What My 3-Year-Old Taught Me about Goal Setting

August 11, 2022 Courtney Harrison

The art of leadership has many parallels to the art of parenting. Both will stretch you, teach you, and—like it or not!—keep you humble. The true story below reminded me of these realities and underscored the importance of setting clear goals.

My daughter Samantha (Sammy) is extremely healthy, full of energy, and teeny tiny. My family has deemed her a “social eater,” meaning that she will unhurriedly graze at her food while chatting with everyone. Because she’s so little, we're always trying to get her to eat more.

About a year ago, when Sammy was three, I needed to do some work in the evening. After getting her dinner ready, I knelt down, told her I’d be upstairs for a bit, and said, “Sammy, there had better not be any food left on your plate when I come downstairs. You need to clean your plate.” She looked up at me, smiled, and said, “Yes, Mommy.”

About twenty minutes later I came downstairs, fully assuming that her plate would be, as always, virtually untouched. To my shock, the food was GONE. Not only that, there wasn’t even a single crumb left on the plate! Ecstatic, I praised Sammy for doing such a good job. (In the spirit of transparency, I was also quite impressed with myself. My message finally got through. I laid down the law! Way to go, mom!)

Sammy was so thrilled that she began dancing around the kitchen. “Mommy, do you want to know how I did it?” she asked me. (In hindsight, this should have been my first clue.) “I emptied the food into the trash. And then, I got a wet wipe out of the drawer, and I cleaned my plate!” Her little face was just beaming.

Sigh. Three-year-olds can be quite literal. Of course, I had to laugh. But later, I reflected on the situation.

If I were to compare this to a working relationship, I would be the boss and Sammy the employee. My goal for her was to eat the food on the plate. From my perspective as the boss, she was completely unsuccessful. From her lens, she crushed it. So who was at fault here? Sammy, the employee? Or me, the boss? Of course, it’s all on me.

This happens all the time in the workplace. When leaders don't take the time to set clear goals and explain what a good job actually looks like (what a clean plate actually means), employees are bound to get off track. In those instances, the person to blame is nearly always the leader.

This is not an exaggeration. Consider these distressing statistics about goal setting.

Not surprisingly, about half of all employees don't know what's expected of them at work. This is a recipe for disaster: just like what happened to me, dinner (work) ends up in the trash, with the leader usually left to clean up the mess.

One last confession. I have been that kind of a leader—one who moves too fast to help my team members create clear goals. I eventually learned that although goal setting requires a little extra energy upfront, it saves an enormous amount of time and effort in the end.

Here's how you can help your people set compelling goals.


Having SMART goals (Specific, Motivating, Attainable, Relevant, Trackable) is the first step to success. Don't take them for granted.

As evidenced by this story, it all starts with making goals specific. Show your people what a good job looks like: Where is the bar set? What’s a home run? Famously, when he was a college professor, Ken Blanchard would give a copy of the final exam to his students on the first day of class. He wanted people to succeed and felt it was his job to help them learn what they needed along the way. Everyone’s success was top of mind; they were in it together.

Partner with Your People

Enter into a partnership with your people. Ask them to hold you accountable. When you do this, SMART goals become integrated into the daily language of the workplace. They’re not something that should be written once and shelved until a performance review. Ensure that your team members are taking an active role in their performance. Empower them to own their development journey and progress.

Routine check-ins are also critical. Meet with each of your team members on a consistent basis to discuss progress toward their goals. Make modifications as necessary.

Ask for Feedback

As a leader, routinely ask people if they have what they need to move forward. Right now there is a trend in the workplace toward under-supervision—most likely because micromanagement (over-supervision) has such a bad reputation. To avoid being seen as a micromanager, a leader may assume people know what they need to do and let them tackle the task. But too much autonomy and freedom—under-supervision, in a word—is just as detrimental as micromanagement. People who are under-supervised don't know what a good job looks like. They haven’t received the specific direction they so desperately need. When that's the case, their chances of success are small. It's a delicate balancing act.

Celebrate Successes

Once a person completes a goal, take time to celebrate the accomplishment. We're all moving so fast that this step is often overlooked, but that’s a mistake. People need to be recognized—to be celebrated—and know they're making progress.

It's also a great opportunity to ask questions such as “What did you learn?” “How did you grow?” and “What might we do differently next time?”

Sammy throwing her dinner in the trash (and cleaning her plate!) reminded me that goal setting is, ultimately, our responsibility as leaders. When we partner with our team members to create SMART goals and ensure they know what a clean plate actually means, they will be more successful in the end.

About the Author

Courtney Harrison

Courtney Harrison is a senior consulting partner with Blanchard® who is endlessly passionate about promoting the transformative power of SLII®. Courtney’s educational background includes a dual Bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and Communication from Azusa Pacific University, an MBA and a Master of Science in leadership from Grand Canyon University, as well as a Master of Science in Executive Leadership from University of San Diego.

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