Planning out long-term career goals has always been a challenge for me, and I’ve come to accept that it’s for good reason: I am led by curiosity and want to keep my options open for what sparks my interest. That said, I am not happy unless I’m continuously growing.
For my fellow malleable achiever-types, what I’ve found works really nicely is setting quarterly goals. It’s a long enough period that you have time to make in-roads on a priority, without introducing a limiting or overwhelming timescale. And if your organization uses OKRs, you have a familiar format to reach for when setting your goals.
A note on that: this post assumes some familiarity with OKR structures, and also does not attempt to write them perfectly. Learn more about OKRs
What kinds of goals should I set?
A handy framework for me—a product manager—is to focus on:
- 1 outcome I want to achieve for the product/business.
- 1 outcome the team or my peers need.
- 1 professional skill or quality to develop further.
This short set of outcomes provides a nice mix of growth types: it sets me up to deliver on my core responsibilities, lead as a more-senior individual contribution, and “sharpen the saw”.
For these, I adopt or adapt organizational OKRs, and consider what agency I have in terms of driving those goals. My personal objective may match a team-level objective or key result verbatim (typically one that I’ve helped write!). My key results (KRs) will reflect what I can do as a product manager to drive those goals.
Sample objective: Increase such-and-such North Star metric by x%.
- Conduct a relevant user research study to uncover customer opportunities.
xcustomer calls related to this topic with the Sales team.
- Execute on
ysupporting initiatives with the cross-functional team.
By the way: the nice thing about personal OKRs is that you don’t have to go in circles debating whether they are written “correctly”. You can just implement something that works for you and adjust your approach each quarter as you learn.
For this one I consider what “the team” needs most right now. I put “the team” in quotes because as product manager, we may feel belong to more than one scope of team. There’s:
- The cross-functional pods or feature teams we execute on initiatives with.
- The functional product management team.
- Our broader organizational division, or in fact, partner teams elsewhere in the organization.
Which “peer outcome” to focus on tends to come up naturally. It reflects a trend I’ve observed or something that I’ve heard my peers express frustration about. This could be a missing part of our process, a cultural concern, or a weak relationship with a partner team.
Sample objective: Improve X relationships with Y.
- KR: Conduct 3 1:1s with Y to understand their goals, motivations, and challenges.
- KR: Brainstorm 3 solutions with X and Y that support our shared goals.
- KR: Pilot 1 solution for [period of time] and evaluate impact.
Professional skills or qualities
Often this is a capability I want to improve or build upon. It could instead be an opportunity to flex strengths or keep a skill fresh.
PMs might work on skills like:
- Customer discovery
- Data analysis
- Influence without authority
- Communication (I once set a goal around brevity…still working on it!)
- Market research
- Design sense
- Area-specific technical knowledge
Sample objective: Build on statistical analysis chops.
This was from my Q2 this year!
- KR: Read “Naked Statistics” by Charles Wheelan.
- KR: Complete [redacted] tutorials. ← I ended up scoring 0.33 on this one because I found them to be lower value and bailed out a third of the way through.
- KR: Learn how to calculate
- KR: Conduct 1 data analysis project, unrelated to a specific initiative launch.
Personal personal goals
If you too are a massive nerd, you can apply individual OKRs to your personal life as well. They’re not for everyone—and depending on my season of life, sometimes not even for me. But they can be helpful if you have an itch for personal development, and especially if you want to achieve all the things right now (it’s me, hi). By choosing just 3 objectives a quarter for your personal life, you can narrow the field of focus.
Next quarter, my personal objectives are to:
- 🏃♀️ Bring my average resting heart rate down to
- 🕊️ Strengthen spiritual connections.
- 🧶 Make regular time for my creative hobbies.
Their KRs each include specific and measurable projects and habits. Again, I try to pick a mix of life areas, particularly those that need a little love right now.
Keep a live connection
A great way to not hit your goals is to write them down and then never revisit them until end of quarter.
What I like to do is revisit my professional goals every Friday as part of a work week wrapup. Sunday nights are when I reflect on my personal goals. During these weekly reviews, I:
- Look at my KRs and update the scores based on progress I’ve made that week.
- Reflect on how I’m tracking at this point in the quarter. Anything I need to do to catch up?
- Identify the “next best steps”: what specific steps should I take next week to stay on track?
For me, a weekly cadence keeps my goals top of mind, without letting their maintenance outweigh their impact. You might find a different cadence works best for you.
How do you set goals?
That’s my professional goal-setting in a nutshell! Give it a try if you’re feeling overwhelmed by too-long timescales, or too many interests clamoring for primacy. Personal development is always a work in progress, so I’d love to compare notes on goal-setting. What does that look like for you?