Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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How to Set Goals and Get Results

Published By: The Independent on Sunday - 05 Oct 2014

Doing an MBA costs a lot of time and money, and if you are planning to embark on one you almost certainly know what you want to get out of it -- maybe an enhanced cv, a wider network, greater earning power, or the chance to switch careers.

But what about when you are in the thick of it? Will you continue to think clearly about your goals and motivation then?


MBA students are an incredibly bright bunch, yet few seem to realise the value of checking in regularly with their goals as they go through their course, adjusting them to circumstances, and keeping their motivation in top gear as they go.

When I coached MBA students at an eminent business school they all knew where they were headed in the long run, but none made time for regular MOTs during their high-pressure, full-time course. Many could articulate broad goals like needing to “improve my team working” as they came up against challenges, but few thought to break these down into the immediate, practical components that would get the results they were looking for.

Time and again a student would sit down with me either mired in an unfocussed problem, or passively saying that things “seemed to be going ok”, only to leave an hour later with fire in their hearts and a spring in their step, because they knew exactly what they intended to do to challenge themselves harder and improve their performance.

One student had arrived on the course determined to make the most of all available networking opportunities, but found his health and his work collapsing under the weight of too many sports events and parties. Slowly he came to see that much of his relentless desire to network stemmed not from ambition but from social insecurity and that he needed to put quality over quantity if he wanted to build a high-value career network while also doing well on the course. Another student realised that, although she was talking in general about improving her presentation skills, what she was really anxious about was her squeaky and uncommanding voice. She read books on voice technique, worked on how she sounded, and learned to talk in front of groups in a measured and authoritative way.

But few MBA courses offer students personalised coaches who can help with such short-term goal-setting and motivation, so here’s how to be your own coach as you go through your MBA:

1. Recognise that while you may have done goal-setting at work, this is not a corporate exercise. You’re a student now and your goals are going to be as close-up, personal – and jargon-free – as you can make them.
2. Decide on a framework that meets your needs, then set aside regular sessions to evaluate and revise your goals. Every week, or every two weeks works well for many people. Make plenty of time, find a good place to do it in, and ensure the whole process is enjoyable.
3. Work out your headings. There’ll be obvious ones like learning, performance and personal life. But put in whatever you like. Are you worrying about what to wear? Have a category for clothes and fashion. Feeling you’re not making a good impression in workshops and among your peers? Have a category for personal impact.
4. Then, under each heading, think hard and clearly about problems you’re running into, what you’re aiming for, what might be holding you back, and what you need to do about it. Dig deep. And then deeper still. Ruthless honesty with yourself is the only way to set good goals.
5. Goals must always be in line with your personal values to be effective, so spend some time thinking about the person you are, and the person you would like to be. If there are gaps between these two things, and you realise you want to be, say, more thoughtful or less impatient, add it into your goal-setting process.
6. Set goals that make you work that harder, but that aren’t impossible -- and don’t make your goals too complicated. Ignore those goal-setting acronyms. Simply think clearly and honestly about your situation, what’s not going well, what could be better, and what you want to achieve. And don’t be afraid to think small. If you find it really hard to speak up in team discussions, making a goal of interjecting just once before your next goal-setting session is not wimpy. It’s a first step. Goals are there to help, not daunt you.
7. Draw fully on your imagination. It really is a powerful tool. Dream your achievements into life and allow yourself to see them in detail and colour. If you’re not naturally the imaginative type, work at it. It gets easier with practise. See yourself doing what you want to do, looking like you want to look, sounding like you want to sound, and being the person you want to be.
8. Then work out a way to get there, remembering that as an MBA student you have plenty of help to draw on – resource banks, fellow students, personal tutors, specialist teachers, and your university’s health and welfare services.
9. Change your goals as life changes. If a major project is overwhelming you, ditch everything else and apply all your goal-setting powers to this one thing. If personal issues are pulling you off track, put your attention there. This way short-term personal goal-setting becomes a dynamic and responsive part of everything you do.
10. And all the time think hard about what motivates you to try harder and reach further. Is it a picture of the future? Someone’s good opinion? Or the satisfaction that comes from knowing you’ve done your best and made the most of your talents? What might block you, that you need to watch out for? Is it external criticism? Inner self-doubt? Or your own perfectionism? And what gets your blood pumped ready for action. Music? Exercise? Rewards? Discover what it is, then weave it into what you do. In addition, learn to talk to yourself in a kind, encouraging and enthusiastic way, not dwelling on past mistakes and problems, but learning from them and moving forward.

Hilary Wilce is a personal development coach and writer.