Too Much Focus on Goals Can Get You Into Trouble

Juliet is a new partner with a corporate finance and securities practice. Over the past seven years she has honed her legal skills and has developed the trust of her partners and clients. She is a perfectionist at heart and has a killer eye for detail. She will do whatever it takes to get the deal done and still regularly pulls all nighters.

She has tried working with juniors but the delegation hasn’t worked well. The work product she gets back is not up to her standards and it seems like it takes more time to fix the mistakes than it would to have done the work herself. She has been asked to become a mentor but she hasn’t had the time to take part in the program. She is also quite stressed out because the HR Director called her in for a confidential meeting to tell her that she needs to more respectful of support staff. Juliet was really taken aback by this; she believes she works well with staff.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. Professionals, be they lawyers, accountants, engineers, or business people all face this challenge in one form or another. It’s the challenge of taking the next step up from technical expert to leader.

Technical Experts

As we develop in our careers we hone our technical expertise be that as lawyers, researchers, accountants, or legal administrators. As we become more knowledgeable and skilled at our role we rise in the hierarchy and are increasingly responsible for overseeing the work of others.

The strategies we have used to develop as technically knowledgeable and adept can-do people are different from those that we need to become skilled at leading a team. Leading a team in the context of the legal sector can mean everything from instructing a secretary or delegating work, to leading a practice group, department or firm.

As technical experts one of the first things we learn is to achieve results on time with the greatest degree of accuracy.

We develop a detailed knowledge of our area of practice, and amass valuable experience in serving our clients and working with our colleagues.

And it is technical expertise that is rewarded: At review time lawyers are principally evaluated on the quality and quantity of their work, and on the new business they have brought in.

Goal Obsession

The term goal obsession comes from the writings of Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, a world-leading leadership coach. Goal obsession comes about when people focus on their immediate goal to the exclusion of all else. The rhetoric of the day is all about the importance and value of setting goals and the soundness of this advice is unarguably correct. The challenge emerges when the goal obliterates all other priorities. When everything else is dropped in order to see the goal through. Dr. Goldsmith commented in his Harvard Business Review blog:

Goal obsession is one of the greatest problems that I encounter in my interactions with successful people. Goal obsession occurs when we become so focused on achieving our goal (or task) that we forget our larger mission.

Goal obsession is one of the impediments I see at play in law firms everyday. When Juliet is focused on a transaction her stress levels rise and all she can think about is the work at hand. She forgets about how she is treating other people and she can’t be bothered wasting time on teaching associates.

Holding Up the Mirror

One of the challenges for professionals is that it is very hard to observe our own performance. Much like spinach in the teeth, unless someone tells you likely won’t know you have a problem.

It may seems surprising to you that Juliet has no idea that she has a reputation for being dismissive, condescending and generally unpleasant to work with. Juliet cares very much about the people in her life and outside of the office she is a very pleasant person to spend time with. It was not until the HR Director raised the point with her that she had any inkling about the problem.

In order to make the transition from technical expert to leader the first step is to get someone you trust to hold up the mirror for you and tell you about what you may not be seeing. David Maister has provided a helpful trick for making this safe in his creative commons article Effective Managers Go First:

I’d add one more little “trick” that has helped me. If I ask people what they think of me, they are usually polite (well, usually.) But if I ask them if they’d be willing to tell me what other people say about me, I give them the opportunity to say things without putting them in the awkward position of criticizing me to my face. Quite often, they say “Well, now you’ve asked, David, there are some people—not me, of course, David—who think you could improve in these areas.” We can then discuss it without raising the emotional temperature on either side.

To evaluate your leadership performance, try Maister’s approach with one or more trusted colleagues. You might find out that you are performing at a high level, or more likely, these conversations will uncover a few performance issues for you to focus on.

Your Foundation:

I had the opportunity recently to speak about leadership with an award-winning young lawyer, David, under 40 years of age. The associates at his firm spoke highly of his leadership abilities. David consistently delegates work to juniors. He is careful to give them all the background information they need about the transactions, to include them in meetings, and to keep them up to date on developments. He takes the time to provide feedback to support their learning.

In our discussion the first thing David talked about were his values. It is very important to him to treat everyone in his life with kindness and with respect. These values are foundational for him and when he is in the middle of a stressful transaction he never forgets them.

To transition from technical expert to leader start with your values. Answer this question: What are your core values?

Establish a boundary, make a determination: In my professional life I am going to work in a manner that is consistent with my values.

Making Change

I have learned a simple recipe for making behavioral changes. I first came across it in the work of James Flaherty and his book Evoking Excellence in Others.

The formula is simple it starts with naming the behavior you want to change or conversely, create. For example:

I want to delegate effectively to Mary and Sean in my group. I will give them clear instructions, and keep them looped in on all developments. I will provide them with respectful feedback about their work so they know what they did well and what can be improved upon.

Then you set about observing yourself in action. Here is a sample self observation exercise:

Sample Self Observation Exercise


To become more aware of how well I am delegating to my assistant and to juniors, why I may not be delegating effectively and how I justify my actions.

Two times daily – at lunchtime and before leaving the office at night – ask yourself the following questions. Set a reminder on your desk so that you remember to observe yourself in action during the workday. It helps to record your thoughts in a journal.

  1. How well did I delegate?
  2. What justifications do I have for not delegating, or not delegating well?
  3. What got in the way of effectively delegating?
  4. How do I feel about what I have observed?
  5. What actions do I want to take based on this?

The mechanism of observing our actions helps us to keep our performance objectives top of mind, to get our behavior off of automatic pilot and to instead make conscious choices.

Supporting Change

The self-observation exercise is even more valuable if you have the support of a friend, colleague or other trusted person.

Talk to them about your values and objectives. Share with them what you learned from your colleagues about your performance and let them know what you are learning through the self-observation work.

With a foundation of values, feedback, a process for observing yourself in action, and someone to talk to about what you learn, you have a structure in place to support your learning and development as a leader.

Becoming a technical expert is really just the first major milestone in our development as professionals. Learning to deliver technical expertise as a leader is the next important phase of growth. You can begin that journey at any time in your career by giving care and attention to the alignment of your values and actions. Don’t allow goal obsession to sway you from what matters most.


  1. A great topic that I never tire of reading about. I’ve seen this behavior in lawyers even as part of initiatives designed to be collaborative and increase engagement. I wonder whether teaming up with others who have a more collaborative leadership style allows lawyers to notice their non-collaborative tendencies, or not.