How to Achieve Career Goals Successfully: 4 Steps from Coaching Science

Published: Jul 25, 2017

How to Achieve Career Goals Successfully: 4 Steps from Coaching Science

As an executive, you may feel as if you’re adrift in the world, working hard but not achieving something worthwhile, somewhere meaningful. This could be because you haven’t spent time thinking about what you want in life and haven’t set yourself clear goals. Would you set out on a major journey with no real idea of your destination? And wouldn’t you want to have a clear idea of where you’re heading in life?

Goal setting is a powerful process for thinking about your ideal future and for motivating yourself to turn your vision of this future into a reality. As expected, goal setting is a key aspect of any effective Executive Coaching process, including leadership, high performance, career and team coaching. In my coaching practice, once the client’s situation has been jointly explored through the Appreciative Inquiry and the Options Exploration steps of the Coaching Process, we are then able to Commit to Action and go through the deep process of goal setting.

As I suggest to my family and close friends: if you don’t already set goals regularly, you may want to start now. As you make this technique part of your life you’ll find your career will become more meaningful, satisfying and successful as it will be part of a holistic and fully integrated, values driven life plan.

Why and How to Achieve Career Goals Successfully

Setting goals gives you long-term vision and short-term motivation. Goals serve a directive function; they direct attention towards relevant activities, and away from irrelevant activities. They have an energising function, leading to greater efforts both cognitively and behaviourally. In other words, goals help create focus on what is important as you’ll quickly spot the distractions that can easily lead you astray.

By setting sharp, clearly defined goals, you can measure and take pride in the achievement of those goals and you’ll see progress in what might have previously looked like a long pointless grind. You will also raise your self-efficacy (and confidence) as you recognise your own ability and competence in achieving the goals you’ve set.

Most of my clients are senior executives hence, they are typically familiar with the concept of setting S.M.A.R.T. goals within an organizational performance management system. However, they are all surprised to hear there is a “science” behind goal setting which can lead to a richer, more meaningful and more successful career and life.

The science of goal setting is explained in detail by the leading pioneer in coaching psychology, Dr Anthony Grant, in his breakthrough 2006 book Evidence Based Coaching Handbook. Building on the work of other internationally renowned psychologists and executive coaches, he helped “crack the code” to setting and achieving goals successfully. Since then, Grant has continued to add to the extensive body of knowledge on goal setting in coaching practice, as discussed in the 2013 book Beyond Goals: Effective Strategies for Coaching and Mentoring.

Below I provide a brief guide to goal setting, which I use in introductory conversations with my coaching clients. Over the years, this approach has helped hundreds of executives view their time, indeed their lives, very differently. And as previously mentioned, it is based on evidence-based theory and practice…therefore it works!

1. Set Lifetime and Holistic Goals

The first step in setting goals is to consider what you want to achieve in your lifetime, or at least by a distant age in the future. Setting lifetime goals gives you the overall perspective that shapes all other aspects of your life and hence of your decision making.

On the other hand, if your goals are too distant into the future, you may feel overwhelmed by them. You may not know where or how to begin! This is why I work with the client in setting short, medium and long-term goals (see item 3.d. below).

To give a broad and balanced coverage of all important areas in your life, it is best to set goals in the following categories (or other categories that are important to you and are agreed with your coach):

  • Career – what level do you want to reach in your career?
  • Financial – how much do you want to earn, by what stage?
  • Education – is there any knowledge you want to acquire?
  • Family – how do you want to be seen by members in your family?
  • Artistic – do you want to achieve artistic goals?
  • Physical/Health – do you want to achieve health and fitness goals?
  • Pleasure – how do you want to enjoy yourself?
  • Civic life – do you want to make the world a better place, how?

2. Make Sure Your Goals Motivate You

In other words, when the things that you do and the way you behave match your values, life is usually good – you're satisfied and content. But when these don't align with your personal values, that's when things feel... wrong. This can be a real source of unhappiness.

Core values are the fundamental beliefs of a person (or organization). These guiding principles guide your behaviour, helping choose between one action and another (even if unconsciously). Ideally, they can help you understand the difference between right and wrong and help you stay on right path towards fulfilling your goals.

However, developing a deep understanding of your core values is not that easy. Depending on the source, you will find that there are more than 50 values and they include: accountability, accuracy, achievement, adventurousness, altruism, ambition, assertiveness, and that’s just the ones starting with “A”!

An experienced coach can help you with a guided selection process to arrive at your top 10. Crystallising your thinking further to identify your top 5 values can be even more powerful. Linking your goals to your top 3-5 values will help you stay motivated and on track whenever the going gets tough in reaching your goals.

The diagram below (from illustrates how aligning your goals with your values results in motivation. When goals are autonomously chosen and aligned with your values, they are said to be integrated or intrinsically driven, which is the psychological mechanism by which you will be motivated to pursue your goals.

How to Achieve Career Goals Successfully

On the other hand, if you are forced to carry out goals that are not aligned with your values, they will feel like they are imposed on you, i.e., you are required to do them. Those goals are said to be external because and you will struggle to be motivated, unless you find a way to link them to your values. This is where a nuanced coaching conversation can prove to be invaluable.

Once they have clarified their personal core values, many coaching clients request assistance in understanding whether there is a disconnect between their personal and the organisation’s values. Sometimes this is not consciously evident to the client; they just know they are lacking motivation or just not delivering, despite their best attempts. Again, skilled coaching can make a significant difference here.

3. Make Your Goals Tangible

  • Write goals down – this crystallises them and gives them more force. Remember: what doesn’t get written down doesn’t get done!
  • State each goal as a positive (approach) statement – express goals positively and constructively, not using avoidance language. “Execute this technique well” is a better goal that “Don’t make this silly mistake”.
  • Be specific – set precise goals putting dates, times and amounts so you can measure achievement. This is usually referred to as S.M.A.R.T. goals, as previously mentioned, and helps set priorities, direct attention and avoid feeling overwhelmed.
  • Develop a goal hierarchy – break down goals from “higher order” or values-driven (e.g., be healthy), to second order goals and action plans. Keeping goals small and incremental helps direct attention and gives more opportunities for building confidence.
    How to Achieve Career Goals Successfully
  • Focus on mastery – when the focus is on mastering a task or learning and developing a solid understanding of a new field, the person feels less stress and feels more positive about achieving the goal. When the focus is on performance (e.g., being superior, smarter or the best at a task) stress levels may become too high and adversely affect goal achievement.

4. Test Your Goals for Workability

When setting and writing your goals, ask yourself to what extent they:

  • Serve a directive function? Do they direct your attention towards relevant activities?
  • Energise you? Encourage you to be persistent?
  • Lead to the use of task-relevant information and strategies?
  • i.e. can they be expressed as S.M.A.R.T. goals?  

Putting it all together

Goal setting is at the heart of any effective coaching process because it provides a tangible and real representation of a desired outcome. Without goals, both our careers and our lives would be directionless, following other people’s lead. However, setting career goals without a systematic approach can lead to lack of motivation, frustration, unmet career expectations and ultimately an unfulfilling life. It is therefore important that you:

  • Set lifetime and holistic goals
  • Make sure your goals motivate you
  • Make your goals tangible
  • Test your goals for workability

As you make this technique part of your life you’ll find your career will become more meaningful, satisfying and successful as it will be part of a holistic and fully integrated, values driven life plan.

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