed by the CEO, including building a high performing team and keeping margins flat during a year of major market headwinds, he hadn’t met the unspoken goal to drive high growth. As he reflected on the rating, he said, “I have spent so much time getting on planes and really killing myself to meet these company goals, but if I can’t drive growth, it really doesn’t matter.”

You’re paid to be skeptical

Good leaders know that they are paid to ask the right questions, challenge assumptions, and not waste time or resources on achieving goals that don’t matter. Yet even sophisticated leaders can fall into the trap of overlooking the unspoken goal. This happens for many reasons, including the fact that companies set corporate priorities without also establishing clear metrics or accountability around them. For instance, consider inclusion, a critical aspect of corporate culture and employee engagement that few companies would dispute, yet many lack internal measures to assess whether leaders are demonstrating this. That’s often a good clue that a goal isn’t yet something that is truly valued at a company, despite whether it should be or what is written on paper, which is why leaders should approach goals with a healthy degree of skepticism. Before deciding where to devote important time and resources, ask questions like:

  • What tells me that this is a goal that others care about achieving?
  • How will achieving this goal positively and directly impact business results?
  • How are we held accountable for achieving this goal?
  • If we do achieve this goal, how will others (customers, executives, shareholders) benefit?
  • How am I personally evaluated and rewarded for achieving this goal?
Leaders and teams deserve praise for a job well done, and when they focus on delivering against the right goals – including the unspoken ones – their value is better seen and rewarded by their companies.

Ready to start a conversation?

Want to know how BTS can help your business? Fill out the form below, and someone from our team will follow up with you.