How Can Your Goals be SMART When You're Illiterate?

How prepared are your leaders to set goals for your company coming out of the pandemic?

Last week, I was facilitating a strategic planning and teamwork workshop for a client.  The company is a leader in their industry, substantial in size, and profitable.

We had broken into three small, cross-functional groups to talk about the primary goal areas the company wanted to focus on.  My group had the objective of discussing and setting the goal for growth.  After a period of time, the groups switched, and another cross-functional group tackled the growth goal conversation.

The results were fascinating:

  • The first group went directly to a top-line goal. They wanted a stretch revenue goal.
  • The next group was the opposite. They did not focus on the top line at all.  They spun their wheels between whether gross or net profit should be the target metric.
  • The final group got the closest to building a hybrid goal statement that included both a revenue and net income goal.
  • Two of the three groups ran short of time before arriving at a solid goal statement that would meet the gold standard of “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound) goals for each year in the planning horizon. Their goal-setting skills needed more practice.
  • The leadership group’s, managers’, and supervisors’ understanding of how the divisions and the overall company made money varied greatly. For some, the basics of an income statement and the difference between gross margin and net income had never been discussed before.  Business financial literacy gaps were considerable.

Does this sound familiar to you?  Goal setting is hard enough.  Asking a team to do it without a foundation of base information is setting them up for failure.  Which got me thinking -

How financially literate are the leaders, managers, and supervisors in your company?

The financial literacy crisis in the United States (U.S.) has been well documented.  For  example, in its 2019 Annual Report, the U.S. Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection cited a Federal Reserve study result:

“… almost 40 percent of American adults would not cover a $400 emergency expense from savings.  12 percent said they could not cover the $400 expense at all, and the other 27 percent said they would cover it by selling something or borrowing money.”

Programs are available for those that want to expand their personal financial literacy.  Banks and credit unions often offer them.  Some forward-thinking companies offer them as a benefit or extension of their retirement/401(k) benefit.

Yet there aren’t very many programs for expanding employees’ business financial literacy and even fewer companies that embed this understanding in their team.  This may be a function of time and money to invest in training and developing this knowledge and skill set.  It may also be a function of fear, not wanting to share this level of information with employees that may misunderstand or misuse the information.  Legitimate concerns.  However, such concerns should not be the showstoppers they are.  Too many business owners and leaders confide in me that they suffer from and embarrassed by their lack of business financial literacy.

What is the cost of this illiteracy in a business

Bad decisions. 

Every day. 

Throughout every nook and cranny of the organization. 

Made by smart, experienced, and capable people who are doing their best to make the right decision but haven’t been given the tools by which to do it.

For example,

  • Consider the group above that was content to set a goal statement that was only top-line oriented. If you adhere to the adage that “you get what you measure,” it’s not hard to envision a company hitting its top line growth goal through price cutting and then bleeding their way to bankruptcy. 
  • Some wanted to ignore the top line and focus on gross profit percentages. They wisely wanted to avoid the mindset of “any sale is a good sale.”  They weren’t sure of the dollar amounts, so they discussed percentage targets. Yet with a focus only on hitting a gross profit goal, how well would expenses be managed?  Would appropriate decisions be made?
  • Others lacked knowledge and understanding of how capital equipment purchases impact the chances of hitting the goal, especially if it focused on net income. Would we want to buy the needed machinery if the purchase was going to take it out of the bottom line?  (It doesn't work that way, but folks didn't understand how depreciation works.)

It shouldn’t be this way.  In fact, with a well-considered business financial literacy program, it wouldn’t be that way.  Goal setting would be easier.  More importantly, goal achievement would come more easily.

This particular company is a great, strong company.  When I think of how much more they could achieve as a team of business-financially literate managers and supervisors, it makes me smile.  Their opportunities are bigger, broader, and bolder.  The team becomes more capable.  Individuals grow and develop.  They make better informed decisions.  

They set and conquer stretch goals confidently, even coming out of a pandemic.

So, how prepared are your leaders to set goals for your company?  Would you invest in a business financial literacy initiative for your team?  Pop in the comments and let me know what you think.  



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