The Achieve Coaching Model© - dispelling the secrets of the most successful executive coaches

by Dr. Sabine Dembkowski and Fiona Eldridge, Copyright Dembkowski and Eldridge

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Which ideas, models and processes do executive coaches use? Are they the best-kept trade secrets of people who prefer to produce results as if by magic? Or are models and processes used in a manner that is transparent for clients and shows them what coaches actually do and to involve them in the process?

Transparency increases trust. This is essential for any coaching relationship. Without trust the client holds back and does not reap the full benefits of the coaching relationship. It is our belief in the necessity of trust that led us to wish to uncover what actually happens in a coaching session facilitated by an excellent and effective coach. This article is the result of our quest to understand what makes a great coach and describes a new model to guide the coaching process.

We worked with and observed executive coaches in the US, England and Germany during coaching sessions with executives. Our aim was to identify specifically what top executive coaches who are known to produce extraordinary results do in order to increase performance and achieve results for their clients and to model successful coach behaviour.

Our guiding questions included:

  • How does the coach achieve results?
  • How does the coach have a positive impact on an executive’s performance?
  • What distinguishes an excellent coach from the average coach?

It became apparent that amongst the most successful and effective coaches there are similarities in the ways in which coaching interventions are conducted. From our observations and modelling and study of coaching models we developed the seven-step Achieve Coaching Model©.

Our studies and training in the UK revealed that the model which has most strongly influenced the process of coaching today is the GROW model. This model was then used as the starting point for the development of ACHIEVE.

What is the GROW model?

What next

The GROW model developed by Sir John Whitmore is probably the best-known coaching model in the UK. Many coach training programmes use this model as the framework for developing the coaching relationship. A recent study (2002) conducted by the Work Foundation and the School of Coaching revealed that 34% of respondents stated that they used the GROW model, one third cited they used a variety of models and the remaining third did not know what model or process was used in their coaching activities.

So what is the Achieve model? As we stated above it is a logical progression from GROW and follows the development of a coaching relationship in a systematic manner.

The seven-step Achieve Coaching Model©

  1. Assess current situation
  2. Creative brainstorming of alternatives to current situation
  3. Hone goals
  4. Initiate options
  5. Evaluate options
  6. Valid action programme design
  7. Encourage momentum

How the Achieve Coaching Model© works

In this section a detailed description of each of the seven steps is provided together with an overview of the skills and techniques which a coach can employ based on our direct observations of the best coaches.

Step 1 Assess the current situation

In this first stage of assessment coaches include all areas of a client’s life. As one of the coaches we modelled in Germany explained, '… you cannot separate the different areas of an executive’s life or for that matter anyone’s life - they are an interlinked system'. It is important to obtain an overview of the client’s current circumstances before focusing on the chosen area.

The most critical coaching skills at this stage are: rapport building, the use of open-ended questions and active listening.

Rapport building is the basic building block of communication between people. The technique promotes trust and comfort between people. As a US coach explained, 'rapport helps you to secure someone’s attention and increasing the likelihood that the message you send will be the one they receive'. Great coaches establish rapport by employing three essential skills:

  • Matching
  • Summarising
  • Respecting

Of the three, matching is key and involves matching both physiology and language:

  • Posture (key) - especially spine and head tilt
  • Gestures
  • Facial expression & blinking (key)
  • Breathing
  • Voice - tone, tempo, timbre and volume
  • Use of language - key words, common experiences and associations

The use of open-ended questions requires the client to answer with more than a simple yes or no. The purpose of this is to help the client to begin to explore his or her current situation which leads to different ways of thinking about it and ultimately to the self-generation of solutions.

In active listening coaches applied three techniques: repeating what was said word-by-word, reflective repetition (same sense) and interpretive repetition. In the latter step some coaches went as far as testing hypothesis and synthesising information from the client. All coaches observed their clients very carefully at this stage and had developed a high degree of sensory acuity. Sensory acuity includes observing such things as very small changes in skin colour and tone, the tightness of the muscles around the mouth, blinking rate and breathing rate. They showed genuine curiosity towards the client and their stories and were demonstrably keen to learn more about them. Based on the initial assessment the shaped the specific course of the coaching programme together with the client.

Step 2 Creative brainstorming of alternative options to a client’s current situation

Clients who have either hired an executive coach themselves or where the organisation suggest one often experience a “stuck state”. This is a situation where the client feels trapped as if there are no alternatives or keeps circling around the same issue without being able to generate new options for behaving differently. Top coaches ask open questions at this stage that allow the client to open up and/or view the problem from an entirely different perspective. A simple question such as “What would you do if you knew you had all resources you need to make this a success?” or “What would you do if money would not be an issue?” or “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” or “If you had one year to live, had all the resources you needed and experienced no pain, what would you do?” really stimulate the client to think in a very different way. Questions like these have the power to invite very open brainstorming at this stage. It also was important for the coach to pace then lead the client. That is to continue the rapport building and gradually ease into a new approach once the client is following the movements and language of the coach.

Throughout this stage the coach observes the client very closely as even small facial changes or other shifts in physiology can be indicators that the client is beginning to change.

Step 3 Hone goals

At some point during the first few coaching sessions the coach and client begin to work on goals. Sometimes clients know exactly what they want however others require more help in formulating the goal. Whatever the starting point, all great coaches spend significant time to work with the client to hone the goal they wish to achieve from the coaching. In the numerous sessions we observed it became clear that it is not a strictly linear process as the coach and client work back and forth until the goal is clearly formulated. In addition, we noticed that great coaches made sure that goals formulated in the right way we recognised that they conform to the principles of SMART goal setting:

S – specific
M- measurable
A – attainable
R – realistic
T – time-bound & tangible

SMART as an acronym has been quoted many times and there are several different translations for the acronym especially for the A and the R. All are good: Achievable, Attainable, Actionable, Reachable, Relevant, Realistic.

The best coaches we observed asked penetrating questions about the goal to ensure that it had real relevance to the client rather than just being a restatement of organisational goals or a socially expected goal.

To be achieved a goal needs to become real to the client. As one US coach explained, “The more it matters to the client the more it acts as a magnet it will draw in the person rather than the person having to push for it.” In fact for her this was the most critical issue in the process. Only those goals that have personal relevance and meaning are ones that are likely to be achieved - And bring fulfilment in the longer term.

Further to this we observed that great coaches made additional efforts to help the client to build a complete projection of the goal by exploring how it will look, sound and feel when they have achieved the goal. A US coach stressed that the 'aim of a small series of questions at this stage is to build a very real picture of how the goal will appear. This has the effect of making the goal seem achievable and helps the client have a much clearer idea of what they are endeavouring to achieve. By giving the client the experience of really sensing the goal the coach is giving the client the opportunity of testing that this is what they want and also gives them a benchmark to measure their progress against as they work towards the goal'.

Step 4 Initiate options for goal achievement

They then move on to helping the client to initiate a wide range of options for behaving to achieve the desired goal. This is an important stage where we noticed that novice coaches are inclined to rush ahead and begin to make suggestions to the client rather than taking it slowly and allowing the client to generate his or her own options. One key skill here is according to a British coach “to know when to be silent and provide space”. Long pauses are perhaps embarrassing in everyday conversation but they are a vital part of the coach/client relationship. A period of silent reflection may in fact be the most productive for generating fresh ideas and new ways of thinking about an issue. A UK coach explained, “In my experience it is really critical that options come from client, as a coach I can help to shape options, ask questions to encourage the development of options, push for more options but they do have to come from the client … it’s easier then to get genuine commitment for action”. He added this is also critical for client learning. If the client generates options he/she also becomes more constructive in the face of other challenges that may appear in the future which currently appear to be unrelated to the subject of the current coaching sessions.

Having produced a range of options they establish criteria with the client for evaluating the different options.

Step 5 Evaluate options

For this to be successful requires the coach to understand the world of the executive and to be skilful in asking questions to help the client to weigh up the different options. We observed a German coach who used a matrix where he asked the client to evaluate the options in terms of short and long-term costs and benefits. Other top coaches asked clients to write things down as a list and then come back to them several days later with a fresh eye before determining which option was most appropriate. The coach also needs to be able to synthesise the different options so that a more comprehensive approach may be formed. The less experienced coaches we observed easily became impatient and rushed into the action plan design. Again a critical skill here is the development of patience to allow the clients to come to their own decisions.

Step 6 Valid Action Plan Design

This is the action planning stage where coach and client work together in developing a concrete plan to bridge the gap between where the clients are at present and where they desire to be. In our studies this step was revealed as critical to a successful outcome of the coaching partnership. A real difference emerged between coaches that were very successful and those that merely went through the motions. Good coaches are very rigorous and gain commitment from the client for action with concrete time lines and a clear statement of if and what support they need. The experienced coaches work with simple tables where they integrate all action items. They also ask for very precise questions about how the client will know when they have achieved each action – this provides key performance indicators which are again self-generated.

It also appears to be important that the client summarises the action plan in writing, often in an email, and commits to follow-up contact with the coach after each session.

Step 7 Encourage momentum

The final step in the process is ongoing. The coach encourages momentum and helps the client to keep on track. As a German coach explained, 'however it is done (in person, by phone or email), it is vital that the coach should maintain contact with the client to maintain motivation and demonstrate belief in the client. The coach continues to encourage action that leads to the desired outcomes, motivates the client when the going gets tough, challenges when complacency sets in and demonstrates belief in the client. In this way the relationship is ongoing and the client knows that they have a partner who is solely dedicated to helping them achieve their goals'.

The aim of this article has been to describe and provide insights into the practices of great coaches. The result of the observation and analysis of coaching models is the Achieve Coaching Model. The model provides a clear and transparent process. Coaches can use the model to structure their coaching sessions and coaching programmes without being a straightjacket which does not allow for flexibility and individuality. For those thinking about hiring a coach it provides transparency of what actually happens in a coaching session and coaching programme and can help with evaluating coaches when choosing with whom to work.


Webster, D. (2002): “The Manager – Coach, Nice Idea or organisational necessity”, School of Coaching, Work Foundation, London
Whitmore, J. (1992): “Coaching for Performance”, Nicholas Brealey Publishing Limited, London.


We wish to thank all of our coaching partners in the US, UK and Germany for so willingly giving of their time and expertise.

Sabine Dembkowski PhD

Sabine has extensive business, strategy and marketing experience working in the USA and across Europe in Germany, England, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, France and Spain. After the completion of her first degree in Business and Management in Cologne/Germany she worked as a directive coach and management trainer for the Institute of German Economy in the German reunification programme.

Sabine then moved to England, returned to academia and earned her Ph.D. sponsored by Ford Motor Company. During this time she worked for the Environmental Strategy and Marketing department of Ford of Europe. After completion of her doctorate she worked as an international management consultant with a home base in London with A.T. Kearney and Monitor Company. She has consulted to the world’s leading organisations in a wide range of industries from the automotive, consumer goods, chemicals, financial services and IT industries. She is published in leading trade magazines and academic journals. Sabine is also the co-author of two major Financial Times Management Reports.

Her non-directive coaching training was received from the leading authorities in the US, England and Germany. She is a certified coach with the Lore Institute. As a Master Practitioner of NLP Sabine has trained with the top thought leaders and developers of NLP.

After 10 years in the UK she moved back to Cologne in Germany in 2001 but continues to travel extensively for leisure and her international clients. Sabine can be contacted at

Fiona Eldridge

Fiona originally trained in Biology and Education at the University of London. Since then she has worked in both the public and private sectors. She has extensive experience of senior team leadership as a company director and college principal and in educational and professional matters at a national level.

She trained in the UK and USA with leading authorities in the field of personal development and communication. She is a Master Practioner and a Certified Trainer of Neuro Linguistic Programming.

Amongst other projects, Fiona is currently developing a leadership programme targeted at senior managers within education responsible for introducing change programmes to remodel the school workforce.

Fiona has appeared on television and radio and is a frequent contributor to newspapers and journals in the sphere of education. She can be contacted at