The Corner Office

Setting the Right Goals in 2021


I recently had lunch with a friend of mine who’s an architect, and in our conversation about our lives, he told me that before he shows a client a first draft of his work, he gives them a disclaimer: “This is not the house you need. It’s the house you thought you wanted.”

That may not be what you’d expect from an architect, so why does he do it with every client? Because “I find that the house that will make them happy is usually not the house that they can easily describe. So, what we do instead is work on my draft together, mark it up, and then when I come back the second time, that is the home that they need.”

As it turns out, the Rolling Stones were right: “You can’t always get what you want” but you can indeed get what you need. It just might mean taking a closer look at what you think you want. And like so many things, I think this is a lesson that easily translates to business planning.

We’re now well into 2021, and at this point, you’ve almost certainly made a budget, crafted a business plan, or done something to define what you want to get out of this year. Here’s my question to you: Is this what you need to accomplish? And if it is, how well have you connected the dots between what you want to happen and what you’re actually working toward?

I remembered my conversation with my architect friend during a meeting with a client. They were working on their end-of-year plans, and every unit had identified what they wanted to accomplish in 2021 and was sharing those ideas with the group for comments and thoughts. And as much as there were good ideas and a lot of plans offered up, it quickly became clear to me that very few (if any) of these things would actually happen in 2021.

Everybody wanted to talk about action and activity. However, what they didn’t do was identify how they would shift resources to support that activity. I wrote down the various ideas, and I noted that almost all of them were more broad concepts than clear plans of action. And as tempting as it is to make “more sales” a goal, there’s a certain amount of legwork that needs to happen first.

As a whole, the organization wanted some combination of more sales, growth, and new products to launch. But in working with them for several years, it was very clear to me that their biggest problem would be having the right people and resources in place to execute these plans. So, we were sitting with great goals, but no real steps in how to achieve them.

I used this as an opportunity to speak with the leadership team, and we had a conversation where I essentially explained that if they wanted X, they were going to have to supply Y (funds, talent, etc.). Because simply adding a product or increasing a rate wasn’t going to yield more sales in 2021. Rethinking what they took to market and who was going to sell their products, that was where they really wanted to be, because that was what would make a meaningful difference.

In doing this planning work, that conversation with my architect friend really resonated with me. Because in the first conversation, everyone was talking about what they wanted to happen—things they thought they wanted. They were good things, but they couldn’t find the words to communicate their ideas to leadership in a way that would actually get to the desired results. To my friend’s analogy, this would be the initial rough draft of the home.

So, I followed the architect’s lead. I set up a conversation where we could discuss what they said they wanted and work together to figure out what they actually needed to reach those goals. As I see it, a lot of teams never have that second conversation, which can hamper your success as you’re planning for a successful year. If you only have that first meeting, then let people go off happy without tangibles, then your next year will probably look a lot like the one you just left behind.

As I’ve said time and time again, the pandemic has come with countless negatives, but if there is one positive thing to be found here, it’s that you can use this period of change to try something new. If you’ve set broad goals in the past, try specifically resourcing how you’re going to achieve your new goals in 2021. When you resource what you want to happen, you’ll find that you can get what you need.

Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He can be reached at

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