A leader's guide to meaningful goal-setting for team development

Align team goals with your organisation's vision with our step-by-step guide.

A leader's guide to meaningful goal-setting for team development

Picture this: your team member’s goals align perfectly with your company’s big vision. Your team feel engaged, happy and motivated. You’re feeling confident as a leader, and the organisation is ticking along like a well-oiled machine. 

It’s not just a win-win, it’s a win-win-win when individuals, leaders, and the organisation pull in the same direction. If this sounds like a distant dream, we have a step-by-step guide to help make this a reality. Read on!  

(We’ll use OKRs – Objectives and Key Results – as an example in this article. But replace this with your flavour of goal-setting framework, from SMART to MBO to 4DX.)

Step 1: Synthesise company/department-level OKRs.

Take the time to fully consider aspects like timeframe, budget, and team capabilities. Hopefully, you’re already having regular check-ins with your team and have a good idea of their strengths, gaps, and interests. Where have they expressed interest in terms of their career development? 

Career growth frameworks like Kaleida offer valuable insights into team dynamics and help you visualise strengths and opportunities at a glance.

Kaleida team dashboard showing the strengths and gaps in a team's strengths based on 10 core skills.
Sample team dashboard on the Kaleida platform, showing skill distribution across a team.

Let's use the dashboard above as an example. You may have an upcoming project with a security focus, and recognise that it's not a team strength. Even the seniors aren't performing at their level. When you're aware of this gap, you can plan the necessary resources for the team to meet its goals, whether it’s an external hire, contractor support, or L&D budget for the team.

Step 2: Present goals to the team and brainstorm team-level initiatives. 

Share the ‘whys’ and ‘whats’ of the objectives with the team. Involve them in ‘how’ those outcomes can be achieved. You’ve hired smart people, so why not let them try out their amazing ideas?

Brainstorm specific initiatives that roll up to a company or department-wide OKR. For instance, a company-wide OKR could be to reduce customer churn by 10%. Your team is responsible for developing features to increase user engagement. Your individual contributors could come up with a number of ideas to drive towards the outcome. For example, implementing better observability to measure customer engagement or highlighting new and upcoming features customers miss out on if they don’t renew.

The objectives should be formed as testable hypotheses and grounded in data so each initiative can be evaluated and adjusted if needed. A common mistake is for company-wide OKRs to be either too prescriptive (telling teams what specific features to build) or to be so broad that teams aren’t able to see how they impact the key result.  

Step 3: Set individual goals.

After the team has brainstormed initiatives to support the OKRs, it’s time to assign the work. Take into account the strengths and gaps of individuals and the team as a whole. Continue having one-to-ones with your team to talk through skills they’d like to grow in their career.

Kaleida team dashboard showing the strengths and gaps in a team's strengths based on 10 core skills.

Going back to our team dashboard, let’s say that Elisa is interested in developing her security skills. You’re reasonably confident that the security requirements of the project are manageable with a bit of coaching. You might approach Elisa to lead this initiative and bring on Heng and Foster to shadow and pair with her.

There could be an opportunity to tap Kimmo to be a mentor for these team members as the senior on the team, even if security is not his strength. He may have a gap in his coaching skills that could be developed. As a team leader, you would need to role model and practice coaching behaviour with Kimmo in one-to-ones, for the times that Lisa, Heng or Foster turn to him if you are not available. 

Ensure people can grow and demonstrate their skills within the remit of the business. Support your team in building actionable and time-based goals. For example, Elisa may need to be connected with a mentor from another team who is strong in security over the next month; or complete certain security courses to help build her skills during her personal development time in the weeks leading up to the project kickoff.

Step 4: Ensure goals are recorded.

What doesn’t get recorded, doesn’t get measured. The Kaleida platform has a career growth plan section for team members to record measurable and time-bound goals. Both team leader and team member can view this screen and incorporate it into regular check-ins. 

The key thing is to write the goals down somewhere. Even if it's a spreadsheet or a Word document. This creates a sense of accountability and makes progress tracking possible.

My career growth plan screen from Kaleida.
Team members and managers can record and track measurable and time-bound actions on the Kaleida platform. 

Step 5: Have regular check-ins. 

If teams are having check-ins that are too far apart, managers can get disconnected from what their team is working on. This is a recipe for disaster! The team risks getting derailed. In an ideal world, once goals are set, there should be a discussion of progress at every check-in. Add this as an agenda item for your one-to-ones and ask them, “How are you going with that initiative? Is it still your goal?”

Motivated individuals in healthy team cultures should be excited to share their progress, even outside of one-to-one meetings. If continuous learning is embedded within a company's culture, it becomes part of the day-to-day work, and hence part of the day-to-day conversations.

Step 6: Be prepared to intervene.

Team member motivation can wane over time, especially once the shine of a new and exciting thing wears off. It’s your job as a leader to motivate them to see the project through to completion. If they’ve encountered obstacles, encourage them to think of alternative approaches to solving the problem. Ask, “If it’s not working, have you found another way to get to the same outcome?”

Sometimes there is a skill level misalignment. You might have overestimated someone's skill level or underestimated the support they need. If someone is driving a mission-critical project they weren't quite ready for, a tough conversation is in order. If you have to bring on other resources or reassign the project, the original team member may lose some development opportunities.

It’s important to find a way to redirect the affected team member’s enthusiasm. It doesn't mean that the work they have done up to that point is invalid. Have an open conversation with them to explain the business imperative for your intervention. Give them some credit for the learning they've done and find other opportunities for them to develop.

Step 7: Have enough flexibility for goals to adapt. 

Changing goals is not a sign of failure. It's a cycle of progress and ongoing learning, rather than a pass/fail binary outcome.

A company may set an objective around expanding into a new region, with engineering teams setting initiatives and implementing localisation work such as new rules around currency, dates and times. But then – the project is cancelled! The company has decided to pivot to a new opportunity. 

If your team is dusting off goals right before a performance review, and they still relate to the localisation project – it’s a sign your goal-setting system isn't being used to its fullest potential. That’s why regular check-ins are so important. Regular touchpoints with your team allow you to communicate changes in strategy in a timely manner, so you avoid nasty surprises at the end of the quarter. It’s OK for goals to be thrown out and for the team to set new goals because the previous ones no longer apply.

Overcoming common challenges with team and individual goals

In this section, I’ll guide you through some common challenges around setting team and individual goals. Let's turn these obstacles into opportunities instead!

People pleasers

There may be people pleasers on your team who are happy to pick up any work given. Helpful though they may be as your ‘swiss army tools’, you do them a disservice by not helping them shape their career in an intentional way. Don’t farm off ‘undesirable’ or ‘unglamorous’ tasks to the people pleasers and make sure such tasks are shared fairly among the team.

When team members goals don’t align with OKRs

If someone wants to grow their skills in a way that doesn’t align with company goals, not all is lost. Encourage them to find a gap within their existing remit where they can productively explore their area of interest.

For example, if someone is passionate about DevOps in an org without an established DevOps culture, ask them how they could introduce best practices into their existing scope of work. Mid- to senior-level developers could incorporate tangible elements into a project, while junior developers could be encouraged to use personal development time to research and showcase what they have learnt to their team.

In extreme cases where a team member’s aspirations are completely out of step with company focus (e.g. wanting to work on greenfield projects when all teams are busy on integration work), you might need to have an honest but gentle conversation. Without pushing them out, you may need to work with other leaders to see if there is a different place in the organisation for them. Or they need to reflect if they are in the right place if they can’t get the growth they truly desire in their role.

Avoid falling into benign neglect

Leaders should strike a balance between being overly prescriptive and being too hands-off. Team members who have all aspects of their work dictated will feel stifled, but you shouldn’t leave goal-setting entirely up to team members without support.

You have more experience and organisational context than your individual contributors do, and your role is to guide them towards setting productive goals that align with the company’s strategy. Otherwise, you’re exercising benign neglect and leaving them adrift; unclear on how their work connects with broader goals.


An infographic titled 'A team leader's guide to goal-setting' by Kaleida. It features a circular, colorful diagram with seven steps in goal setting for technical leadership. Step 1: Aligning, which involves synthesizing company vision and mapping it to team strengths and gaps. Step 2: Communicating, about contextualizing, informing, and connecting the team with company goals. Step 3: Goal-setting, engaging team with actionable, time-bound goals that support company objectives. Step 4: Developing, investing in skill development and coaching to build a strong team. Step 5: Tracking, monitoring progress with regular check-ins. Step 6: Intervening, stepping in to support and guide when things are off-track. Step 7: Adapting, adapting goals to reflect changes in company strategy. The diagram has arrows connecting each step in a loop to emphasize the ongoing process. The subtitle states 'The complete toolkit to help you build excellence in technical leadership.' The Kaleida logo is at the bottom right.
A team leader’s role in goal-setting for a team is multi-faceted and challenging, but incredibly rewarding. 

I hope this has been a helpful guide on how to set goals that motivate and excite your team to do their best work. Setting goals for software engineering teams is like putting puzzle pieces together, where individual strengths and interests dovetail with the big-picture objectives of the company. 

When done right, goal-setting is an amplifier. It creates an environment of accountability and fosters a culture of continuous learning and improvement that enables teams, leaders and organisations to thrive.

Kaleida is the complete tech leader’s toolkit to transform the way you manage, mentor and motivate your team. Ready to take your team to the next level? Let’s get started today