Should Students Have Career Goals? What We’re Learning About Career Goal Setting


Traditional goal setting comes out of the world of business management and MBA programs. In my work with corporations and coaching adults in career transition, I see the greatest success stories when people connect with their personal passions. Notice, I didn’t say …when people do better at goal setting. This article summarizes a recent study about goal setting and transfers the learning to high school (and college) students. Do we want students to set goals that truly enable them to achieve great things? If so, how do we do that?

Leadership IQ, a leadership training and research company, studied 4,182 workers from 397 organizations to see what kind of goal-setting processes actually help employees achieve great things. There is great potential here for a connection to “helping students achieve great things”.

The study discovered that, in organizations, people’s goals are not particularly helpful. In fact, the survey found that only 15% of employees strongly agree that their goals will help them achieve great things. And only 13% of employees strongly agree that their goals this year will help them maximize their full potential.

The study and analysis revealed 8 statistically significant predictors of whether somebody’s goals were going to help them achieve great things. In other words, if you want employees to say, “Wow, my goals this year are really going to help me achieve great things”, there are eight characteristics that their goals should have.

Here’s are the Top 8 Factors for predicting a goal will help a person achieve great things, in order of statistical importance:

  1. I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals.
  2. I will have to learn new skills to achieve my assigned goals for this year.
  3. My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.
  4. I actively participated in creating my goals for this year.
  5. I have access to any formal training that I will need to accomplish my goals.
  6. My goals for this year will push me out of my comfort zone.
  7. My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me (customers, the community, etc.).
  8. My goals are aligned with the organization’s top priorities for this year.

A few things jump out of the analysis according to the authors:

  • Whether goals were specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely (businesses call these SMART goals) had no unique predictive power in the analysis
  • For people to achieve great things, their goals must require them to learn new skills and leave their comfort zone
  • So we’ve just learned that the typical goal-setting processes companies have been using for decades are NOT helping employees achieve great things. And, in fact, the type of goal-setting we SHOULD be doing (assuming we actually want our employees to achieve great things) is pretty much the OPPOSITE of what organizations have been doing for the past few decades.

  • Another insight from the analysis is that goals need to be much more than just words on a little form. For a goal to help people achieve great things, that goal has to leap off the paper. It has to be so vividly described that people can feel how great it will be to achieve it. It has to sing to them, to touch the deepest recesses of their brain. When’s the last time your goals did that?
  • And statistically, to achieve greatness, a goal also has to be bigger than ourselves. We have to identify whose lives will be enriched by our goals. And those goals had better be absolutely necessary (and also aligned with our organization’s top priorities) or they just aren’t going to help employees achieve great things.

To summarize briefly, HARD goals are:

  • Heartfelt — My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me—customers, the community, etc.
  • Animated — I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals.
  • Required — My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.
  • Difficult — I will have to learn new skills and leave my comfort zone to achieve my assigned goals for this year.

Applying the learnings to Students

Let’s convert the wording of the study’s findings to be applicable to a high school student’s situation, and make the focus specific to career exploration and career planning that leads to “achieving great things”.

Heartfelt — My career goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me
Animated — I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my career goals
Required — My personal goals are absolutely necessary to help me
Difficult — I will have to learn new skills and leave my comfort zone to achieve my career goals

Does a student need some kind of goal setting? Of course. But I’ll argue, like the study’s findings, that students fail to utilize career counseling, and parents don’t search out career coaching independently, for the same reasons employees report that using techniques such as SMART goals is “not helpful for achieving great things”. Why pursue something that doesn’t work?

Does the career planning program at your high school (or college) incorporate a strategy to generate HARD career goals? Are students engaged in their own career exploration. Are they driving their own achievement? Based on the four HARD goals listed, if you were to measure the effectiveness of most career planning and development programs offered to teenagers, would the program pass the test?

Complete a Student Priorities Survey and see how others have responded.

Parents: Want your teenager to better understand and communicate with you? Take the Family Insights parent behavioral style assessment (we call it the Parent User Manual). Complete the information form at bottom of home page to receive instructions.

In my next article, I’ll address how Career Coaching for Students™ is totally aligned with HARD goals and what results we’re seeing with students going through the program.

One response to “Should Students Have Career Goals? What We’re Learning About Career Goal Setting

  1. Please describe your high school’s career exploration and planning program, what you like about it and what you don’t like about it.

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