Step 4. Agree on What You Want to Accomplish – 10 Steps to Successful Coaching, 2nd Edition

Step 4

Agree on What You Want to Accomplish


• Identifying topics for coaching

• Defining SMART and 3-T goals

• Action planning options

I used to have a New Yorker cartoon in my office that showed a man standing beside a poster of a very simple three-step flowchart. The box at the top of the chart read, “Start,” the box at the bottom read, “End,” and the middle box said, “Something wonderful happens here.” The caption at the bottom of the cartoon was the voice of someone in this man’s audience asking, “Can you be a little more specific about that middle step?”

Coaching is something wonderful, but what’s going to come of it will need to be defined. Otherwise, your sessions will be as ambiguous and confusing as the middle step in my cartoon.

You and your coachee will need to agree about what he wants to be coached on (focus) and what outcomes he is seeking (goals). You’ll need action planning tools to help guide the coachee to achieve those goals and some level of accountability for attaining them.

Where Should You Focus the Coaching?

Many people in the workplace want some of this wonderful thing called coaching, but they don’t know what they want coaching to focus on. For example, people being groomed for positions of greater responsibility might have been told they’d benefit from having a coach, but they don’t know quite where to begin. Or, a coachee will have so many things he wants to discuss, and you’ll need to narrow down your focus.

In step 2, I shared a premise from the book Good to Great. I was talking about in whom to invest your coaching resources. The same concept can be applied to what your coachee decides to work on in coaching. When we capitalize on those things that make us great, we become exceptional, we attract people to us, and we can transform our dreams into reality. If we focus instead on those parts of us that are mediocre and need fixing, we’ll take longer, grow discouraged, and not get as far.

This isn’t to say that we can ignore those areas in us that need work. We need some level of competence in areas where we don’t excel. For instance, if following up or filling out forms is an area of weakness, we can’t just stop calling people back or stop completing our timecards. We have to develop a minimum level of ability in any area that can’t be erased from our lives.

But when we share our special beauty and wisdom—our unique strengths—with the world, that’s when we shine. Investing our energies for self-improvement and growth in the areas in which we excel will yield the greatest and most fulfilling returns. (Incidentally, when we rise to the greatness within us and are engaged in the world at that level, we can find and nurture someone else whose strength is in one of our weak areas.)

For example, one of my clients received several annual performance reviews that cited her written communication and computer skills as needing improvement. To address this gap, she struggled through training courses in these areas of weakness, but the concepts never stuck with her. When we started working together, I asked her to tell me about the strengths cited in her reviews: “wonderful people-person,” “the one customers waited to talk to,” “the one who brought harmony to departmental meetings,” “the person who welcomed and trained new employees in the division.” We changed her focus from trying to overcome her weaknesses to sharing her strengths more purposefully and visibly. She ended up moving to a training department and excelling as a trainer. She played to her strengths. Make sure your coachee isn’t focusing his entire development to an area of weakness.

Tool 4-1 is one way for coach and coachee to identify possible coaching topics. The ratings your coachee assigns to his current levels of satisfaction in each area are good tools for determining what you’ll focus on. You can coach him in the areas where he scored lowest if you want to raise his competency in (and, therefore, his satisfaction with) those skill areas; or you may agree to concentrate on the topics that give him the greatest satisfaction if you want to capitalize on his strengths. You also might want to find out how he arrived at the numbers he assigned as well as which of these areas he feels are most critical in his position, and how much time heis currently allocating to those that are more—or less—critical. Obviously, there are lots of ways to go with the information you’ll get from this activity.

Some of the questions you asked in step 3—like “What changes do you want to make?” or “What would you be doing if time and resources were plentiful?”—are also helpful in defining how your time together will be spent. They’re a good place to start as you agree on a focus for coaching.

TOOL 4-1

Coachee instructions: The left-hand column contains a list of topics you may want to focus on in coaching. The bottom of the form asks for any other topics you may want to add. In the right-hand column, circle the appropriate number to indicate your present level of satisfaction with each item. 1 = not at all satisfied; 10 = completely satisfied.


Be forthcoming when there is a specific skill or behavior that you know the coachee can use help with, or that you’ve been asked to coach her on. Asking an open-ended question like, “What would you like coaching on?” in these situations can be tricky because they may ask for coaching in an area that is vastly different from the one you’re there to work on. In all situations, it’s important to get their buy-in and to make coaching a two-way conversation, but, in this case, it’s also important to help them to notice. In these cases, this might sound like: “I’m here today to help you with delegating. Your boss said this is an area that could use some improvement, and it’s one I love doing, so maybe some of the strategies I know will work for you, too. Since I’m here anyway, is there anything else I can support you with?” or “Our manager wants to see you do XYZ. I’m here today to help you come up with strategies to improve in that area. Are there any other ideas you also want to strategize about that maybe our manager isn’t aware of?”

Goal Setting

Now that you and your coachee have a focus, what does addressing that focus look like? Where does your coachee want to be in relation to this focus? This ideal state will become his goal. Those goals form your itinerary for coaching. They are the reference points that you will keep coming back to and checking on. Goals are going to be where there is definite proof that the coachee is moving somewhere, and goals are the finish line that the coachee is striving to reach.

I’m not suggesting that the goals you and your coachee set will remain static during your work together. It’s often true that goals need to be adjusted as you go. When goals change, it’s a positive reminder that they are living things. When a coachee wants to change a goal, it says that he’s been thinking about it in a meaningful way rather than just hanging it on his wall as background art.

Methods for Setting Goals

When it comes time for goal setting, use whatever format works for you and your coachee. The format you choose will depend on many factors, including whether your coachee is more detail oriented or more of a big-picture person, whether he responds well to written road maps or to his instincts, and whether the goals will be shared with others.

Many of you will use SMART goals. This type of goal has been popular for some time. The acronym SMART reminds you that your goals should be Specific, Measurable, Appropriate, Realistic, and Timely. (Don’t be alarmed if your understanding of SMART goals differs slightly from the terms I’ve used here. SMART goals have been used extensively and some people have substituted similar terms to define them.)

I use what I call 3-T goals. They’re like SMART goals, but I’ve taken a couple of SMART aspects out and added one aspect that I feel is lacking in SMART goals—a tie-in to something that makes you want to achieve the goal in the first place. When people sit down to write their goals, something usually motivates them to do so. But written goals generally don’t include that primary motivation. That’s too bad because remembering why the goal is important to them can re-energize coachees when their efforts to reach their goals have failed and they’re feeling discouraged or overwhelmed. I like to include right there in the written goal the hook that will keep the coachee moving toward her goal on those days when she hardly can recall why the goal was important. 3-T goals are Tangible, Time-bound, and Tied to something that matters to you. The arrows in Tool 4-2 show how SMART goals map to 3-T goals.

Here are some examples of 3-T goals:

• Two months from now [time bound], I’ll have a system to follow up on calls and letters, I’ll be on time, get all tasks accomplished, and have realistic goals for new projects [tangible]. I choose to do all of this in the service of my value of being there for others [tied to something that matters].

• To deepen my relationship with Ricardo and to help him become more fulfilled and productive in his job [tied to something that matters], by next Friday [time bound], I will ask him to work with me as my coachee [tangible].

TOOL 4-2

Let’s talk about “tangible” for a moment. Something that’s tangible can be felt or observed; it’s obvious. Some goals are more easily made tangible than are others. One of the main determinants of how tangible you can make your goals is based on the distinction between what the coachee wants to accomplish and who he wants to become. Some things he wants are certain outward accomplishments—a transfer to a new position in the organization, to finish a report or presentation, or to receive a raise. These goals are often shorter-term outcomes and are more easily observable. Others are more internal and intangible, like becoming more trusting, more approachable, more confident, or less of a micromanager. These goals have more to do with who the coachee is in the workplace, and they usually require more time and deeper exploration to realize. However, these goals are often the ones that are going to have the greatest positive impact on the individual and the organization.

To highlight this distinction between doing and being, let’s take an item from that coaching topics list (Tool 4-1), visibility in the organization. A “doing” outcome to increase your coachee’s visibility might be publishing an article in the company newsletter or heading an important project team; a “being” outcome might be growing more comfortable stating his accomplishments or being in the limelight. Clearly, the latter is a more universal, deeper goal.

It’s easy for some of the “doing” tasks in one’s life to be described in concrete terms (I will get to work 20 minutes earlier each day, I will speak up three times in every meeting); it’s harder to do so with some of the “being” tasks. But you can make measurable something like being more trusting. For instance, I ask my clients to give me a number between one and 10 that describes how trusting they are and a number that describes how trusting they want to become. Our resulting goal sounds something like this: “Over the next six months, I want to come to trust my employees at a level of eight. That will make my relationships with them easier and more fun and give me back some of the time I now spend checking up on them.”

Another aspect of tangible goals is that they can be measured easily. When working with measurable goals, remember that you’ll want to collect baseline data right at the start of the coaching relationship. You’ll use this data later to track your coachee’s advancement. You can also assign a 10-point scale to just about anything, like how confident, nervous, energetic, powerful, happy, or engaged your coachee feels today. Of course, baseline data can be more rigorous as well. Some things one might track to measure a coachee’s progress over time include:

• turnover rate among coachee’s direct reports

• employee attendance patterns

• morale scores on a survey

• number of awards received by the coachee

• number of emails sent each day

• number of meetings on calendar each day

• number of presentations given

• performance review scores of coachee or coachee’s direct reports.

When you have these baseline measurements, you can return to them at intervals throughout your coaching, looking for trends over time as well as for evidence of progress.

And now a few words about tying goals to something meaningful. You might notice in the examples I provided that, when talking about the tie-in, these goals usually contain the word “my”—my value of being there for others, my relationship with Ricardo. That’s because this component has to address what’s meaningful to the coachee, the person creating the goals. I often share this quote from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche with my clients: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” There will be days when doing what you and your coachee are working on will be hard. It’s those days when your coachee needs to connect to his why and endure.

Therefore, statements like the following do not count as ties to something meaningful: “because I was told to,” “because it’s part of my job,” or “to keep my job.” These statements may be true, but they’re “shoulds,” and they aren’t particularly inspiring. If these are the reasons that your coachee is sharing with you, probe more deeply: Why do you want to do it just because you were told to? Why do you want to keep your job? The answers to those questions are the significant facts that compel your coachee to do something—“it gives me pleasure to check things off my list,” “I feel complete when I’m doing what people expect of me,” or “My paycheck lets me live the life I enjoy.” Similarly, “because my employees will benefit greatly from it” doesn’t fly here. That’s why the goal is meaningful to your coachee’s employees, not why it’s meaningful to him. Maybe that translates into something like “because I feel satisfied and happy when I help others” or “because when my employees are benefiting, they’re more positive and my work environment improves.” In setting goals, as in coaching as a whole, the focus is on the coachee and his desires and needs.

I had a powerful illustration of the importance of tying action to what’s personally meaningful in a meeting of a former boss (the HR director for Redwood City), the city manager, and me. We’d gotten together to talk about succession planning citywide. My boss and I really needed our boss (the city manager) to champion succession planning. But he told us honestly that although this was something he knew we should (there’s that loaded word again!) be doing, it wasn’t something he was excited about. My boss expertly tied succession planning to the city manager’s passion (community building), pointing out that if key positions became vacant, community building would be stalled and the community would become frustrated with the lack of staff responsiveness. This connection was all it took for the city manager to realize how important succession planning was to him and to the initiatives he held dear to his heart. From that point forward, he wholeheartedly supported it.

You don’t have to use 3-T or SMART goals, but you will want something that puts into place a vision toward which your coachee can strive.


When we state our goals aloud, we are more likely to act upon them than if we keep them to ourselves. This isn’t a big surprise. For one thing, once you announce what you intend to do, there are other people holding you accountable, or, at least, people you don’t want to disappoint. For another, when you are thinking about a goal, it may not be a fully formed thought. When you speak it aloud, you have to find a way to clearly articulate it, thus refining it further just by saying it. Finally, once you’ve told one person, it snowballs from there, as you feel more comfortable sharing it with a widening circle. These are the reasons why even talking regularly about goals within a coaching pair can be valuable.

How Many Goals?

While there are disagreements about how many goals it is possible to work on—and achieve—at once, there does seem to be consensus that less is more—and that those few really be ones that matter. Having fewer, meatier goals allows you to focus more intently and promotes accomplishment.

Productivity specialists at FranklinCovey surveyed thousands of teams and discovered these facts:

• If a team has two to three primary goals, they are likely to achieve two to three of them.

• If a team has four to 10 primary goals, they are likely to achieve one or two of them, and the one or two that they achieve will be the easier goals, not necessarily the more important ones.

• If a team has 11 or more goals, they are like to achieve none of them.

Additionally, having a small number of goals—say, one or two—allows you to revisit goals more frequently. As you finish one, you can re-examine your priorities and choose another. This means your goals are more dynamic and your goal setting process remains a live one. Revisiting a smaller number of goals more frequently also helps appease those who feel that as the nature of work changes frequently, goal setting isn’t a worthwhile activity.


A coach response to a coachee who is resistant to set goals because “things change too fast here,” is to ask questions like “What motivates you and your staff in the absence of goals?” “How might goals help or harm your day-to-day operations?” or “How can goals be created that can withstand change?”

Action Planning

When you and your coachee have pictured where he is going, he’ll need to start thinking about how he’s going to get there. Again, how this is recorded or thought about will vary, depending on the coachee. Some people prefer a more formal and detailed plan, as in Tool 4-3. Others want a visual reminder like the fishbone action plan in Tool 4-4. Still others prefer a more casual, short-term planning device, as you’ll find in Tool 4-5.

Tool 4-3 is a form I’ve used with clients in more formal organizations to clarify goals and articulate why the goals were chosen. The third, fourth, and fifth columns outline the actions, resources, and time needed to achieve these goals.

Tool 4-4 will appeal to more visual and less formal coachees. This is the classic fishbone exercise (it’s called a fishbone because that’s what the arrow with each of its propelling forces and barriers looks like). When the coachee has filled in the fishbone, you can brainstorm how to get past the obstacles she’s listed there.

If your coachee is having trouble thinking of “propelling forces” (as used in Tool 4-4), using other terminology might help. To prompt a coachee to identify her propelling forces, you might ask her what her assets are. These assets may be personal qualities or characteristics (such as a positive outlook or an ability to hire good people) or organizational attributes (such as strong senior leadership, community support, or cash in reserve). When you’ve brainstormed assets, you’re in a position to determine how to build on them to achieve the coachee’s goal.

For coachees who prefer not to create an action plan around their goals but to think about what needs to be done as they move along, send a questionnaire (like Tool 4-5) prior to each coaching session. On this report, the coachee can recap progress made since the last session and prepare for immediate next steps. The answers on this report also serve as an agenda of sorts for the upcoming coaching session. Some of my clients send me their responses in advance, and some just bring them to the session for us to refer to as needed.

TOOL 4-3

Coachee instructions: Use the column on the far left to list the goals that are most important for you to achieve. Then, for each goal, answer the questions in the other four columns.


Goals aren’t always needed and sometimes a less intimidating option is called for. I often ask my clients to set intentions, what I see as “soft goals.” They are things one intends to do but don’t have to beat themselves up if they don’t accomplish them. They are easier to state aloud than goals because of that soft aspect.

TOOL 4-4

Coachee instructions: Write a goal inside the arrow. On the slanted lines above the arrow, list all the forces that are propelling you toward achieving this goal. On the slanted lines below the arrow, list forces that are barring your ability to achieve the goal. After brainstorming with your coach, list five actions you can take to overcome the barriers.

What five things can I do to overcome the barriers?






TOOL 4-5

Coachee instructions: For a goal that you are working on, use the questions below to monitor your progress and to establish intentions for continuing to move ahead.

My Goal:
How am I generally feeling about reaching this goal right now?  
What two actions did I take this week to lead me closer to my goal?  
What stood in the way of my forward movement this week? What do I want to do about these obstacles?  
What aspect of this goal do I want to discuss in my upcoming coaching session?  
What are my intentions around this goal for the coming week(s)?  

Source: Full Experience Coaching.


You would think that tying coachees’ goals to what matters to them and making them tangible and timely would ensure that coachees would follow through on the goals they’ve set. Not so. Have you ever had an employee who agreed to do things you requested of her or who took on tasks that she knew would be great for her professionally, only to have her repeatedly neglect to follow through on what she’d committed to do? I’ve witnessed situations like these countless times. Coaching can’t be one of them. Accountability begins in this step and is a constant throughout coaching.

The dictionary definition of accountability is “being subject to giving a statement explaining one’s conduct, or a statement or exposition of reasons, causes, grounds, or motives for action; being answerable.” It’s the last part of this definition that resonates with me. I’m not really interested in having my coaching clients provide me with an excuse for why they did or didn’t do something; I just want them to know that they are answerable. I can’t tell you the number of coaching clients who’ve told me that the single factor that moved them to complete a task or take some action was the knowledge that I was going to ask them about their experience doing it and they didn’t want to come up short.

Ask your coachee how she would like to be answerable to you. Ask for permission to follow up using questions like these: “How will I know you did that?” “By when will you do that?” or “How did doing that thing work out for you?” Ask your coachee what he wants you to say or do when he doesn’t do what he’s said he will do.

Here’s how a discussion of accountability might sound in an initial coaching conversation:

Coach: A big part of coaching—and of achieving one’s goals—is creating accountability. What does accountability mean to you?

Coachee: It means that I can’t hide! No, seriously, I think it means that there are consequences if I don’t do something I said I would do.

Coach: So what might those consequences be?

Coachee: I’m not sure. I mean there aren’t any financial penalties for not doing it. I won’t lose my job if I don’t do it. I don’t know …

Coach: Let me ask this another way. We just agreed on the first step to reaching your goal and the timeframe for doing it. How should I respond if you don’t follow through on that item?

Coachee: I don’t know. I really do want to do it, but I can also see that I might get pulled into a bunch of things this week and then I wouldn’t get it done. Could you maybe send me a reminder if you don’t see the document I promised you by next Tuesday? And if I don’t have it by the time we meet again, I hope you’ll be kind.

Coach: I can be kind, but will that help you in making progress toward your goals?

Coachee: I think so. Be firm but kind. Remind me what I agreed to do, but give me a break if I just can’t get to it.

Coach: And is kind how you want me to be about tasks throughout our time together?

Coachee: It works for me.

Coach: It works for me too, now, but let’s also agree that should either of us change our minds that we can revisit the topic of accountability at any time.

Like most components of coaching relationships, accountability will come up again, such as when you’re co-creating between session assignments (step 6) and when the coachee isn’t following through on those assignments (step 7). Establishing your expectations of accountability now will serve you well in those later discussions.


It can be challenging to enforce accountability when you as a coach or manager are not particularly accountable. How are you with follow-through? Can people count on you to do what you say you will do when you say you will do it? Check in with yourself to make sure you feel ready to hold others accountable.

The Next Step

Time is precious, and it’s important that you and your coachee know what will make the time you spend together worthwhile. How are you defining success? And how are you holding him accountable for achieving that success? Simply writing 3-T goals—with tangible and time-bound outcomes that are tied to something meaningful to the coachee—can build accountability in and of itself. Coaching can produce wonderful results if you have planned for them. Otherwise, the potential results can be missed, overwhelmed, or set aside.

Remember to hold a “soft focus” for the coachee’s goals (an intention or awareness of where you want to be that you’re willing to give up if goals change). When goals change, it’s a sign of growth and consideration. Goals and plans are important, but coaching is dynamic and responsive.

Steps 2-4 typically occur at the start of a coaching relationship when you are getting to know the coachee, ironing out the dynamics of your working relationship, and setting goals for your time together (though they certainly may be revisited as you progress). From here, you will move into the heart of coaching: asking questions, listening, and appropriately challenging the coachee to harness the power of possibility.

Applying the Learning

“When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.”

—Seneca, Roman philosopher, statesman, and dramatist

• What does your coachee want the coaching to focus on? Have you named the focal topic of your coaching? If not, pull out Tool 4-1 to help narrow it down.

• Establish a 3-T or SMART goal with your coachee or for yourself. Is it tangible, time-bound, and tied to something meaningful? Is it related to the focal topic?

• What will propel your coachee toward her goals? What obstacles might he face?

• Is your coachee aware of how you will hold him accountable? For what are you accountable in the coaching relationship?