An Integrative Goal-Focused Approach to Executive Coaching 

{Grant, 2006. In Stober & Grant (Eds.) Evidence-Based Coaching Handbook.}

Coaching is about helping individuals regulate and direct their interpersonal and intrapersonal resources to attain their goals better. All human behavior (cognitions, emotions, actions) is a continual process of moving toward or away from mental goal representations through feedback control.

Goal-directed self-regulation involves processes in which the individual (identifies an issue,) sets a goal, develops an action plan, begins the action, monitors her performance, evaluates her performance by comparison to a standard, and, based on this evaluation, changes her actions (or returns to identifying the issue, setting a goal, or developing an action plan) to enhance her performance further and better reach her goals (or does more of what works). The coach facilitates the client’s movement through the self-regulatory cycle.

Coaching in each stage should facilitate the next process. For example, goal setting should facilitate the implementation of an action plan; the action plan should be designed to motivate the individual into action and incorporate means of monitoring and evaluating performance in addition to regular follow-up coaching sessions.

Issues Related to Behavioral Self-Monitoring

People are often not skilled in the self-reflective process and unaware of their behavior or its impact on others. Therefore, the coach ensures action plans focus on observable concrete behaviors discernible to the client.

Exercise or activity-based actions are easy to monitor; interpersonal skills in the workplace, however, are more difficult, and the coach and client have to devise means of monitoring and evaluating creatively. For example, one technique is for the client to self-reflect after a meeting and take time to rate herself on her interpersonal skills, such as counting the number of open-ended questions she asked during the meeting or rating her awareness of the other person’s feelings and writing down these ratings.

Issues related to self-reflection

Focusing on the self allows us to access better the internalized mental representations of the standards and reference values by which individuals evaluate their performance.

Metacognitive processes, such as self-monitoring and self-evaluation, and metacognition, such as self-awareness, are capacities that filter the development of leadership skills.

However, an overemphasis on self-reflection may become counterproductive and detrimental to goal attainment; high levels of self-awareness, tipping into being self-conscious all the time, may lead to rumination and depression. These show a clear need to evoke self-compassion to balance the heavy load of knowing your failures and vulnerabilities.

The coach must be attuned to the client’s abilities in these areas.

A Solutions Focus  

The coach helps the client identify and construct possible solutions, to delineate a range of goals and options and then facilitates developing and enacting action plans to achieve those goals.

Solutions focus recognizes the need to talk about one’s problems. Understanding the psychosocial dynamics that create or sustain a problem is valuable in conceptualizing a case, raising the client’s awareness of the issues, and developing solution-focused action plans.

Coaching helps the client tell her problem story in a way that reframes the presenting problem as being solvable and highlights the client’s resources and ability to define and move toward a solution, enabling them to access and use their wealth of personal experience, skills, expertise, and intuition.

Attentional focus and language

The aim is to focus attention on possible solutions purposefully. It is effortful for the client to shift attention toward developing responsibility and personal action.

The inability to purposefully focus on desired goals and action steps is associated with negative outcomes.

In contrast, a strong mental focus on one’s goals is associated with goal attainment and enhanced performance and enjoyment.

What we focus on grows increasingly salient. Then, being vigilant and on the lookout for solutions, we tend to find them.

The coach directs the client’s attention toward solutions and fosters the emergence and development of a solution-focused mindset by changing the viewing and the doing. The use of solution-focused language and the ability to reflect and reframe the client’s statements to create new ways of viewing and doing is essential.

To change the viewing, 

detail the preferred outcomes; 

identify exceptions to the problem; 

amplify existing resources; 

build client self-efficacy; 

acknowledge the progress made so far. 

To change the doing,

acknowledge possibilities by turning presenting problems into platforms for solution construction; 

ask “how” questions instead of “why” questions; 

generate client-congruent multiple options; 

use small specific, doable action steps; 

find ways to leverage systems to facilitate individual change. 

Use language that highlights exceptions.

“I hate what I’m doing.”

“I hear what you are saying. Which parts of your job are less unpleasant for you?”

Use language that acknowledges possibilities.

“I just can’t connect with those clients.”

“So, up till now you haven’t found a point of contact. I wonder what they are looking for in their dealings with you?”

Use language that clarifies goals.

“I want to improve my leadership skills.”

“So, what does good leadership mean to you?”

Use language that moves them forward and creates options.

“I just don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere with this. I feel really lost.”

“So, you’d like to bet back a sense of direction? What would give you that?”

Use language that rolls with resistance.

“But I couldn’t do all of that.”

“So which bits could you do?”

Use language that fosters a systems perspective.

“I guess I just am really not up to this.”

“I wonder who would be most surprised to hear you say that?”

The preferred outcome.

Coach: “Imagine that you went to bed tonight, and when you woke up the problem had somehow magically disappeared, and the solution was present… but you didn’t know that the solution had arrived. What is the first thing you’d notice that would tell you the solution was present?”

Alternatively, “If things were going well, what would be different?”

Goal Setting: The “How” of Goals

For high commitment, the individual participates in determining outcomes, sets goals she perceives to be attainable and important, and determines feedback showing progress.

Action planning involves developing a systematic means of attaining goals and creating a realistic and workable action plan.

The decision to act shifts the client from a deliberative mindset to an implementation mindset, a determined, focused thinking about success. Individuals in implementation perceive themselves as in control of their outcomes and experience an optimistic view of their chances of success. Such cognitions yield higher self-efficacy, self-regulation, and goal attainment.

The multifaceted nature of goals

Different goal types impact a client’s performance and experience of the goal-striving process differently.

The time frame influences the perception of goal attainability.

Distal goals are long-term, broad vision statements, experienced as more abstract, fuzzy visions of the future rather than concrete goals that are specifically defined, and allow for greater flexibility in developing action planning strategies and can be more motivating than proximal goals.

Proximal goals are shorter-term than distal goals, stimulate more detailed planning than distal goals, and are important tools in action planning.

The action steps derived in the coaching session are a series of proximal goals. Combining distal and proximal goals into the coaching enhances strategy development and long-term performance.

Another type is outcome goals. These are useful for individuals who are committed and have the necessary ability and knowledge to pursue them. Effective goal setting of outcome goals emphasizes SMART goals that allow performance to be precisely regulated and thus lead to high performance. These are specific, stretching, measurable, achievable or attractive, agreed-upon, realistic, and time-framed goals.

For non-committed individuals in a highly deliberative mindset or in a contemplation stage of change, it may be more useful to purposefully set more abstract or vague goals and focus on developing a broad, fuzzy vision rather than drilling down into specific details and setting more concrete goals. For individuals at this point in the change process, vague goals are often perceived as being less threatening and less demanding.

Another goal distinction is the hierarchical order, where more specific and concrete goals are considered lower-order and subsumed under higher-order abstract and broader goals.

Competing or conflicting goals result when one goal interferes with pursuing another. This points to the importance of aligning seemingly conflicting goals vertically, between higher and lower-order goals, and horizontally. Such congruence is important in facilitating goal attainment and wellbeing.

Avoidance goals are expressed as moving away from an undesirable state, for example, “to be less stressed about work.” Such a goal does not provide a specific outcome target.

In contrast, an approach goal is expressed as a movement toward a specific state or objective.

Personal wellbeing and positive self-evaluation are associated with approach goals rather than avoidance goals. The long-term pursuit of avoidance goals decreases wellbeing.

Performance goals focus on the doing and focus the client on issues of personal ability.

Early success in the goal-attainment process can be a powerful motivator in performance goals.

Complex or highly challenging tasks when skill level or self-efficacy is low can be a de-motivator in performance goals.

In highly competitive situations or when stakes are high, performance goals can foster cheating and a reluctance to cooperate with peers.

Learning goals better facilitate task performance for ambivalent situations, where the complex task can be framed and perceived as a positive challenge rather than a threat, and the learning goal generates intrinsic motivation and fosters collaboration.

The nuances in goal formulation affect goal attainment, and flexibility in goal setting is important. Combining learning goals with approach and performance goals creates a powerful synergy and enhances performance, learning, and intrinsic motivation.

Self-Concordant Goals: The “Why” of Goal-Focused Coaching

Self-concordance theory (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999) is derived from self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1980) and emphasizes the extent to which individuals perceive their goals as being determined by their authentic selves rather than compelled by external or introjected forces.

Self-concordance is the degree to which a goal aligns with an individual’s enduring intrinsic or identified interests, motivations, and values, affecting her engagement and willingness to make a greater effort.

The individual’s perceived locus of causality varies on a continuum from controlled, external factors to autonomous, internal facets.

External motivation is experienced as behavior regulated by perceived externally controlled reward or punishment with no self-determination, “I do it because someone else makes me do it.” The individual strives to attain some payoff, such as money, awards, or approval from others, and would probably not strive for this goal without these external rewards. The external pressures are voiced as “I have to.”

Introjected motivations are characterized by anxiety and guilt, with the individual feeling coerced by her internal sanctions. The client may talk in terms of “should” or “ought to.”

Introjected motivation is experienced as behavior regulated by perceived internally controlled reward or punishment with low self-determination, “I do it because I feel guilty or anxious if I don’t.”

Both external and introjected motivation give rise to nonintegrated action perceived to be caused by factors outside of the self.

Identified motivation is experienced as behavior regulated by the personal values attached to the task with a moderate level of self-determination, “I do it because it is a good thing to do and I truly want to do it.”

Identified motivation arises from personal conviction and developing interests. The goal and associated values may have originated from other people; the individual now wholeheartedly agrees with it, endorses it, and personally values it highly.

Intrinsic motivation is experienced as behaviors, values, and outcomes that are highly integrated with a high level of self-determination, “I do it because I love it and because I enjoy it so much.”

Intrinsic motivation arises from personal core values and psychological needs. Behavior is self-directed to satisfy organic needs and is naturally enjoyable, engaging, and self-integrated. Goals are pursued “for the love of it,” and strivings are highly rewarding in themselves.

Identified and intrinsic motivation give rise to an integrated sense of self-generated action perceived to be emanating from self-directed choices. The client “owns” the goal and feels the goal to be personal.

The external-internal causal dimension is not objective but is about the client’s perception.

Self-concordance correlates with positive concurrent wellbeing, sustained effort over time, increased goal attainment, and increased goal-related satisfaction upon goal attainment, creating a positive motivational reference point for future goal setting and goal striving.

Self-concordant goal alignment

Four factors influence successful goal alignment.

The client’s ability to identify the enduring and authentic from transitory or superficial whims or desires.

The client’s ability to distinguish between goals that represent her interests and goals that represent the interests of others.  

The expression of goal content in alignment with the client’s internal needs and values.

The coach’s ability to recognize not self-concordant goal formulation and re-language and reframe to tap into the client’s internal needs and values.

Coaching effectiveness depends on the coach’s ability to reframe the client’s responses to create different ways of looking at the issues and to develop different ways of behaving.

Recognize how the client has perceived the goal. For example, if it is perceived as external and not self-concordant, then raise this issue to help identify and articulate what is important for them and align intrinsic needs with the goal.

“What is this person looking for here? What are her needs and values? How can we crystallize these into actionable steps?” Explore the nonnegotiable in the client’s life. Find a way to align the extrinsic goal with the intrinsic motivation.

Four difficulties arise in this process.

The first difficulty is to set up a series of sub-goals that bridge the gap between the higher-order intrinsic goal (for example, to be a provider for one’s family) and the lower-order extrinsic goal (for example, a sales target set externally by the manager). Go slow, do not stretch the link too much too soon. For example, “I wonder how you could link the sales goal to those things important to you?” Help the client figure it out.

Second, overly abstract goals may result in derailment. The task is to make the monitoring processes meaningful such that the sub-goals are concrete and the client can monitor and evaluate progress without superficially magnifying the intrinsic value link established in the previous step.

Third, be creative to make the attainment of the sub-goals rewarding and enjoyable.

The fourth difficulty is to help the client stay on track, continue to work toward the main goal and remain enthused over time. For an effective extension over time of this kind of intrinsic motivational scaffolding of an external goal, bring in personality traits and character strengths to the continuing alignment process.

Vision & Distal Goal –> SMART Action Plan –> Learning & Performance Goals – Daily Strivings –> Outcome Goals –> Result –> Wellbeing & Goal Satisfaction, Self-Efficacy & Tangible Benefits –> Future Aspirations

SMART Action Plan <– Goal Alignment Process: Higher-order, Lower-order, Competing goals, Person-Situation fit, Self-Concordance. 

Daily Strivings <– Ongoing Process Management: Monitor, Evaluate, and Change what’s not working.

Personality Style-Goal Alignment

Each personality style, with its behavioral, cognitive, and emotional traits, has emphasized some needs over others and some preferences that appeal to and motivate them while other ways that alienate and are disinteresting to them.

The coach must be mindful of how best to discuss the benefits of working on a goal.

During the early relationship, while forming the working alliance, a pragmatic approach is essential in aligning the goals with the client’s needs. As the coaching progresses, the goals can and should be revisited. Once the client is engaged in the coaching process, other reference frames can be introduced that offer alternative and more challenging ways of understanding than the preferred ways.

The client must enact the goals and stay focused on desired outcomes. This is no less true when there is personality-goal alignment. The change work still has to be done. Keeping clients focused on the bigger picture and reminding them of the benefits of maintaining the action, being aware of the dynamics of change, and matching the goal and the coaching process to the client’s readiness to change are the coach tasks to attend to throughout the coaching engagement.

Models of Transition, Change, and Goal-Focused Coaching

Coaching entails the purposeful enactment of client-defined specific goals leading to a change. Here are some relevant models of change.

Bridges’ Transition Model

Bridges (1986) describes change as the external, situational happenings when something starts or stops and the associated emotional reactions to change as the internal transition experience. Transition is a gradual, psychological reorientation as we respond and adapt to change with an ending, a neutral zone, and new beginnings. Transition may result from any ending or actual change or even be triggered by the news of or imagining an imminent change.

The ending phase is one of letting go of the past with a sense of loss, mourning, anger, or resentment. The individual must give himself enough time to complete the ending process.

The neutral zone is characterized by confusion and uncertainty about the future; it is also a place of promise and opportunity with a great chance for creativity and renewal.

The new beginning transforms disorientation and anxieties into excitement about new opportunities and actions when a new vision for the future is developed and enacted. The need is to focus on goals, tune in to thoughts and feelings, and be open to alter plans in response to unexpected events.

Clients respond to transitions emotionally.

Schlossberg’s Adaptation to Transitions Model

Schlossberg (1981) outlines three psychosocial factors mediating adaptation to change.

Characteristics of the transition include role change in the form of gain or loss, its internal or external source, its gradual or sudden onset in timing, its positive or negative affect valence, and its permanent, temporary, or uncertain duration.

Characteristics of the pre-transition and post-transition environments include internal support systems, intimate relationships, cohesion of the family unit, social networks, institutional supports, and the physical environment.

Characteristics of the individual going through the transition include psychosocial competence, gender and gender-role identification, age and life span, state of health, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, value orientation, and previous experience with a transition of a similar nature.

The coaching task is to help clients in developing a clearer understanding of their present needs and a clear perception of their present life goals; evaluate how they presently manage strain, stress, and decision-making; identify and evaluate their present typical response patterns to a new situation; and facilitate clients’ acquisition of new skills for more effective coping with their objectives.

These two transition models do not focus on the psycho-mechanics of adopting new behaviors or strategies that might be effective in the change process.

Trans Theoretical Model of Change

The Trans Theoretical Model (TTM; Prochaska & DiClemente, 1984), originally developed for addictive behavior and successfully applied to problem and health-related behaviors, focuses on the underlying psychological mechanisms of adopting new behavior.

The model posits identifiable stages of change, and progression through the stages can result in permanent behavior change.

Moving through the stages is experienced as cognitive and motivational shifts, with a tip of decisional balance from weighing the perceived costs and benefits of making change.

A related construct in behavior change is self-efficacy, the belief in one’s competency to perform a specific task, affecting whether individuals decide to make changes, the amount of effort they put into creating change, and the length of time they persevere in the face of adversity. Self-efficacy increases as individuals move through the stages of change.

Habit strength refers to the psychological and physiological aspects of the behavior in question and the ease or difficulty with which an individual can enact new behaviors.

Guidelines for facilitating change based on the TTM

Not all individuals are in the action stage. Do not assume the client is ready to do the work of change. Explicitly assess the client’s readiness for change.

Individuals who are reluctant to make changes are typically in the contemplation or preparation stages and spend more time thinking about their problems than actually changing their behavior. Focus on facilitating a shift from just thinking about problems to actual behavior change.

Anticipate relapse. Include relapse-prevention strategies, prepare the client for possible setbacks, minimize guilt and shame if relapse does occur, and help the client move back into action as quickly as possible.

Match the intervention strategy to the client’s stage of change.

Stage-Specific Coaching Strategies 


Raise awareness and increase information, including performance data and qualitative feedback.

Identify behaviors that are not problematic. “In what way would this change make things better for you?”

Ask the client to complete the sentence, “You’d better change or else …”


The client is ambivalent about change.

Raise awareness through self-revelation.

Rushing in and giving the client specific goals and action steps increases resistance.

Roll with the resistance.

Use simple reflection.

Use amplified reflection, “So what you’re saying is that you’ll never change?”

Use double-sided reflection, “So, on the one hand, you feel the change would be a benefit because of (this), but on the other hand you feel (that).”

Paradoxical techniques; when confronted with the client’s arguments against change, the coach agrees and emphasizes the advantages of the dysfunctional attitude or behavior. This raises awareness of the powerful forces that motivate the client to remain stuck in the problem and gets the client to present the arguments for change herself. “Well, given all the advantages of this thought (or attitude or behavior), why should you change?”


The client is getting ready to enact change. Foster commitment.

Help the client focus on the future, develop a clear vision, and make small and consistent action steps toward the goals.

Monitor progress closely and positively reinforce new desired behaviors by acknowledging and celebrating the attainment of small subgoals.

Find ways to structure the environment to support the desired change.

Action and Maintenance. 

Increase self-directed change. The client can work on more stretching goals and devise strategies to maintain change.


Normalize and move the client back into action as soon as possible. Reframe relapse as a normal part of change and minimize shame and embarrassment. Look for past successes and build on those, and try something new.

Relapse Prevention. 

Address the normality of relapse and plan to prevent relapse through rehearsing how to deal with problem situations, developing coping strategies, or working out how to avoid situations that might trigger the problem behaviors.

Case Conceptualization and Goals

Case conceptualization lies at the heart of evidence-based coaching.

A case conceptualization is an overall view or map of the case, which describes and operationalizes the factors that create and maintain the individual’s difficulty and the factors that may contribute to a solution. It is a working hypothesis that links the presenting issues or potential solutions to the underlying psychological mechanisms (thoughts, feelings, and behaviors). It may also detail the environmental, social, or systemic factors.

A case conceptualization is developed collaboratively with the client and is an active and ongoing process open to modification.

Developing a framework from which to understand the presenting issues brings clarity and is often therapeutic in itself.

Expert socio-psychological knowledge needs to be held loosely. Facilitate the client to create a personalized and relevant case conceptualization.

Problem analysis serves to understand the factors that create and maintain problematic issues and use this understanding to construct solutions; the focus is on positive change and moving forward.

Case conceptualization highlights the important aspects of the client’s situation in a way that is understandable to the coach and the client, links the issues to the client’s stage of change, makes the issues amenable to change, aids choice and implementation of the intervention, and helps the client and coach understand the development of new issues and other aspects of the coaching relationship.