Marshall Goldsmith’s Six Questions for Effective Coaching

Ask this question to any direct report in any organization: “What aspect of your relationship with your supervisor could be improved?”

Chances are you’ll hear them say “better coaching needed.” In fact, reviewing the 360-degree feedback scores for executives in 30 major companies indicated “provide effective coaching when needed” as one of the lowest items when direct reports evaluated their executives.

Peter Drucker said that we’re living in a knowledge economy in which “someone knows more about what they are doing than their boss does.” If you’re in a senior executive position, most likely you’re too distanced to do the ‘real work’ and few direct reports want to be micromanaged. What they want instead is translating the “big picture” – how their work is making an impact to the organization and how to further improve.

Marshall Goldsmith, best-selling author and a trusted executive coach to Fortune 500 CEOs shares a brilliant, simple framework you could use in your coaching. It’s called The Six-Question Process. Goldsmith shares an example of how one CEO he’s personally coached shared his score from 8 percentile to a 98 percentile score (in four years) doing nothing more than this process. Interestingly, he spent less time with the direct reports the year he was rated a “98.” The key to the Six-Question process is not trying to find areas where the coach and coachee will agree on every issue. In fact, this should be avoided. Leadership isn’t a popularity contest but a way to communicate the ideas and work together with the differences.

1.  Where are we going?

This is about the “big picture.” The executive/manager shares the overarching vision, goals and priorities of the organization. Then the executive asks his employees where they think the organization should be going. By engaging the employees into the ‘big picture’ discussions, this generates a healthy dialogue to build alignment and commitment.

 2. Where are you going?

Now, the executive/manager shifts the question to the direct report’s vision, goals and priorities in his/her part of the organization. This is a way for the employees to share where their part of the organization is going and executives also pitch in their idea on where the part of the organization is heading. Goldsmith says two types of alignment should have been achieved: 1) the vision, goals and priorities of the direct reports’ parts of the organization should be aligned with the executives’ vision of the larger organization and 2) the individual goals and priorities of executives and direct reports should be aligned.

3. What is going well?

Mary Kay Ash is famous said, “There are two things people want more than sex and money… recognition and praise.” Recognition is an integral part of coaching. Executives/managers start by sharing his/her assessments of what the direct reports and their organizations are doing well. In this case, the more specific and detailed, the higher chances recognition will work. The executive then asks their direct reports a question that is hardly asked, “What do you think that you and your part of the organization are doing well?” By asking this question executives may learn about “good news” that may have otherwise been missed.”

Goldsmith shares that he has asked hundreds of executives this question, “Do you feel as busy or busier today than your have felt in your entire life?” About 80% of the executives that he asked said yes. Most executives don’t give deserved recognition to direct reports from malicious reasons, but rather ignorance.

4. What are key suggestions for improvement?

Executives/managers shift into constructive suggestions for the future. Instead of outlining all areas of improvements, the focus should be several key opportunities for improvement. Executives should come across “trying to help” not “playing God.”

Then, Goldsmith suggests that executive asks another (seldom-asked) great coaching question, “If you were your own coach, what suggestions would you have for yourself?” By listening to their direct reports, executives may learn that their original coaching suggestions need to be modified. Executives may end up saying, “Now that I have heard your ideas, let me change my suggestions. I think the areas that you are discussing are more important than the ones that I mentioned.”

5. How can I help?

Coaching is about asking the right questions. One of the most simple yet effective coaching questions is simply, “How can I help?” This creates a way for executives/managers to actively listen and memo key suggestions that will help the employee to succeed and thrive. They can also participate in the dialogue by suggesting approaches and then asking, “Do you feel this approach will help you become more effective?”

6. What suggestions do you have for me?

Studies show the impact of direct report feedback and follow-up on leadership effectiveness. Goldsmith says, “Leaders that ask for suggestions from their direct reports – focus on improving 1-2 key behaviors – and follow-up on a quarterly basis – are almost always seen as dramatically increasing in leadership effectiveness . By asking, “What suggestions do you have for me?” executives change the dynamics of the coaching process. Traditional coaching is sometimes thought of as a one-way monologue that focuses on, “Let me tell you what you can do to improve.”

Instead of the traditional Theory X managers, the Six-Question approach creates a two-way dialogue that focuses on collaboration. Each person is saying, “Let’s try to help each other.” The truth is direct reports are much more willing to be coached by executives, if the executives are willing to be coached by them!

The coaching sessions ought to be conducted at least quarterly, but executives/managers should not limit this. Goldsmith offers a very good suggestions.

At the end of each session executives should say, “I am going to take the responsibility to make sure that I have a dialogue with you at least once each quarter. I am going to take the responsibility to cover what I think is most important and to get your suggestions on what you think is most important. I would like you to take the responsibility to contact me at any time you have a need for my help. I cannot promise I will be able to schedule this immediately. I can promise I will make your request a top priority. If I take the responsibility for our quarterly dialogues and you take the responsibility for any ongoing issues, there is no reason that our coaching relationship should not be very productive.”

In conclusion, the Six-Question Process is an effective and practical tool executives/managers can use to become effective coaches. Remember, the six questions are meant to be broad guidelines. Dependent on the situation, the coach should customize this process to fit their unique situations.


  • Great questions – love this!

  • Joshua Lee Henry

    Great coaching questions Paul! And you know I appreciated the Drucker quote, ha! Goldsmith was actually one of the primary editors and contributors for the Leader to Leader Institute and is a co-author for the “Leader of the Future” Vols. 1-2 book series, as well as the follow up “Organization” and “Community” of the future titles with the Drucker Foundation as well. In a 2005 article honoring Druckker’s inquisitiveness for effective leadership, Goldsmith states ” In today’s rapidly changing
    world, we need to ask, listen and learn from everyone around us. As Peter
    recently stated “Leaders need to be willing to start with asking the question,
    ‘What needs to be done?’”[1]

    [1] From “An Interview with Peter Drucker,” Business 2.0, December, 2004

  • Joshua Lee Henry

    Have you read Marshall’s book, “Mojo”?

  • David Carr

    But before you coach, can you answer Lencioni’s six critical questions from *The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business*. See page 77. Carrpe Diem! David Carr

  • These are great questions, Paul. Good stuff!

  • Spark the Action

    Excellent questions – thanks for sharing

    Carl
    @SparktheAction

  • ALEX ACHUTI

    Thank you for this great 6 questions. Made me think again.