How goal-setting helped this felon-turned-CEO maintain his sense of purpose

How this one-time convicted felon turned his life around and became a CEO

When Jay Coughlan was in his 20s, he had one goal in mind: to become a CEO by age 40.

At 38, though, tragedy struck. After a hunting trip with his father in 1998, Coughlan and his dad went out for drinks. Their decision to drive home afterward ultimately led to his father's death.

In the weeks after, Coughlan laid in the bed of a hospital trauma center only able to focus on one thing: his purpose in life.

"I realized I was responsible for the death of someone who was not only my dad but was someone who I respected and admired and appreciated and loved," Coughlan tells CNBC Make It.

Now, after a successful business career in tech, Coughlan has made it his mission to help others as CEO of an executive coaching business called TruBalanced. In his position, he frequently asks people, "How do you want to be defined?"

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If you don't figure that out, he says, you'll go through life always busy and become a victim of your circumstances.

"The reality is that I didn't want to become defined by my worst moment," Coughlan says.

After serving six months in jail, Coughlan returned to the company he had been working for, Lawson Software, and rose through the ranks. Although he missed his initial goal of becoming a CEO at 40 by two years, he was promoted to the top spot and led the company to an IPO in 2001.

But Coughlan says he wasn't always so motivated.

He grew up in a blue collar neighborhood in Philadelphia and says he was an underachiever. When he got physically injured and couldn't work in construction, he went to community college and says that's when the "business world became alive" to him.

"I got this insatiable appetite for knowledge," he says. At this point in his 20s, he became determined to become a CEO and learned the importance of setting goals.

This planning method allowed him to identify questions for himself like, "What additional skill set do I need to acquire?", "How do I prioritize what I need to do?" and "What do I need to stop doing?"

"That was the beginning of my prioritizing where I wanted to go in life," Coughlan says.

Before the accident, he focused mainly on his career. After, he balanced the importance of family, faith and friends with the success he enjoyed at work.

"I realized I needed to define myself as more than just a CEO, my definition of myself had additional things like husband, dad, friend and coworker," Coughlan says. "That's where I began to understand that setting goals wasn't about what you've achieved but appreciating the journey along the way."

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