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Keeping an Eye on the Goal

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Are goals the starting point and the primary focus of coaching and mentoring conversations? Or do they emerge out of a lengthy, more open- ended exploration of the issues? David Clutterbuck & Susan David (1)

Coaching is often depicted as a linear process through which goals are i) agreed at the beginning of an assignment ii) form the focus of coaching for several months thereafter iii) assessed at the end of the assignment. This perspective on goals doesn’t reflect the reality of today’s volatile, ambiguous and complex world. Some authors even suggest that focusing on goals in this way can get in the way of performance. (2) In this paper we report the outcome of research into the life of some real-life goals and consider the implications for best (coaching) practice.

The study

I spoke to 11 participants receiving coaching as part of a leadership development program. I spoke to them individually four times over the course of eight months, asking them each time to describe their goals and describe how and why their goals had evolved. Reflecting on those conversations, four kinds of goal evolution emerged.

  1. Simple. In some cases, initial goals were formed, worked on, and disappeared (presumably because they were achieved), to be replaced by new goals. This kind of fits classic goal theory.
  2. Morphing. One participant originally had a goal around communication. ‘Communication’ meant adopting more discipline around a reporting process. Three months later ‘communication’ came to mean sharing information more generally with the same stakeholders. Three months on, and ‘communication’ meant engaging direct reports and decision makers with a compelling vision. By the end of the program ‘communication’ meant establishing effective two-way dialogue with everyone who needed to be engaged in achieving widespread change. This fundamental and significant shift in meaning wasn’t reflected in the reports being submitted by the coach.

If we want to change the behaviour of our leaders then we need to pay attention to the functioning of the ‘system’ and intervene accordingly.

 

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