Establishing REAL Developmental Goals

Laura Francis


Career goals image of a trophy

Mentoring Relationship Goals

Most everyone knows about SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound. Chances are you have used this mnemonic acronym at some point in your career to help you focus in on a performance goal or complete a complex and multifaceted project. I myself have used it and have taught others about it.

Unfortunately, the SMART process is not one-size-fits-all. The problem arises when we start using SMART for all goals, regardless of what type of outcome or focus we want. In fact, we have been approaching SMART incorrectly. The SMART acronym actually guides the setting of objectives, not goals. When it comes to establishing developmental goals, SMART goals are all wrong.


Goals vs. Objectives

Goals and objectives are often confused, but serve two very different purposes.

  • Goals are the purpose towards which actions are directed, an aspirational desire that is worth striving towards. Goals are not measurable or tangible.
  • Objectives are things that one’s actions are expected to obtain, specific actions that result in goal attainment. Objectives must be measurable and tangible.

With these definitions in mind, I contend that when establishing developmental goals, it is better to avoid the rigor of the SMART acronym. While SMART goals are great for establishing performance measures, they conflict greatly with developmental activities. Instead, I recommend REAL goals for career development. The REAL acronym stands for Relevant, Experimental, Aspirational, and Learning-based.


When creating developmental goals, ideally you will describe these four attributes:

  1. Relevant – indicate why it is important and worthwhile.
  2. Experimental – imply development activity that will lead to greater insight.
  3. Aspirational – identify an area of desired development.
  4. Learning-based – express outcomes that are focused on gaining capability.


For example, look at these developmental goals. Notice how the REAL elements come into play:

  • Goal: Develop more strategic thinking. I want to improve my ability to see the big picture and take a longer view of critical business trends. I want to rise above the tactical day-to-day details that I manage and focus on the developing trends within my discipline.
  • Goal: Develop better remote management. I want to increase my effectiveness as a team leader with the direct reports that I manage remotely. I want to make better use of virtual technology to plan, connect, and collaborate.
  • Goal: Develop improved time management. I want to spend more time on important work activity. I want to learn ways to more effectively manage my priorities.

If these developmental goals had been written using the SMART acronym, they would look vastly different. They also would shift from being developmental goals to becoming performance objectives.

Let’s Get REAL

When it comes to personal or professional development, REAL goals provide a clear criterion against which activity can be planned and progress can be assessed. By doing so, we place the focus on relevant, experimental, aspirational and learning-based activities that can provide us with immediate next steps to take that will lead to great awareness. The feedback loop becomes one where we identify our REAL goal, try it out, assess how we did, and then adjust or repeat depending on the results. This is much different than focusing only on measurable outcomes, as you would with SMART goals.

Smart goal pic1

I firmly believe that using REAL goals to focus on your professional development will help you invest in gaining capabilities that will equip you for your preferred future. If you happen to be a manager of others, I encourage you to help your direct reports to set both SMART goals for short-term productivity objectives and REAL goals for developmental purposes. There’s a place for both; it’s just a matter of finding the right circumstances. Be sure to read our second blog on this topic to learn techniques for putting REAL goals into action.

Laura Francis