Goal-oriented v. Strategy-oriented

I’ve had several jobs where I’m in a position to read a lot of CVs and cover letters and talk to a lot of job candidates. There are certain phrases that I’ve learned to just gloss over because they’re so generic that they say little about a given candidate. The worst offender? “Goal-oriented.”

Here’s how I interpret that term: Being goal-oriented means you run marathons, climb mountains, smash sales records. You set a goal and then you do whatever it takes to hit it. In the process, you’re not distracted by pain, exhaustion, or shiny objects. Giving up would lead to an identity crisis. You just get it done.

Here’s why I have a problem with that: Goal-orientation lacks flexibility and nuance. Goals are set in advance, and goal-orientation is inherently incompatible with reconsidering your goals, shifting them based on new information, or abandoning them entirely.

I’d much rather you be strategy-oriented. Being strategy-oriented doesn’t mean you lack goals, just as being goal-oriented doesn’t mean you lack strategy. It just means your emphasis and focus are in a different place.

Being strategy-oriented means you have a clear reasoning for why your actions will achieve your goals and why lower-level goals serve higher-level ones. This clear reasoning can be interrogated as opportunity costs shift or you learn new things. In fact, your strategy likely includes active probing of the environment, your own capabilities, and changes in both.

Here’s the difference:

  • Goal-orientation means that when you decide to start marathon training and go on a 5-mile run, you’re going to finish those all 5 of those miles—even if you realize at mile 3 that your knees are aching and you’ll need an extra two days to recover because you aren’t in the shape you thought you were in.
  • Strategy-orientation incorporates that new information about your knees, recognizes the tradeoffs, and reassesses the 5-mile goal in light of the broader goals, such as fitness and well-being. You adjust your route to 4 miles, give yourself extra time for stretching, and make sure you can wear comfortable shoes the rest of the day.

In a world of nuance and complexity, we need more strategy-orientation.