How to Coach for SMART Goals

Posted 09.21.2021

This past Saturday, I had the privilege of sharing an auditorium with dozens of motivated young college men from the HBCU North Carolina Central University and other institutions. I know they were motivated because they showed up at 8:30 am on a Saturday morning for the Durham Success Summit’s (DSS) annual flagship event. They then spent the day in conversation with President Obama’s former aide and “body man”, Reggie Love; learning how to build their personal brands, getting career development advice from a panel of black executives, and coaching each other on setting actionable goals.

That last element – goal setting – was where I got to play a small part in the day by teaching the group enough about coaching each other and creating SMART goals that they could team up in groups of three to write up their most important goal. After 30 minutes of peer coaching, we reconvened in the auditorium where we passed the microphone around so many of the guys could stand up and declare their goal to friends who support them and will hold each other accountable. To say that was a moving experience is a huge understatement. The guys did an awesome job crafting meaningful and actionable goals and showed a ton of courage and vulnerability in sharing them with each other.

Even though I’ve been coaching and educating leaders for more than two decades, I learned a lot from the guys at the Summit about how to set meaningful goals. What follows are some lessons learned based on the combination of what I shared with them and how they followed through.

Have a framework – It helps a lot to have a goal setting framework to make the process both effective and efficient. We used the SMART goals framework at the suggestion of DSS intern Caleb Vanderburg. During a DSS board of directors meeting earlier this summer, one of us asked Caleb how this year’s Summit Day could be improved over last year’s. He immediately suggested that there be a session on setting SMART goals. We took that good idea and ran with it and I volunteered to lead the session. You’re probably familiar with it, but in case you’re not, SMART is a classic framework and acronym that promotes goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timebound. To make the SMART framework easier to work with, I created a one-page worksheet that has thought prompts for each of the five elements. If you’re interested in having a copy of the SMART Goals worksheet, you can get it here.

Have a format – To make things even more clear, it’s helpful to have a format that lends itself to a fill-in-the-blanks version of a goal. The one that I offered to the guys that they used to great effect is:

I will (what you’re going to do and to what degree) …. by (this date) … so that… (what the outcome will be and why it matters).

Have a peer coach – I always say that the biggest thing I do for my executive coaching clients is creating space for them to think out loud. Peer coaches can do the same thing for each other so I quickly taught the guys how to use the classic GROW (an acronym for Goal, Reality, Options and What’s Next) coaching framework using the question script I cover in my free online course, How to Get and Be a Great Peer Coach. They did an awesome job of using that coaching script to help each other think through and articulate the elements of their SMART goals.

Have a process – With the right process, you can get a lot done in a relatively short amount of time. The one we used on Saturday was to have the guys team up in groups of three and do three 10 minute rounds of coaching in 30 minutes. They rotated between three roles – coach, person being coached, and observer/note taker – in each round. The coach’s job was to use the questions on the GROW script to help the person they were coaching think out loud. The observer’s job was to listen to the person being coached and capture the essence of what they were saying on a copy of the SMART goals worksheet. After eight minutes of coaching, the observer called time and handed his notes to the person being coached so they could take a couple of minutes to write up their goal in the “I will… by… so that…” format I mentioned earlier. The act of writing a goal down is proven through research to make it much more likely that you’ll achieve the goal. I was walking around the breakout room during the coaching and was completely impressed by how much good work was getting done. You can see it in the pictures that accompany this post.

Have a community – It’s one thing to write up a goal for yourself; it’s another thing entirely to have a community of people who are as committed to helping you achieve the goal as you are to achieving it. Creating space for the guys to share their goals with each other and offer applause and encouragement was a critical element of the hour we had to work together. Since most of these folks go to school with each other, they’re really well positioned to help each other follow through with ongoing coaching and connection.

Make a declaration – And, finally, there’s enormous power in publicly declaring to yourself and others what you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it and why it matters. As I wrote earlier, it was very inspirational and moving to watch these future leaders share their goals with each other and to see how much they supported each other. We should all be fortunate enough to be a part of such a strong group of brothers and sisters

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