An organization has retained a coach for one of its executives. Everyone — the coach, the organization’s sponsor, and the executive — has reviewed the parameters of the engagement and feels comfortable with it. Self-assessments and 360s have been gathered to provide data on the executive’s areas of strength and opportunity, and to reveal insights into current performance. The executive is ready and eager to begin.

What’s next? Setting goals.

It’s not an overstatement to say that how a coach and executive handle goal-setting is the biggest indicator of success throughout the engagement.

When compiling a list of possible coaching goals, the executive and coach must first answer the question, “Whose goals?” There are several possible directions:

Goal type 1: Executive-led

Goals may be set by the executive herself. These might arise from her understanding of the self-assessments and 360s, both of which suggest areas of developmental focus. They might also stem from self-awareness and insights she already had. And in cases where she has ideas that aren’t fully formed yet, having a coach’s open support to explore those areas might be all she needs to shape them into goals.

Goal type 2: Joint

The executive and the coach may also work together to set goals. By considering data in the context of the executive’s role, they can collaboratively identify possible explanations about why the assessment and 360 results are the way they are. From this shared understanding, they can generate goals to address areas for improvement.

Goal type 3: Sponsor-driven

The executive’s organization might suggest or mandate particular goals, often as part of a performance improvement plan, last-chance agreement, or other remediation. Goals established by the organization will likely be top priority, and possibly the sole focus of the coaching. It is crucial the executive understands that the organization is driving goals and will hold him accountable.

Regardless of how coaching goals are determined, any potential goal should satisfy a set of fundamental criteria:

Goal criteria 1: Business focus

A coaching goal should satisfy a business objective. This might include helping the executive perform better, developing skills (her own or those of her team) that contribute to organizational success, and leading more effectively. Developmental goals that do not have direct links to business objectives are best left to other kinds of efforts, such as psychotherapy.

Goal criteria 2: Attainable

While a goal might be a stretch, it should not be unrealistic. If the executive finds it nearly impossible to make progress, it will sap his motivation and turn coaching into a grind. Instead, ensure selected goals have short-to-medium term payoffs to keep him engaged in and committed to continuing the coaching process.

Goal criteria 3: Actionable

A coaching goal needs to be specific and actionable. To determine if it is, start by translating a goal into a set of observable actions. If you identify a behavior and it could be captured on a recording, then that’s a behavior worth using. However, if it would be impossible to capture that behavior on a recording, then either come up with a different behavior or identify a different goal.

There are four types of behaviors to consider: Behaviors that the executive is not doing now but needs to start doing; behaviors that the executive is doing now but needs to do more; behaviors that the executive is doing now but needs to do less; and behaviors that the executive is doing now but needs to stop doing.

Goal criteria 4: Measurable

Lastly, a goal needs to be measurable so that you can show if it was achieved. Measurements can be quantitative (ex. achieving a tangible, objective “X” number of events over “Y” period of time) or qualitative (ex. achieving subjective milestone targets regarding professional development, customer satisfaction, leadership skills, or strategic contributions).

Following these guidelines at the start of an executive coaching engagement–establishing clarity about the purpose of coaching; knowing the executive’s coachability; determining who is setting the goals of coaching and why; and selecting goals according to a how well they fit a common set of criteria–maximizes the likelihood of achieving overall coaching success.

These guidelines are similar to the SMART Goals model that has been around since the 1980s. However, within this traditional conceptualization of goal setting in coaching, there is a piece that is missing. This piece has to do with a fourth type of executive coaching goals: Emergent goals.

Occasionally new goals emerge during coaching, sometimes well after sessions have begun. It is incumbent on both the executive and coach to keep their collective “third eye” open for new issues, ideas, awareness, and insights that organically surface. This emergent material can serve as the basis to generate new coaching goals for the executive.

Of course, there may be real-world reasons that prevent adding emergent goals to the current engagement. Perhaps there isn’t enough time, funding, latitude, or resources to address them adequately at this time. But where possible, incorporating emergent goals — either as extra goals or as replacements for lesser goals or goals that have that have been achieved — adds value to a coaching effort.

Taken together, these guidelines lay out a roadmap for the executive and coach to follow throughout a coaching engagement. As coaching sessions proceed, the executive and coach can reliably track progress on achieving selected goals and make mid-course adjustments and corrections as needed. With some hard work and diligence, both she and her coach will hopefully be able to celebrate goal completion and coaching success at the end of their engagement.

About: Paul Bayon, Psy.D., is Principal at DILAN Consulting Group.