SMART goals are not good enough

Being a coach or a leader who is using coaching approach to managing people means you don’t set tasks or goals with detail guidelines, but you rather set a vision, high-level goal and you frame it in such a way that your team owns the goal, is motivated and empowered to get it done. It is not your job to do it, it is theirs.

How do you do it? By asking lots of questions and providing very few answers. If you are a coach talking to a client you want to help him understand what is he trying to achieve so the question might be “What do you want?” If you are a leader you might be the one deciding what needs to be done and then the question is “How do you want to achieve the goal?” Let me borrow here a page from solution focused coaching.

The goal needs to be positive

When you ask these questions you need to get a positive answer. If you are not getting one, then ask again or ask differently. What do I mean by positive answer? Let’s say a team member comes to you and says he is not happy with the job he is doing. You ask him “What do you want?” and he says “Well, I don’t like the bureaucracy in my job.” This is not a positive answer that can trigger action and change. He is talking about what he doesn’t want, not what he wants. When you look around you will see that we all do this very often and it leads to endless complaining and dissatisfaction but very rarely to a real change.

So instead of working with this answer and figuring out how to remove bureaucracy or saying that it is the way things are and it cannot be changed you ask again “What do you want instead?” “I want to have at least several hours a day when I can completely focus on technical work I’m doing so I finish my project on time.” Now, this is something that is framed in positive way with a goal in front of our eyes. It also has second important aspect. It is under our control.

The goal must be under your control

Let me give you another example. One of your team members comes to you with this complaint: “My colleague is very annoying and he constantly asks simple questions again and again. I want this guy to stop doing it.” Well, this is not a goal that is under his control as someone else needs to do (or stop doing) something. Moreover, it is not framed positively. “To stop doing” something is just hidden way how to describe negative thought. When you hear this the question then might be “Why does it bother you?”

You may go through couple of these questions and then get to something like “I want more quiet time for my work to reach the deadline.” Now, this is something that just sparks action. The question now is “How do you want to achieve this?” “Well, I could just tell him that I would love to help, but I need to finish also my project. Or I could agree with the team that I’m open to questions in the morning, but I need to focus on finishing my project in the afternoon. I can move to separate office.”

Now you look at how is this under your control, what are the risks associated and how could you mitigate them. For example in our case “moving to a separate office” may be very risky as the team needs to communicate quite a lot and this could lead to breakdown in communication so it probably isn’t an option. Let’s say that at the end the best way forward is just to be very open with the inquisitive person. Now you can work with your employee to help him formulate his thoughts in a way that will be acceptable by the other guy who is “annoying”. You can even role play it if the employee is afraid what the reaction will be. Just make sure the solution is ecological.

The goal should be ecological

What do I mean by that? It should be aligned with the overall strategy of the organization or the team and it should support your other major initiatives and not go against them. You should always consider impact on the rest of the organization and not just on your team. You can have the best and smartest goal, but if it doesn’t align with what others are working on, it will fail. And even if it succeeds it won’t have impact as it doesn’t support the rest of the business.

The goal must have success criteria

Next step is to identify success criteria. “How do you recognize you achieved your goal?” “How do you know you succeeded?” This is important for two reasons. First, it will make the person to think about what the goal really is. Second, it will help the person to get the feeling of accomplishment when he finishes the job. This is extremely important in long-term goals or in initiatives that are repetitious. Let us say you are building a team or growing a company. Your goal is to “grow forever”. If you say the goal is “to grow the team” then there is no clear deadline, the target is constantly moving and you never get the feeling of accomplishment. You may say that “the journey is the goal” but that may not always work.

It is much better to break this long-term goal to something short-term and measurable. “I want to staff this team of four people this quarter and if I do this that is a success.” And then when you actually do it, go and celebrate. Yes, there are still hundreds of people to be hired in coming years, but it doesn’t make this particular accomplishment any less meaningful or important.

And last but not least the SMART part

The last step is to execute. To achieve something you need to start so “What is the very first step you will take?” And be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely) about this. Have it defined as a really small first step that is easy to achieve (small win) but that can be defined precisely, is measurable and has a clear set deadline.

What would be your answers to a person who comes to you with request he wants to feel more motivated? How would you set the success criteria and measure whether he succeeded and really is more motivated? Is it even the right goal?

Coaching approach to leading people

We live in exciting new times when more and more people work in so-called knowledge based economy having jobs that require creativity, knowledge, passion, ownership and that inner feeling of doing something that makes sense and will make a difference. How do you lead people in such environment? Well, the good old carrot and stick don’t work anymore and you need to resort to more subtle ways of leadership.

One of the approaches you may take is to stop acting as a boss and start acting as a coach. How does a coach look like? Let’s take a look at analogy from sport. He is not the best athlete on the team, he may not be the biggest expert on the game, he is someone who sets a direction and enables his team to mobilize all their skills and tap their abilities to the extreme to win the game.

It works exactly the same way in business setting. You just need to understand the underlying principles that will guide your behavior and make you a successful coaching leader. Let me talk about couple of ones I consider important.


One of the basic beliefs of coaching is the idea that in heart people work to the best of their abilities and no one does anything bad on purpose. This essentially means that you need to trust your team and you need to show it in the way you behave and react. Even though you may believe that a particular person is not telling the truth or he has some hidden agenda, you need to get rid of these thoughts as they will inhibit your ability to be a trusting and trustworthy leader. The moment you start questioning honesty of your team it will show, it will reflect in the way you talk, act and at the end you will be seen as having some hidden agenda on your own.


Every behavior is correct or has some value in certain situations so always try to understand the context. Let me use a bit silly example here. You are walking in the hallway and encounter a member of your team who is raising his voice and yelling at a customer. Your first reaction will be anger and thought that this person is a bad at dealing with people and you need to talk to him and correct his behavior. So you come to him and tell him that this was totally unacceptable behavior. He should go and apologize to that customer and if you see him doing it once more you will fire him. As it turns out the person that was “yelled at” is half-deaf and you need to raise your voice when you talk to him.

How do you think your team member see you now? You just made a rush conclusion based on what you saw without understanding the context. Based on that conclusion you talked down a person doing just his job. How different would the situation be if you borrowed a page from the book of coaching? “I just saw you yelling at that person and I’m not sure why you did it. Can you help me to understand it?” “Well, the person is deaf”. “Interesting, I didn’t know that. Thanks for letting me know.” And that’s it. The message you send by this approach: I’m interested in what you are doing. You told me something interesting I didn’t know and I’m grateful for that.

No assumptions

Extension of the previous two points is important aspect of “every behavior has positive motivation”. Even if you don’t see it now, you should believe that it is the case. For example, you are on a meeting and you have disagreement with your peers or your boss. They disagree with your idea of how something should be done. Your conclusion is that they care only about themselves, hate the idea because you brought it up, they don’t understand what needs to be done. You are bitter and demotivated.

Now, just take a step back and ask yourself: “Keeping in mind that every behavior has positive motivation, what their positive motivation might be?”, “Well, maybe they try to prevent me doing something stupid that may hurt my career opportunities.” You still don’t know what really is behind the behavior, but this approach at least opens your mind to possibilities so you stop arguing and start thinking.

And then you simply describe the behavior you see. “Look, I see that you are saying this… and I feel rather demotivated. Do I understand it right or did I misread something?” You are essentially removing any wrong assumptions you may have made in your mind and getting back to the facts.


People have all the resources they need. Every single person on your team has all the resources he needs to be able to do his job. This is a strong belief that you need to build into your management style. As a leader who is using this approach you just need to “open the gates” so the person understands what resources he has at his disposal. It also means you need to be giving people the right job. Ideally, it is something just a bit above their current “proven” skill level so they are challenged to dig deep into their internal resources and find out something they didn’t know they have. That way they will grow.

There might be situations where the person may not have all the resources to finish successfully the job. That most likely means that you are giving him a wrong job. For example, you have a person fresh out of university who got his first job as an associate project manager. He has all the resources he needs for that particular role (helping more senior colleague, managing small project). If you task this person to manage project like “sending man to the moon” no amount of coaching will help this person as he is being tasked by something way above his internal resources and technical / functional knowledge. This person needs years of training and mentoring to be able to do it. So always task people with work that is challenging but they still have a real chance to succeed.

There are numerous other coaching tools and beliefs that can help you being a coaching leader. What is your favorite one that always worked for you?