Whether you’re a supervisor hoping to add another tool to your management arsenal or an HR leader looking into coaching for executives at your company, there’s no shortage of options to choose from when it comes to coaching styles and frameworks for setting goals and delivering feedback. But as you’re researching different coaching models, creating plans, or even considering hiring an executive coach, the GROW coaching style, and coaches who employ it, should be on your shortlist. This model is an easy-to-understand, easy-to-implement coaching framework that could give you the results you’re looking for.
First described in legendary executive coach John Whitmore’s 1992 book Coaching for Performance, the GROW model is a four-step system for setting and achieving goals. The name is an acronym of the four steps: Goal, Reality, Obstacles (or Options), and Way Forward (or Will).
But even if the name doesn’t ring any bells, you may already be familiar with the model. According to Tomer Yogev, certified executive coach, cofounder of The Big Joy Theory coaching institute, and professor of entrepreneurship at DePaul University, the GROW model is the foundation of modern business coaching.
“It’s so universal and fundamental, I would contend that anyone who has gotten certified as a coach has done it,” Yogev said.
Today, the model is used by executive coaches working with entrepreneurs, mentors doing career advancement counseling, and managers setting goals with their direct reports. Experts say that this model has found such widespread adoption not only due to its flexibility, but also because of how well it centers around the person being coached.
“The GROW model is something I offer to managers who want to have a coaching tool that’s simple and has some depth,” said Tina Mertel, an ICF-certified coach and founder of Meaningful Coaching, a performance-improvement and executive coaching firm. “Your employee is the one figuring it out,” she said.
That mentee-centric focus is one of the reasons Bryant Galindo, founder and CEO of consulting firm CollabsHQ, uses the model in his work, and has incorporated it into programs he’s developed for major firms. For the mentee, he said, the “really big advantage of the GROW model is teaching you how to empower yourself to become an agent of your own change” — especially appealing, he added, to millennials and those in intergenerational workplaces.
Each of the four GROW model steps is done in sequence, with the mentor asking questions and reflecting back the answers. Let’s take a closer look at each step.
1. Goal: This first step is often the clearest. Experts say that people usually come to their coaching sessions with a goal in mind. But that doesn’t make it a throw-away. Since the entire process flows from the goal, it’s critical to start with a well-defined target. “Fundamentally, it's the most important part of the model,” Yogev said.
2. Reality: This step provides an opportunity for the mentor to guide the mentee through a thorough assessment of where they are, what obstacles might exist, and what advantages and resources they could leverage. Mertel said this is where mentors can serve as a grounding agent. “This is a sticky place. You’re checking assumptions: Is that a fact, or is it an interpretation?” she said.
3. Obstacles / Options: After helping the mentee get a clear-eyed view of their situation, the third step is the time to get creative. All options for making progress toward the goal should be on the table. Part of this stage can be helping mentees see beyond the obvious, Yogev said. “It’s a brain-emptying exercise of all the different ways this can be done — no matter how ridiculous,” he said.
4. Way Forward / Will: Defining the way forward means that both parties have come to an agreement about the next steps to take in order to make the goal a reality. The final step is one that “everyone wants to jump to,” Yogev said. “But to slow down and go through [all] the steps is the whole point — jumping to an answer defeats the purpose,” he said.
No matter how straightforward the GROW model is, experts suggest a few best practices to make the process as smooth and rewarding as possible.
1. Ask for buy-in. Mertel recommended that coaches write the GROW steps on a cue card and show it to the person being coached, telling the mentee that they’re going to be following this coaching process and asking if they’re open to it. “Starting with that kind of transparency creates trust and [the mentee is] saying ‘Yes, I’m a part of this,’” she said.
2. Get SMART. All the experts interviewed agree that adding the familiar SMART criteria — specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound — to the plan can make all the difference in accountability and follow-through.
3. Be prepared to change. Yogev said that going through the rigorous GROW process can inspire mentees to see their goal in a whole new light. In fact, the steps can reveal an entirely different focus. “Generally, it shouldn’t be a complete reversal. But if you’re doing it right, there’s almost always a revision,” he said.
Don’t let its simplicity fool you. The GROW model is more than just a catchy acronym — it’s a user-friendly, thorough framework for defining goals and making plans. Working through the steps of the GROW model can be an extremely effective tool for bringing clarity to an employee’s goals — as well as creating a practical roadmap for achieving them.