The meaning of success

An effective relationship between coach and learner depends on a common understanding of success. We look at how to build on the
goal-setting techniques set out in last month’s issue

It is so easy for the coach to impose their assumptions about what success means on the other party.

The generic definition of success we use is achieving what you value. Achieving an outcome that is not important to you or is not something you particularly want is not success. Nor is achieving something someone else wants, unless what you value is to please that person. In short, people’s perception of success varies widely and coach/mentors need to:

  • recognise the validity of the other person’s definition of success

  • refrain from imposing their own

  • help the learner clarify what success means to them

  • help the learner relate life and career goals to that meaning.

In this technique, the coach/mentor gives the learner a small number of generic success factors to consider. One set we use frequently is:

  • status or peer recognition

  • job satisfaction

  • work-life balance.

The learner is then asked to allocate 10 points between these factors, according to how much they value each as part of what success means to them. Next, they do the same calculation, but looking backward, say 10 years; then forward for the same amount of time. What changes do they see in success criteria between these dates?

It is not unusual for people to change their view of what makes for current success in the light of this discussion. It also helps the coach recognise where the learner is applying values different to their own, and to adjust their overall helping approach accordingly.

It can be useful to generate a longer list of success factors, treating the four listed above as a jumping-off point. On one occasion, when one of us did this, the coachee included:

  • happiness

  • doing good

  • health.

Rather than use this longer list, it makes the activity centre on the coachee’s concerns if they generate their own list.

Cascade of change

The change cascade addresses the issue of commitment, from a stage model perspective. This recognises that people go through a number of steps to achieve commitment, then several more to move from commitment to achievement.

Awareness of a requirement to change is unlikely of itself to stimulate action, unless the consequences of not doing so are immediate and dire. There may be intellectual understanding that it would be beneficial to be more skilled at a specific task or behaviour, but that is also true of hundreds of other tasks and behaviours – why should this one assume any sense of urgency or priority?

Understanding occurs when the need for change is brought into focus, usually by some external event, which underlines the benefits of taking action and the disadvantages of not doing so. Although the stimulus may be emotional, this is primarily an intellectual recognition and the sense of urgency can be rationalised away quite quickly.

Acceptance occurs when the emotional and intellectual senses of urgency align. The benefits of action strongly outweigh those of inaction and the person is able to focus on this issue without competition from other issues that demand attention.

Commitment puts the seal on acceptance. It links achievement of the change goal with our sense of identity. To fail is to diminish oneself. Commitment will not deliver results, however, without a plan of action. The plan will be of little use if it is not implemented. And implementation requires positive feedback, both from oneself and from others, to reinforce the commitment.

The coach/mentor supports the learner through any of these stages, but will be most effective when the learner has at least reached the awareness stage.

Using the cascade is simply a matter of probing to see where the learner has reached in the various stages. If they are only at the awareness stage, it may be better in most cases to focus effort on issue, where they have achieved a higher level of commitment.

More techniques

This is an edited extract from Techniques for Coaching and Mentoring by David Megginson & David Clutterbuck, published by Butterworth Heinemann. Readers of Training Magazine can get a 15% discount by visiting the website, and entering offer code AFF8.

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