Skip to Content Skip to Footer
Setting Professional Goals for the Year Ahead

Setting Professional Goals for the Year Ahead

Steve Heisler

illustration of pattern of eyeballs with two large bullseye targets

Maintain steady career development and overall happiness by understanding how to properly set, monitor and accomplish professional goals

Part of The Year Ahead 2020 special web issue

What Are Professional Goals?

Former football player, coach and analyst Lou Holtz is credited with saying, “In this world, you’re either growing or you’re dying.”

Shannon Deamer, an executive coach and talent acquisition expert, takes this advice to heart and translates it for her clients in the business world. “We’re always in this constant mode of wanting to grow and develop to get better,” she says. “It’s important to set professional goals so that you can have something that you’re striving for, and then you can measure your success toward achieving that goal.”

Professional goals are, quite simply, goals having to do with work. Some contain a built-in end point, such as vying for a promotion or a salary bump. Some, like mastering the art of public speaking, are more nebulous and qualitative. Many involve not only the employee’s individual development, but that of the company as a whole.


Professional goals are meaningless, though, unless marketers also set clear steps toward achievement, scale goals to fit an appropriate time frame and produce a meaningful process for consistent goal-setting—room to grow, no space to die.

Why Are They Important?

“Any organization that has professional goals or a system of managing goals in place is probably focused beyond just what the organization needs on a day-to-day basis,” says Bob Ruffolo, founder and CEO of digital marketing agency IMPACT. “They have a longer-term vision of how the company can be successful and how you will be successful inside your organization and in your career as well.”

The benefits of professional goals can be measured in compensation and organizational effectiveness. An infographic from WorkBoard found that 69% of high-performing organizations prioritize sharing goals company-wide as a way to build an exceptional team. Those companies were 21% more effective than the rest and returned 28% higher operating profit margin in the same year.

Professional goals are particularly useful for marketers in staying one step ahead of trends. “In the marketing world, especially in digital, you can become a dinosaur really fast,” Ruffolo says. “It’s incredibly important that you’re staying up on all the industry trends, new releases, software changes and algorithm updates, always making sure you have some goals around constantly educating yourself on the latest industry [information].”

Watch: Leadership Coach Lisa Guillot on Setting Professional Goals

How Do You Hone Your Goal-Setting Skill?

Setting goals requires big-picture thinking either alone or, ideally, with the support of a coach or manager.

“My process is usually to have that person start thinking about what they want their future to look like—and this is where it starts off on the personal side and works its way back to professional,” Deamer says. “Once we know what their future looks like, then we start [working backward] out of it.”

Ruffolo recommends starting with three-year goals, which he believes is a realistic time frame for employee advancement sandwiched between the menace of tight turnarounds and the over-luxuriation that comes with deadlines too far in advance. “Most employees can’t picture 10 years away, but they can picture three years: what you want for your career, a position and compensation level that you could see yourself in,” Ruffolo says. “Also, look at the company’s three-year vision, understanding that so you know how you would fit into the company in three years.”

He then recommends breaking things into sub goals: What can be accomplished over the next year to best set you up for achieving your three-year goal? How can the next quarter contribute to your success in achieving that yearly goal? Three months is a proper window for these sub-goals, he adds, because companies operate on the quarter system by default.

Set a handful of goals, but not too many or too few, lest marketers risk feeling over- or underwhelmed by the process. “You don’t want to focus on just one,” Deamer says. “Some are going to be more challenging than others. If all of them fit into one category, and then you find yourself unable to reach any of them, you start feeling defeated. You want to have some goals that may be easier to achieve, others that may be tougher.”

While goals might be set in a vacuum, it’s nearly impossible to accomplish them without some form of accountability. It’s the reason those without workout buddies often flock to the gym in January but stay home with a pizza come February.

Ruffolo says that the key to achieving goals with accountability is to make those goals public. “Write them down on Post-It notes, simple as it sounds, [and place them] on your monitor or on the wall nearby so you can see them every day,” Ruffolo says, “I would also say share them with your manager and use them as a tool for all your one-on-ones. You have to make sure your manager is aligned with them and working toward the same goals as you, and helping you get there. Make sure your friends and family [know your goals] as well. You’re out having a drink with your buddy and he’s like, ‘How are you doing on that big thing you were talking about?’”

However, Deamer cautions against folding professional goals into the performance review process, which should be reserved for goals that bosses set for employees. She also encourages marketers to include one personal goal, such as reaching an exercise benchmark or getting back in touch with an old friend. “It’s important to have a variety of different goals; they all contribute to making someone feel like a happy, whole person,” she says.

How Can You Demonstrate Your Mastery?

The measure of a successful goal is, as expected, the ability to accomplish it within the agreed-upon time frame. Both Ruffolo and Deamer recommend that marketers celebrate these successes—conquering a goal is no small feat—and understand that truly successful goal-setters don’t stop the process there.

“Having a regular cadence of goal-setting is a very healthy thing to do every year, every quarter, whatever system you build for yourself,” Ruffolo says. “A lot of good organizations will have that built into the way they do business. But [if not], you’re going to have to put that on yourself.”

Few accomplishments go off without a hitch. Slipping on professional goals, whether it’s missing a sub-deadline or failing to communicate goals to others, is a natural part of the process and offers an opportunity to realign and reverse engineer to learn from your missteps. “How are you going to achieve that goal if you don’t go back and evaluate what went wrong?” Deamer says. “Any time you don’t hit a goal, you have to take a step back and figure out what happened, what went wrong and what you need to adjust so that you can get there next time.”

Years might elapse before marketers can determine whether they’ve mastered the art of the professional goal—three years, specifically—but Ruffolo offers some key areas on which to focus in 2020. “There’s going to be a recession coming, and there’s a presidential election coming up; the business world is going to be different next year,” he says. “Take that in mind and realizing that organizations are going to expect more from less. You want to make sure you are as valuable to your organization as you possibly can be. You want to be skilled and build up experiences now so that you are seen as indispensable to your organization.”

Steve Heisler served as staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at