An effective public works manager...sets realistic goals

William A. Sterling, P.E.
Public Works Director (Retired)
Port Angeles, Washington
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee
Presenter, 2005 APWA Congress

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has developed a set of core competencies for public works managers. The series of articles in the APWA Reporter based on these competencies—entitled "The Baker's Menu"—is designed to help public works professionals recognize and develop managerial talent. Included in this issue is the seventh in the series of competencies recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or at

"Where there are no goals, neither will there be significant accomplishments. There will only be existence."  Anonymous

Goals are defined as the ideals toward which efforts are aimed to accomplish a future target or end result that an organization wishes to achieve. Goals (and objectives) are the stepping stones to success and the footings upon which all planning is based. Without them, your hopes for a happy and prosperous future stand little chance of being fulfilled.

Effective managers develop goals to help the organization (and its individuals) achieve its mission. By now, we are all familiar with the term "SMART goals." SMART goals are:

  • Specific - What will be accomplished? With whom?
  • Measurable - How will we know when the goal has been achieved? How will we measure it? (quality, quantity, cost, timeliness?)
  • Attainable - Can the goal be accomplished? Does the person responsible have control over the outcome?
  • Relevant - How does this goal support the mission of the organization? What is the relative priority of this goal?
  • Time-framed - When does this goal need to be completed? When are the checkpoints?

In this article, we will be discussing attainability—one aspect of SMART goals. A goal must be realistic and have some chance of being attained. While a grand goal beckons, the practical focus needs to stay on the immediate, manageable steps. Those who attempt changes in large doses set themselves up for failure. A Japanese strategy called "kaizen" (continuous improvement) urges people to start with goals that are only moderately difficult and then gradually raise the challenge as the process continues. To be realistic, the goal must be practical in terms of internal resources and external opportunities. You might want to consider both short-term and long-term goals. Short-term goals tend to be "operating goals." Long-term goals are usually strategic goals that extend over a longer period of time.

There are many reasons why we don't achieve our goals. Goals may be set unrealistically high for the following reasons:

  • Other people can set unrealistic goals for you based on what they want.
  • If you don't have a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve and of the skills and knowledge to be mastered, it is difficult to set effective and realistic goals.
Sometimes the goals we set ourselves are unrealistic and unattainable. Goals may be realistic, but unattainable for a variety of reasons. We create expectations that don't reflect any sense of self-awareness. New Year's resolutions are typical examples. Suddenly, we expect to change the way we eat, the way we exercise, or the way we treat people simply because the calendar has changed. It has been said that 70% of all New Year's resolutions last less than one month; many last less than a week. We don't have bad intentions; it is just that most of us do not stick to it long enough to create a new habit. Sometimes we set goals and work to achieve them, but either the circumstances change or we change. A new opportunity surfaces; budgets change; emergencies occur; priorities change.

To say that goals must be realistic is not saying that they should be low, mediocre or commonplace. Goals must represent a challenging objective toward which you are both able and willing to work. Fulfillment of goals always comes in realistic, attainable steps. Just how high your ultimate goal should be is a matter only you can decide.

Goals should be challenging, but within an individual's capabilities and limitations. For goals to serve as a tool for stretching an individual to reach his/her full potential, they must be challenging and attainable. Therefore, before setting goals, managers should consider their (or the organization's) capabilities, and examine whether they have the knowledge, skills, resources, abilities and passion needed to successfully accomplish their goals. Realistic goals come from a well thought-out mission statement. Setting unrealistic goals is frustrating—a waste of time and self-defeating.

As a manager, one of your responsibilities is to develop goals for your work unit. How you set those goals is as important as achieving them. The real art for the manager lies in creating challenging but achievable targets. The first step is to review your mission statement—what is your area of responsibility? Review the resources available to you, review past performance, involve your employees, set your priorities and then set your goals.

Area of responsibility
After reviewing the organization's overall mission statement, determine your area of responsibilities. For example, if your organization's overall mission statement is "to maintain the City's infrastructure" and your area of responsibility is the traffic operations division, list all of your programs that comprise the division. You wouldn't set a goal of repairing 1,000 potholes if that function is the responsibility of another division. You must have some control of the goal to be successful. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Sometimes we set goals we have no control over; therefore, they are unachievable and unrealistic.

Review the resources available
By reviewing the resources available, you can determine how realistic the goals you want to set are. For example, if your goal is to replace all outdated signal controllers or replace all signal heads with new LEDs next year and you don't have the resources available, you may want to rethink your time frames or reexamine your priorities. A more realistic goal may be to replace 15% of the controllers per year over the next six years. By knowing your capabilities, you will be able to determine a more realistic goal; not easier, but more realistic.

Past performance
Reviewing your past performance will, to some extent, determine what your capabilities are to achieve a certain level of service. Certainly, you may want to increase the number of signs replaced/installed to challenge your staff. However, if past performance indicates the ability to replace/install 1,700 signs per year, perhaps a goal to replace/install 3,000 signs next year may not be realistic (especially if your resources remain the same). However, if this is the goal to be set (for political, growth, or safety reasons), you will need to review your other responsibilities and make adjustments to those areas. A more realistic goal may be to "increase our capability to replace/install signs by 15% per year over the next five years." This may still be a stretch, but the goal may be more achievable.

Employee involvement
Goals should not be set in a vacuum. The employees that have to achieve the goals have the expertise to accomplish the tasks. By utilizing their input, explaining the need to increase the specific workload, or providing them with the tools necessary to carry out their tasks, a set of goals can be reached that are both realistic and achievable. If you set the goals without input, the employees may not "buy into" them. More importantly, the goals you set may be unrealistic. An example of a goal may be to increase the miles of lane markings from 533 miles to 750 miles next year. Consider the factors involved in the operation (i.e., weather, equipment, supplies, workload in other areas). Perhaps a more realistic goal would be "to increase the number of miles of lane markings by 15% per year over the next five years." Again, this may be a stretch, but may be more achievable and more rewarding.

Set your priorities
In order to set your priorities, you must understand your past performance or capabilities. If, for example, your work unit has the capacity to maintain 50 traffic signals and your work is increasing by three signals per year and if your budget is not increasing (most likely the case), you may not have the ability to take on a significant project (i.e., changing out traffic controllers) next year. A term I like to use is, what is your basic level of services capabilities? Anything more than your basic level of services may have to be accomplished by other means.

Set your goals
After you have done your homework, you are now ready to set your goals for your work unit. You can now return to the previous discussion on SMART goals. Your goals could be short-term (6-12 months) or long-term depending on your situation. Periodically review the goals to determine progress and be ready to adjust them as the situation warrants.

Realistic goals:

  • Provide a sense of accomplishment
  • Can increase motivation and cooperation
  • Can be frustrating if not realistic.

Achieving your goals requires solid and continuing execution. Guard yourself against the habit of quitting.

"Frequently, the difference between success and failure is the resolve to stick to your plan long enough to win." - David Cottrell, author of Listen Up, Leader!

Let's assume that you have set a goal that you believe is realistic and achievable. If we look at what sets high-achieving individuals and teams apart from their peers, we discover their actual strategies are much less important than their ability to stick to them—or their adherence. In order to achieve the goal that may be a "stretch," a manager must have three things:

  1. Focus. Focus is a key distinguishing characteristic of high-achieving managers. A crystal-clear focus helps the manager prioritize their actions.

  2. Competence. Competence represents anything that improves your ability to perform, including processes, systems and structures. Competence is also the component that drives sustained execution of your strategies.

  3. Passion. In general, the most common characteristic of high-achieving people is a deep sense of passion for their goals. Although focus and competence are critical to achieving your goals, passion is the glue that helps managers to stick to their plans over the long haul. Having passion for a particular goal—personal or professional—provides the energy and motivation to take the necessary actions to achieve a goal.

In summary, even if a goal is realistic, it may not be achievable unless you stick to it. Adherence is defined as: FOCUS X COMPETENCE X PASSION = ADHERENCE (from Sticking To It: The Art of Adherence and Passionate Performance, by Lee J. Colan).

A final word and pleasant surprise: If you work with your team to set achievable goals, you may find yourself managing goals downward—and "unstretching" them. Social psychology experiments reveal time and again that once people get on a roll, they set their objectives too high! They rapidly come to believe they can leap any building of any height in a single bound; by overreaching, they set themselves up for demotivating disappointments. The best route to long-term success, especially where new skills need to be learned, is therefore to set targets that do indeed stretch, but which can be attained.

Choose goals that are compatible with your needs and resources and always break them up into manageable pieces so that you don't become frustrated or overwhelmed.

This article has discussed realistic goals as they pertain to the workplace. The same concepts apply to your personal goals.

"A goal is created three times. First, as a mental picture. Second, written down to add clarity and dimension. And third, when you take action towards its achievement." - Gary Ryan Blair, President, The Goals Guy

Bill Sterling, P.E., a past APWA Top Ten recipient, will be a presenter at a Pre-Congress Workshop on Saturday, September 10 entitled "Self-Assessment Using the Public Works Management Practices Manual - A Tool for Improving Operations and Management." This workshop is designed to help you examine and evaluate your agency's current management policies and procedures. Attend the workshop and you'll learn how to target the problem areas, identify opportunities, and improve the overall effectiveness of any public works operation. Bill can be reached at

Core Competencies at a Glance

  • Encourages Team Building
  • Involves Others
  • Possesses Oral/Written Skills
  • Builds Trust/Respect
  • Prioritizes
  • Sets Realistic Goals
  • Helps Others to Succeed
  • Resolves Conflict
  • Manages Time
  • Manages Workload
  • Develops Staff
  • Anticipates Future Needs
  • Is Flexible