Editor’s Note: Thought leader Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a noted executive coaching and management consultancy. Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for WRAL TechWire. Grace’s core offerings are one-on-one coaching for CEOs and their leadership teams, and conducting strategic reviews for companies at a critical juncture. A TED speaker, she is hired to facilitate workshops on Personal Branding and Speaking Success and lead HappinessWorks programs for companies and campuses.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – This morning I asked a client what his ritual is for year end, goals he had for the new year and if he’d like an accountability partner for his plan to get there.  He had spent the last few days in his office purging “the old” in order to welcome “the new.”  He was in the midst of a multi-day review of the last year – both accomplishments and lessons learned.

Grace Ueng (Photo by Christer Berg)

He was also starting to articulate his top goals for 2023, and definitely wanted to share his plans at our next session for us to track progress over this year.

Now is a good time to reflect on learnings from the prior 12 months and plan for the upcoming year. This simple formula will help you to achieve desired goals.  In my last column, It’s Time for New Year’s resolutions – but here’s a better way to make changes, we talked about how resolutions are most often broken within a few weeks unless turned into goals with an associated step by step action plan.

What I learned at General Mills and Clorox: Business Review, Key Issues, Plans

When I graduated from business school, I embarked on a career in brand management at marketing leaders General Mills and Clorox.  A key skill gained through a series of demanding brand assignments was how to conduct a thorough business review, define key issues, and then write a detailed plan. We spent weeks in “plans” – poring through reams of data and market research to understand the impact of trade and consumer promotions on incremental sell-through, how introducing a new size, flavor, or entirely new product boosted volume, and how our new star spokesperson performed in moving the dial on the brand.

From this analysis, paired with our forecast for revenue and profitability, we defined our top three key issues to focus on figuring out in the coming year in order to meet our financial targets.  From these three key issues, we set ambitious brand goals.  We then worked closely with market research, promotions, our advertising agency, R&D, and sales to piece together a step by step collaborative plan that would serve as our month to month blueprint for action.

In ensuing years, I took the rigor of the powerfully focused planning process from these  Fortune 500 brand leaders to my technology start-ups to create successful outcomes there also. This enabled us, even in a much faster paced and compressed time horizon, to have a clearly articulated roadmap to achieve the goals that my leadership team and our investors desired.

Review past year.  Articulate Key Issues for the coming year. Set big goals.  Write a plan to get there. Don’t set goals for others, just set high goals for yourself.  Then your brain does the rest.  It’s that simple!

Why does this process work? Goal setting is a scientifically proven way to restructure your brain cells so that you’re more successful. Research shows that ambitious goals are far more motivating than easily achieved goals because they more thoroughly structure your brain.

Your amygdala, which is the part of your brain that creates emotion, evaluates the degree to which the goal is important to you. Then your frontal lobe, the portion that does the problem solving, defines the specifics of reaching the goal.

Together, the amygdala and frontal lobe keep you focused on situations and behaviors that lead to the achievement of that goal, while at the same time making you ignore the situations and behaviors that do not.

If you strongly desire a goal, you reduce the evaluation of the difficulty of achieving that goal.  Your brain perceives obstacles as less significant when you are highly emotionally attached to a goal.

Your brain’s neuroplasticity allows the structure of your brain to change so that it is optimized to achieve the goal you set.

The brain-changing power of goal setting works only when it taps into the characteristics of the goal-setter’s brains. Why a child needs to set a goal not the parent, and why a team member needs to set their own goal, not their boss.  A leader should set ambitious, challenging goals for themselves and then think through how to inspire others to do the same.

At my start-ups, I fervently desired the goals I set out for myself.  In turn, my teams, seeing my passion, were inspired to set their own lofty goals.  I now know that we were simply organizing our brains to work their best with the crazy ambitious goals we set for ourselves!

2022 Year End Review: Plan for 2023

Last year, many of you wrote to share when a column meant something to you. Thank you.  That inspires me to continue writing for you.

Is there an area that you are most passionate about that you’d like to develop a plan to achieve an ambitious goal in 2023?

Here are a few areas from last year’s columns that you might want to choose from:

[1]        Develop a culture of psychological safety in order to achieve greatness. Psychological safety is not a perk or a nice to have. It is essential in creating the passionate employee engagement that leads to the desire to build and innovate. While this safety is not the gas that fills the tank, it releases the brakes to help innovation to take hold and then accelerate.

If you want to create a fearless organization, here’s how discusses the key questions to assessing and building psychological safety in your company.

[2]        Know thyself well – this is the  essence of leadership.  I share highlights of HBS Professor Scott Snook’s last lecture on 5 skills on how to increase our self awareness as well as The Counterintuitive Role of Vulnerability.

What can you do this year to uncover your blind spots in order to know yourself better?

[3]        Do only the things that only you can do.  Are you as intentional about what you choose to take out of your life as to what you stuff in?  When I begin a coaching engagement, I am often told by my client that they are challenged by the demands that so many people and projects place on their time.

I spell out the five takeaways from research on how CEOs use their time more effectively.  Which of these five areas do you already have in place?  Which can you improve upon?

[4]        Increase your vulnerability, a critical leadership trait.  90% of students at Stanford Graduate School of Business take the “Touchy Feely” course and decades later say it proved the most helpful of all. In this interpersonal dynamics class, students learn the absolute importance of vulnerability, trust, and empathy in forming close knit relationships.

Learn to share your failure openly.  In Vulnerability is an attractive leadership trait, I share how years ago, I was fearful of sharing my failure as I thought it was a sign of weakness. And how now, I share very easily.  Sharing vulnerably about oneself naturally builds trust between two people.  When was the last time you did so?

[5]        Increase your confidence. Many extraordinarily capable and smart leaders I coach do not have the confidence levels that you would expect, so I partner with them to increase their self efficacy. Research shows that higher self-confidence and self-esteem predict a higher level of happiness. Happy people are in better touch with themselves and their emotions and believe in themselves, and this connection can raise confidence levels.

Success correlates more closely with confidence than it does with competence. Learn more: Confidence adds to happiness, and happiness adds to confidence – a virtuous cycle!

[6]        Ensure your team is mentally well and happy.  Happiness is what leads to success, not the other way around. Those who read my launch column, know that I struggled with a depressive episode and how I now help corporations invest in the mental well-being of their employees through Savvy’s  HappinessWorks™programs.  These clients know that the science of positive psychology and happiness works, but it doesn’t just happen.  It takes work, ongoing work.

Research shows that to be a successful leader, you need to understand happiness and how to manage it – yours and those you lead. Most leaders learn this through the school of hard knocks…until now.  With the expanding science of happiness, we can now learn how to be happy in order to be the best possible leader, and to make others happier as well.

Thank you for joining me on this journey.

I look forward to achieving ambitious goals in 2023 alongside each of you!

 About Grace Ueng

Grace is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003. Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” are what clients value most.

Companies hire her firm for leadership coaching and strategy consulting as well as to  facilitate HappinessWorks™ programs, infusing the happiness advantage into corporate culture, leading to higher productivity and results.

A marketing strategist, Grace held leadership roles at five high growth technology ventures that successfully exited through acquisition or IPO. She started her career at Bain & Company and then worked in brand management at Clorox and General Mills. She earned her undergraduate degree from MIT and MBA from Harvard Business School.

Grace and her partner, Rich Chleboski, accomplished cleantech veteran, develop and implement strategies to support the growth of impact-focused companies and then coach their leaders in carrying out their strategic plans. Their expertise spans all phases of the business from evaluation through growth and liquidity.