The One Habit You Really Need to Achieve Long-Term Goals

Are we still doing this? How can you make sure you are still making progress on that goal you committed to in that offsite meeting six months ago?

In my work with management teams helping them execute their strategy, this issue comes up over and over again. How can you keep yourself and your team focused and motivated on the long term work, when each new day brings new urgent tasks?

There are many things you can do to keep your whole team executing. This is a central concept upcoming book: MOVE. (Stay tuned…)

But today I want to talk about one important approach to stack the deck in your favor to accomplish big things.

Always execute on the small things

If your organization sees you are serious about executing on small things, it will increase their level of seriousness when executing on big things.

This idea was described really well in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point.

(I’ll paraphrase a lot here, to get quickly to my point, but I recommend reading this directly from The Tipping Point if you are interested.)

He talked about how serious crime in New York City was greatly reduced in the 1980’s, not by directly going after the big crimes, but by making a concerted effort to eliminate two small crimes — 1. Jumping the turnstiles to avoid paying subway fare; and, 2. Graffiti on the subways.

Police started relentlessly arresting people for turnstile jumping, and every single night, any train car with graffiti on it got pulled off the track and painted over.

The point is this: People with intentions to commit bigger crimes saw this enforcement of these minor things, and the culture changed. They sensed that “if they are that serious about these small offenses, they must be really serious about bigger ones. This is not an environment where crime is tolerated.”

It worked.

Two small-crime analogies I see in corporations are late meetings, and not addressing missed deadlines.

1. Late meetings

Late meetings may not seem like a big deal, and in fact, most organizations laugh it off with a, “yeah, we’re really bad about that around here.” But if you tolerate late meetings you are shooting yourself in the foot on achieving your long term goals.

When everyone is chronically late to meetings, and you don’t address it, you are sending a cultural signal that: we are not serious about what we say we are going to do.

If, instead, you set and enforce an expectation that meetings will start and end on time, and they do – not only do you get the huge benefit of cost and time savings, and more productive meetings, but:

  • You get the additional, even-bigger benefit of an expectation in your organization that it matters what we say and commit to.
  • If we are this serious about managing meetings, we are also serious about managing our schedules, commitments, and business.

2. Missed deadlines

The other related, rampant behavior I see is that deadlines come and go, and nothing happens…

Again, often it may seem like a small thing — “We agreed to review the new website landing page on Thursday and we didn’t. The world did not come to an end.”

So no one mentions it.

This seemingly small non-reaction, to a small thing, when multiplied over and over again, sends a very loud and strong signal that there are no consequences for missing deadlines.

By not communicating, you are communicating: We don’t really care about missed deadlines. It’s no big deal.

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“This is unacceptable”

No matter how small a deadline seems, if it is missed it should be addressed.

You don’t need to fire someone every time something goes wrong, but you do need to address it. Have the conversation.

This is unacceptable. You did not deliver. What happened? Do you realize the downstream problems this causes? What is your proposal to recover? How do you propose we now get this finished AND address the customer/sales/market issue this has created? How will you ensure this does not happen again?

Even if the end result seems the same, the new date has still slipped two weeks out, the fact that you had the conversation will resonate far beyond this one deadline.

If you always have the conversation, it will help your organization see and feel that you are serious about execution, and that schedules and commitments really do matter.

And then the next time people will think, if I miss a deadline, something uncomfortable is going to happen.

Sure, it can be uncomfortable to have a conversation about missed goals and consequences, but if you miss a goal, you should be uncomfortable! That’s the point.

People will start self-managing, and delivering on time, to avoid those conversations.

Boring and required (but worth it)

Sure, this is not the fun and exciting part of any job — keeping track of commitments and following through when things go wrong.

But I have found that it actually doesn’t take a lot of “enforcement” to create better habits, and move the culture in this direction.

I’m not suggesting you micromanage everything — only that you always address the things that have established commitments. If you tolerate chronic poor performance on small things, it’s much harder to achieve top performance on big things.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .

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