How to Help an Employee With Their Personal Goals

Willem Bult

Engineering Manager at Airbnb



Objectives and Key Results (OKR) are a helpful framework to help set priorities for a team, and can be used even at the individual level to help team members define both projects and personal focus areas and goals. Sometimes this process may surface that an employee has personal growth goals (as opposed to the goals of their current job function) which may appear in conflict with the responsibilities of their role and growth paths available on the team. How do you approach personal growth goals that are not directly of value to the company when you still want to help them with their goals?

Actions taken

Let's say that hypothetically you are setting up a framework of goals/objectives for someone on your team, and one of the objectives they include is to learn a new technology that is of no direct benefit to the company. There is a variety of ways you could approach this. One is to include their personal goal in the tracked OKRs, maximally support them in this goal, set aside the time they need to develop the learning, and check in frequently to check their progress. On the other extreme, you could ask them to pursue this goal on their own time and not include it in your career conversations. Starting from first principles, consider how you can best support your team member in their career, and how you can best support your organization to accomplish its goals. Your job will get easier if you can maximally align these two. In this situation, think about how spending time on the personal goal impacts time spent on other goals. For example, is your team member just looking for help in creating personal accountability while pursuing the goal "on their own time" on top of the responsibilities of their job, or are they looking to make their personal growth objective a core part of advancement in their role? The way that I would approach this is to explore the full set of objectives with them. Aside from their objective of learning a new technology, they likely also have objectives of succeeding and advancing in their role. I would first remind them that I support them in their personal growth as much as I can. I would also remind them I support them by helping them succeed and advance in their role. Together we can explore how they can align their growth goals with the responsibilities of their role. As a first step, clearly communicating your expectations of folks in their role, as always, is critical. Once you have created shared clarity on these expectations, it becomes easier to have a conversation around the trade-offs of where they spend their time. Let's assume for argument's sake that the personal goal of learning the new technology is completely tangential to success and advancement in their role. In that case, it is important for them to understand that pursuing this goal is not something that contributes to the responsibilities of their job and therefore could come at the expense of performance in their job. In this case you can still support their personal growth and you might offer spending time during your one-on-ones coaching them on this path, but they should realize the opportunity cost of that time spent. I view it as my responsibility as a manager to set the people in my team up for success in their role. If I see someone spending a lot of time outside of their responsibilities, I would call attention to that so I can help folks be mindful of how their choices impact their job and career. The second step is to explore if we can reduce tension between personal and company goals by bringing them closer together. One way could be to tweak the personal goal to something that would be of more value to the organization. Maybe your team member wants to grow in their technical expertise, but aren't actually too attached to the specific technology they thought of. With the information you have about the needs of the team, you might be able to suggest a different technology to learn which also meets the company's needs. In that way, you can help the person on your team achieve both objectives: they will grow their technical expertise and also be better set up for success and advancement in their role. If it's hard to tweak someone's personal goals to match up with opportunities in the role, you might want to explore changing the role instead. This is especially important if you sense that there is tension with what they want to do and what they are currently doing. Long-term, that tension can result in reduced happiness and engagement and may lead to the person leaving the company. The best alignment of someone's personal goals and organizational goals may not necessarily be aligned with your immediate team's goals. For example, is there another team in the company where more opportunities are available that better match the personal goals of someone on your team? You might take some time to introduce them to people in other departments so they can explore those opportunities. If they find other available roles that are a better fit, then you can help them transition to those other teams. This is another way you can set both your team member and the organization up for success. Of course it is always challenging to lose a team member, but it may well be a better global outcome. Truly acting in the best interest of your team member will also build trust and help you establish strong lasting working relationships.

Lessons learned

Sometimes it can be hard to connect a personal goal to a clear business goal. It's important to analyze the situation holistically and put your own needs aside to find the best solution keeping the company's interest in mind. Start by clearly setting role expectations with your team member and have an open conversation with them to analyze their goals. Frame the situation in terms of aligning personal and company goals, and explore alternatives to see if you can tweak the goals or change the role. This often comes down to helping people find a growth path they're excited about. Ultimately this makes people happy in their roles which is vital to building a healthy and successful company.

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Willem Bult

Engineering Manager at Airbnb

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