The Word of Gold: pursuing the wrong goals risks a heavy penalty

We all need goals, right? And of course they must be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely). For an alternative view, listen to a man very much in the goals business: Sean Dyche, manager of Premier League over-achievers Burnley FC. (Bear with me if you aren’t into football.) Many good judges think his success in propelling them to sixth in the league this season, and European competition next, is at least as impressive as the feats of Pep Guardiola, whose champions Manchester City have only the sovereign wealth of the United Arab Emirates to fall back on.

“When I was at Watford, they had a system that was about six-game cycles and there was a benchmark as to where you wanted to be. Well, that’s great when you’re winning. But what about the six-game cycle when you get four points and the benchmark was 14. All the best with that when the players go, ‘Ooh! We’re miles behind where we wanted to be! Oh no! Oh no!’”

In his scepticism about targets, Sean Dyche is not alone. It’s long established that when employees care exclusively about reaching a goal, and fear the consequences of failure, cheating is likely. This is not to argue for a ban on incentives. But goals which focus on narrow performance targets can easily lead to disaster. Look at the recent carnage in the Home Office, lately the Department for Unintended Consequences. No one disputes that the Government’s target of reducing annual immigration to “the tens of thousands” was key to developing the “hostile” official mindset, which has led to the Windrush scandal.

In law firms, there is much evidence that narrow performance goals have baleful effects. Aggressive billing targets risk overcharging, employee burnout and revolting clients. Excessive focus on billable time discourages spending the non-chargeable time essential to developing relationships. Targets imposed to reduce time written off frequently result in fee-earners “forgetting” to record it altogether. 

Stretching (is) out

Professor Max Bazerman of Harvard Business School is co-author of the research paper, “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goals Setting” ( Two particular points he makes are that first, “If you know the exact specific behaviours you want, stretch goals may be fine. But, if you want employees to engage in other pro-social behaviours (e.g., helping others in the organisation) and/or to act ethically, you need to be a lot more careful than simply providing a stretch goal.” Secondly, “learning or mastery goals” are far more beneficial to performance and motivation than stretch goals in isolation.

Apply this to the issues above and you see its wisdom. Mastery of our specialism, allowing us to do more complex work, or a wider spread of it, or do it more productively, is a far more effective way to grow sustainable, ethical revenue than just whacking up the hourly rate. Developing skills in scoping work, pricing it and drafting effective terms of engagement is the way to minimise write-offs. Become an accomplished rainmaker and objections to you spending non-chargeable time melt away. 

I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want!

The point about personal motivation matters. The law is a tough, relentless profession, in which sustained excellence is the minimum standard. It makes great mental, physical and emotional demands. If we are not highly motivated, we may enjoy bursts of short-term success, but no more. This is the context in which goals should be set by us and for us.

  1. What should they be? I think these are universal:
  2. Put stellar client satisfaction first, the firm’s interest second and individuals third. This way lies both competitive advantage and true collegiality.
  3. Consistently hone our skills, and learn new skills – commercial, managerial and interpersonal as well as legal, properly supported by the firm.
  4. Deliver the whole firm, creating opportunities for colleagues as well as ourselves.
  5. Ensure governance which is demonstrably fair, transparent and effective.
  6. Mentor and support colleagues to help them make the most of their talents, overcome difficulties and live fulfilling lives.
  7. Invest consistently in the resources needed to stay successful.
  8. Recognise that the firm is part of a wider community, and give back to it.

Consistent with these overarching goals, each person is free to pursue specific personal objectives. The overwhelming majority of professionals start out motivated to do their best. They need a few carrots, and fewer sticks. If the leadership walks the walk – never a given – goals like this ought to encourage high performance, strong ethics and team spirit, while discouraging the hamster-wheel mentality and cult of the individual that bedevils so many firms. As the plain-speaking Mr Dyche might put it, “Targets – they’re about bullseyes, not bullsh*t!”. 

The Author
Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award-winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide and internationally. t: 07968 484232; w:; Twitter: @thewordofgold
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