How do you know when coaching has been successful?

As a professional coach, I regularly take coaching issues and dilemmas to supervision. These sessions are an essential part of every coach’s development, growth and emotional maintenance. I thought I’d share something important that came up for me in my most recent session with my coaching supervisor, in the hope that you may too get something from it.

courtesy: Maurizio Pesce, under Creative Commons, Flicker

courtesy: Maurizio Pesce, under Creative Commons, Flicker

The dilemma I expressed was around exploration of vision. Some of my clients move naturally towards vision. They are comfortable with the language and for them it is not a threatening or challenging conversation when we explore what it looks, feels or even smells like. Other clients struggle to talk in terms of vision. Even the concept of aspiration, dream or goal can be challenging. This is particularly true for some of my clients who find themselves in custody as young offenders. Many express the view that they do not like to think too much about dreams or visions as it only results in them becoming disappointed. They say that they do not want to build up their hopes only to be let down, and as a result they content themselves by living in a world of very low expectations.

When I put this issue on the table in my supervision session, the statement that my supervisor came back to me with was “It is not our job as coaches to breed optimism.”

I let this statement sink in, and my first instinct was to rail against it.  Some of the clients I work with have very low levels of hope or positivity, and I believe that people do their best work when positive neural circuits are switched on. My coaching often focuses on work around beliefs, particularly limiting beliefs, and how those give rise to thoughts, words and actions that generate negativity. Surely the work of the coach starts from the basis that people want to seek improvement, do ‘better’ than they are currently doing (whatever that means), and fulfil their potential? Why wouldn’t we encourage them to look toward alternative futures and choices?
The killer question that I was faced with was “What is my criteria of success?”  In other words, when I reflect on a coaching session, or hear back from a client sometime later, what would mark the session out as a good one?
After some reflection, I realised that it is when my client feels ‘challenged’.  Challenged by what it would take to cross the gap between their current reality and whatever other future state they may describe.  Some may describe it as a vision, a new reality, a dream or simply another stage on their journey.  Success would be my client challenging themself with questions such as:
  • What is in the gap?
  • Is there a gap – maybe there is none?
  • Maybe it is only a gap in my mind?
  • If there is a gap – is it worth crossing it?
  • If it is worth crossing it – what will it take?
  • How will I know when I have crossed it?
  • What resources will I need?
  • Who else will be impacted?

If my client is asking questions like this then I am delighted.  If they come to the next session with insights and further questions building on these original questions then even better.

And what about my own ‘insight’ from this reflection?  I concluded that if my client does this kind of thinking and concludes that the journey is not worth going on, that the reality that they currently occupy is where they want to be for now, then that too is success.
In other words, coaching success for me is not defined by some tangible outcome, but that the client has gone through a ‘thinking process’ and arrived at the questions, insights and ‘world’ that is right for them at this time.   Success for a client may even be choosing to make no movement whatsoever.


Leadership Coaching is a powerful and proven approach to help leaders discover their inner courage, resilience and creativity. Would you, or members of your organisation, benefit from exploring ways to make significant improvements in personal and/or collective effectiveness and productivity? Simply drop me your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to speak with you. 




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