How do you set your goals

This question tends to the middle management level, but it can show up in interviews at much lower levels, particularly in professional jobs.

This is a more advanced version of the organizational, priority setting and motivational questions. It's looking for a practical approach to goal setting.

It can also be a very tough question, if you're not prepared for it.

The risk is that you fall back on your previous answers for organization, etc, and that's not what you're being asked. If you do that, it means you didn't understand the question.

Note: You can ask for clarification, like Goal setting in what senses?, or Goal setting in what context, personal, professional or business?

Always be sure you're answering questions in the correct context.

Not all questions are well phrased, and some are just plain tricky.

Because it's an open ended question, it puts the onus on the applicant. As a comparative basis for applicants, it can work as a quality control, where the weak answers get discarded.

The question works on a very important quality, the ability to be objective.

Setting goals, whether career goals, personal goals or business goals, can be a very complex process. Anyone who's had to come up with a career choice and career goals would agree, it can be the toughest thing you've ever done.

Goal setting comes in two basic forms: Strategic and tactical.

Strategic goals are your big objectives, the way to win the career war.

Tactical goals are your goals for doing what needs doing to win your battles and achieve your strategic goals.

You need to make this distinction, because you're trying to explain your thinking, and that can be a very hard task, particularly to total strangers.

If ever you need a structured answer, particularly as a professional, this is where it's required. You're literally showing your practical methodologies.

So you start with the Strategic goals. This is the big picture answer, and it's much more important in establishing a context and comprehension for your interviewers.

You start with a principle, the develop your answer into a meaningful concept, with that as the working theory.

I set goals by defining an objective, and then working on how that objective is to be achieved.

When I decided on my career, I came up with a definition of what I was trying to achieve, a sort of ultimate objective.

You now move on to your methods of achievement.

I then researched what was required to achieve that objective. So I checked out what qualifications were required, what levels of experience, and who was offering training and jobs in those areas. It took a bit of work, but I was able to pin down the right college, the right jobs, and the right employers.

Sounds obvious, but this is the practical answer, how to identify means of achieving a goal. It's an absolute essential to answering any goal setting question.

The next part of the answer is also a necessary practical explanation:

The next stage is achieving the goal in practice. This involves lower level goal setting, based on achieving these goals as part of the bigger strategic picture.

I use a lot of lateral thinking, as a sort of quality control on progress in achieving goals. I monitor my work and progress, to make sure I'm staying on track. Because I've set the goals clearly, I can take steps to correct anything that isn't performing.

This is spelling it out in detail, but you're answering the question, thoroughly.

You can now add some proof:

I'm pleased to say that so far the goals I set for myself are on track. I got my qualifications, and have stuck to my game plan for experience and jobs.

This is unarguable. You're saying you know how to set goals, you've done it, and you're achieving them.

As a final bit of additional sweetener, you can add:

Actually, that's one of the reasons I applied for this job. It's exactly the right position for

They'll get the message.

Business goals

Business goals are quite a lot more difficult, because you need to be specific.

Depending on your industry, you'll know how you set your goals.


You need to be extremely careful that you are absolutely clear, and correct, when you get to practical examples.

You can stick your foot in your mouth in seconds.

The basic principle of describing your methods, then giving a practical example of them, how they work, and results, is the same.

In business, however, being vague isn't much appreciated.

Talk is the one commodity business people can get in over supply, and you have to be very specific.

This is a perfectly legitimate, necessary, question, in any business context.

You do need to prepare for this question, with a well thought out, interesting, professional, and above all, comprehensive answer.

Give an example where you know all details of the goal setting, the business being done, and all practical details.

You have to be an expert on this subject.


  • How the goal was set How you made the decision, and how you set your objectives
  • Why the goal was set in this form These are all business reasons, which you do know. Just make the logic plain, and explain the rationale.
  • Success criteria Success criteria are often crucial in business, because of outlay, use of resources and other considerations
  • What you did to ensure success This is the tactical level. Describe your methods of setting subordinate goals, and researching what was required to achieve your objectives.
  • Tactical goal setting considerations Part Two of the previous point. The subsidiary operations have to be costed, and achieve things like sales targets, budget considerations, etc.
  • Monitoring progress toward goals Part Three, measuring success and keeping on track in terms of the Strategic objective.
  • Results Explain your results, that you achieved your goal or better, and any additional information showing your goal setting methods were effective.

The answer doesn't have to be a book. You can ask the interviewers how much detail they want. If they ask for a synopsis, use the basic points. If they ask for more detail, you can provide it, and you can also prove you know your work.

The How do you set your goals? question can be a showcase.

Use it as a marketing tool, not an obstacle course.