Managers, teams and individuals need the focus that goals provide.

Before setting performance or production goals in today's competitive business climate, managers need to ask themselves this question: Am I creating a list of static rules and regulations, or am I designing a fluid set of goals that will encourage employees to excel?

Static "rules" - often disguised as goals - seldom work in a dynamic business that is afflicted by the vagaries of bad weather, volatile markets, fickle customers and evolving consumer tastes.

Instead, goals should represent targets that instill pride in employees, and they should build upon one another to create a cohesive, understandable framework of expectations.

Jeff Rudolph, general manager of Hi-Gain Feedlot at Cozad, NE, begins by putting in writing the five most important elements of each employee's job.

"I call it an individual's recipe for success because that's precisely what it is," Rudolph says. "It tells that employee what is important, what the level of performance needs to be, and how to achieve it. Quality people really thrive in an environment where they know the recipe for success and how to reach it."

When setting production goals, Rudolph bases his decisions on what it takes to be competitive. He begins with individual goals then expands to team goals.

"An example would be a goal of 20 or fewer deaths per month for a 15,000- to 20,000-head feedlot," Rudolph explains. "The pen riders and the hospital crew are chiefly responsible for that, so if you have 18 deaths they've met that goal.

"Then you ask if 20 was too many. Involve the crew in that decision, but beware. They are likely to hold themselves to a higher standard than you would. So pull back and stay realistic.

"When you establish goals, you empower your employees to strive and achieve. In effect, you've said, 'Here's the goal, go win it.' "

Positive Attitude Another important factor when setting goals is to frame them in a positive light. That starts at the top.

Jim Miller, president of Miller Feedlots in Lasalle, CO, says, "I have a tremendous group of employees that always does its best to achieve our goals. So my chief responsibility is to stay positive even when times are tough. The power of positive thinking is real and I have to communicate that.

"When discussing goals, I always do it in the yard - in their environment - rather than in my office. And I always begin by asking, 'How can I help you?' Make the discussion personal, and make it a natural part of everyday business. As the top guy, my attitude will help our people work together for common goals."

Rod Weatherly, president and general manager of Heritage Beef Cattle Company in Wheeler, TX, shares Miller's concerns. After a period of rapid expansion, Weatherly is refocusing his management approach to a team concept.

"We've reached the point where management responsibilities must be spread out," he says. "Goals for individuals and teams are shifting, but my chief goal is unchanged: I must strive to be an effective coach and leader. Morale is my responsibility. I can never hang my head. I must maintain an air of confidence. And I must express that attitude around everyone - customers, managers and employees."

Time Frame As part of the recipe for success, goals first must be doable, then they must be rational. At Sudan Livestock and Feeding in Sudan, TX, manager Dan Cantrell focuses on specific time frames when he sets goals.

For regular employees Cantrell reviews goals on a weekly and monthly basis. "The reason," he says, "is that those guys are the ones in the trenches battling every day. There is no need to confuse them with too much of the big picture. Their goal is to accomplish that next task right now or next week.

"The next level is my department managers, and I've found that they are very good at providing input for our mid-range goals, six months to a year. A two-year goal is not really valid for them.

"Then come my partners and myself. We tackle the long-range goals like growth and maintaining or expanding our customer base. All customers have some service needs in common, but we have to be able to fit their needs individually, as well. Adopting new technology fits there," Cantrell says.

Jeff Curtis, owner/manager of Curtis Custom Feeders in Connell, WA, also says meeting customer needs is his No. 1 goal.

"First of all, customers rely on me for sound advice," he explains. "In this business climate I'll recommend a client sell his cattle at a break-even price. And if they have a couple of respiratory deaths that I don't feel are justified, I'll buy those cattle. Sometimes they don't even know - they probably figure they were purchased for slaughter. But if you set a goal of providing great customer service, that's one of the ways you meet it."

Team-Oriented Goals The next level of goals concerns those that are team oriented. Erick Farmer, owner/manager of Eckley Feed Yard near Yuma, CO, embodies the team player. Two years ago, he bought an old feedlot containing only 600 head. He expanded it to 12,000 head within three months.

Farmer's first goal was simple: Fix gates, fences, feed bunks and equipment to get the place in top shape. Then, he implemented real team goals.

"I'm a hands-on manager who functions as one of the crew," he says. "We all work together and we share the same goals. We shoot for 0.3% annual death loss and we don't want any pen-deads. That takes constant vigilance.

"Once we got fine-tuned, we decided to eliminate chute bruises and injection damage. With implants we want 100% accuracy with no site contamination. It's continuous pursuit of team goals and you can get there. But it takes a top-flight crew. They have to be honest, motivated and confident. In effect, they set goals for themselves. I don't even have to tell them what the goals are; they just trickle down through constant communication."

While some goals are easily measured, Jim Cobine finds himself in quite a different situation. As general manager of Masami Foods in Klamath Falls, OR, Cobine feeds for a Japanese owner and an export (Wagyu beef) market.

"We face a very difficult feeding environment," he says. "We get specific instructions from Japan, there are language barriers, and we feed these animals for a year - not for 100 days. So the whole operation revolves around team effort.

"Success is measured by grade, so we have to have employees who are very skilled at examining the animals. They have to determine if they are still progressing, or have they reached the stopping point? Did we start them on feed too early or too late? If they are put on feed too early it costs too much to feed them out. If we start them too late they won't make grade. So education/training is the No. 1 goal. Still, because there is no formula we are proved wrong about as often as we are proved right. It's a constant challenge, and we never stop monitoring our progress."

Individual Goals When setting goals for individuals, Dan Cantrell says the most important factor is that the goal must be attainable - with some stretch - and also measurable. For example, he says a goal for 0% death loss is a poor goal because it's not attainable. But shooting for less than 1% is attainable and measurable.

"We want our feed truck drivers to deliver within one percent of the called amount of feed," he says. "And the feed must be placed in clean bunks - that's pass/fail. They are either clean or they are not. We also don't want any spoilage or any feces in the bunks.

"Another goal, during processing, is that implant retention be 97% or higher. To measure that we have ear checks twice each month.

"Goals should be set very carefully. But I believe that if there's no stretch involved, you are not dealing with a goal. Instead, you are living with the status quo."

According to Neal Odom, managing partner of McLean Feedyard, Inc., in McLean, TX, individual goals need to evolve.

"Goal setting is an ongoing process that is particularly valuable for an employee who is not up to speed," Odom says. "Consistency in job performance is what I look for and goals are stated along the way. If an employee is performing something poorly, I'll set a goal for the next step - sometimes within a time frame. I like to work from a baseline and show them the targets we are working toward. When their performance hits that desired level of consistency, I move the bar up."

All goals, however, are not strictly based on performance levels. Rod Weatherly has a unique set of goals that are based on pride.

"In 1995 we won the Environmental Stewardship Award from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association," he says. "We wanted to continue that tradition so we put cleanliness and neatness on the top of our list.

"There are no soft drink cans on the ground. Whether it's cleaning a fence or blading a road we want it to look great when it's done. It may sound simple but everyone here takes a lot of pride in the way our grounds look. Employees of each department take care of their area and it has been a real morale booster."

When setting daily, weekly or monthly production goals for employees, it's important to understand the process - and know how goal setting can go wrong. For a concise, thorough explanation on the psychology of setting goals, it's hard to beat a Web site based in Great Britain called Mind Tools (www.MindTools.com). Designed as a self-help resource, it will aid managers who want to construct practical goals for their employees. Here's their recipe for success:

Common problems to avoid Many managers make the mistake of setting goals that are unrealistically high. Even if done unintentionally, it's likely your employee will put little effort into trying to achieve it. On the other hand, goals that are not challenging enough will be perceived as a waste of time. So be realistic.

Goals also should be very specific. If a goal is too vague, and performance cannot be measured, it's difficult to decide if the goal has been reached. Goals must be precise and measurable.

How to set effective goals It's much better to set positive rather than negative goals. People respond better when they are taught how to reach a goal, rather than told the consequences of failure.

Another important concept is to set priorities because employees need to know what comes first. Give each goal a clear ranking so the person responsible for reaching the goal does not feel overwhelmed.

Also, keep routine production goals in the proper perspective. If basic goals are too large, employees may get the feeling that they are not progressing. Achievable goals give more opportunity for reward and a feeling of satisfaction.

Be realistic A common problem is to set a goal for someone else based only on what you want. Consider the desires and ambitions of the person expected to reach the goal.

Another common problem is not providing sufficient information to the employee. This is a training issue. Be sure the employee has the knowledge needed to successfully reach the goal.

Goals also should not be based at a level considered to be top performance. If someone ran a four-minute mile when they were 22 years old, it's unrealistic to expect them to beat that time when they are 45.

Set performance goals, not outcome goals Outcome goals are risky for two reasons. First, they set a specific plateau that is the only measure of success. Second, an outcome goal does not allow for outside influences beyond the employee's control - like weather, poor markets or injury.

As an example, consider a mile race where the runner's goal is to finish in the top three. That's an outcome goal. During the race, a judge makes a mistake and disqualifies the runner. Due to something beyond the runner's control, he cannot reach his goal.

On the other hand, if the runner had set a performance goal - to finish the race in a specific time - he could achieve the goal despite the judge's error.

Give feedback When an employee achieves a goal, let them enjoy it. And if the goal was significant, reward them.

If an employee fails to reach a goal, make sure they learn why, so they can apply that knowledge to future tasks. Did they put enough effort into the task? Did they apply themselves enough to learn the necessary skills? Was their knowledge base adequate?

Finally, be aware as a manager that goals constantly need to evolve. Reevaluate goals regularly to keep them in line with your vision - and your employees' abilities.