Coaching direct reports to set goals is something that doesn’t happen as often as it should. I’ve noticed that some leaders don’t know how to coach, aren’t clear on what a powerful goal means, or don’t take the time to have these conversations. If you want to develop, motivate, and help your people be more focused, coaching direct reports to set goals will have a significant impact.

A Look Inside a Typical Goal-Setting Conversation

From the coaching sessions I’ve observed in the workplace, goal conversations typically go something like this:

Supervisor: “What’s something you’d like to work on as a goal?”

Direct Report: “I’d like to get better at managing my time.”

Supervisor: “OK, that sounds like a great goal! I do think you could do better at completing your work on time. I think you should aim to get all your paperwork turned in by Friday.”

Direct Report: “OK, I can do that.”

Supervisor: “Perfect! Nice job.”

All right, so it’s better than nothing – at least there was a conversation in the first place, which is all too rare. However, let’s look at a few missing elements:

  • The supervisor didn’t ask any questions to clarify why this goal was important to the direct report
  • The supervisor didn’t ask the direct report to be more specific about what managing their time would look like, or what the end result would be
  • The supervisor jumped quickly to a solution, without digging deeper and letting the direct report come up with their own solution
  • There was no way to measure the goal
  • There was no plan to follow up

Setting Your Own SMART Goals

As I mentioned in another post, setting SMART goals is a lot harder than many people think. Before attempting to coach someone to set a goal, it’s crucial to know how to set SMART goals for yourself. In addition to my previous article, here is another article by Mindtools on the basics of SMART goals. Identify several goals and practice making them SMART. Then, ask trusted colleagues or supervisors for feedback.

It Takes Time to Create SMART Goals

You’ll have conquered a significant part of the battle by getting good at setting your own SMART goals. It will be easier to coach and lead your direct reports to create their own because you’ll know what the end result should look like.

Having worked with hundreds of people to create SMART goals, setting a really strong SMART goal can take between 30-45 minutes. And that’s just for your own goals. Given that you’ll be helping someone else come up with one, plan on 45 minutes to an hour. So, be patient. As Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about it and five minutes thinking about solutions.” This also applies to goal-setting: creating the right goal makes achieving it that much easier.

Coaching Others to Create SMART Goals

Now that you understand how to set goals and are prepared to take the time to get it right with your direct reports, let’s look at three key coaching principles that will help:

Let Your Direct Report Own the Goal: This isn’t your goal – it’s theirs. Help them come up with something that’s meaningful for them to achieve. This will increase both their buy-in and ownership of the goal. In turn, this increases the likelihood of them reaching it and wanting to go further.

Ask Powerful Questions: Help the direct report go deeper by asking questions. Why this goal? How can they be more specific? What would it mean to them to achieve the goal? What is under their control? Here are some questions I frequently use when coaching people to set goals:

  • What’s an area of improvement that, if changed, would have the most impact on your success?
  • What would I observe you doing when you’ve reached the goal?
  • If your goal involves impacting something outside of yourself (other people, production, process improvement, etc.), what would change? What would we observe? Most importantly, what would YOU have to do to create that impact?

Plan for Follow Up: After the direct report comes up with a SMART goal, create a follow-up plan. How often will you check in with each other? What metrics will you use to track progress? How will you support the direct report? Accountability is key. However, remember that it’s their goal, not yours. Your job is to support, encourage, and help course-correct as needed.

Keys for Success When Setting Goals

Remember to take as much time as you need to get to the right goal. If you’ve mastered setting SMART goals for yourself, you’ll know the feeling when you nail it. Look for that same light to go on in your direct report. It will take some time, but the right goal goes a long way. The best part is that once both of you get the hang of it, creating future goals will be a snap.