Coachability Isn’t Just for Entrepreneurs

I’ve read VC’s articles and heard them give talks about what they appreciate in the companies they invest in. You’ll inevitably hear some variation of the product / market / team answer and usually hear them say the team is the most important (at least at the seed stage). I’ve seen enough at MEST to confirm this makes sense. Much of the product and — to some extent — market remains unclear, so it takes a skilled team to navigate the uncertain waters. This then places importance on the founder(s) as the captain(s) of this ship (if I’m going to continue with the nautical reference). Critical for navigating that ship, those VCs will say, is coachability — sometimes written as humility. Having been reminded of this recently, I decided that’s what I want to touch on today.

It makes sense why coachability is important. Good VCs and advisors are a wealth of knowledge and an entrepreneur unwilling to consider a knowledgeable outside opinion is a risk for a company at such a malleable stage. I’ve seen the difference between the entrepreneurs who are sponges and those who are stubborn. It’s no surprise I’ve found that the entrepreneurs who consider anyone and everyone’s opinions (and have the ability to separate the good from the bad) have more success than the ones who remain hell bent on his/her own ideas. Granted, coachability is easier said than done. It’s hard to think of anyone who doesn’t struggle with taking feedback, let alone someone who has invested her blood, sweat, and tears into an idea to try to make it work. That said, that’s why it’s all the more impressive and valuable to find the entrepreneur that can do so.

What’s talked about less often is the importance of VCs to remain coachable. Yes, good VCs/advisors are a wealth of knowledge, but that wealth isn’t infinite. Due to experience, funding, network, etc., the balance of power is often shifted in the favor of the VC and with that power can come an overconfidence in his or her own abilities. I’ve seen advisors become cursed with their own knowledge and quick to project that it’s the entrepreneur that’s not listening. Of course this can be the case, but I’ve experienced it should be the second assumption, not the first.

I find myself making this error when I start advising before understanding. If my first response is “I think…” rather than, “I’m interested why you chose…can you explain?”, I’ve realized I’m already starting to close myself off from alternative perspectives. In my experience, if I catch myself pontificating before thoroughly understanding, not only am I more likely to have an unhelpful comment, but even when I do have good insight, it falls on deaf ears. A well-informed question not only clarifies the issue at hand, but can demonstrate any forthcoming insight will be valuable. Lessons learned on the playground are still relevant today: who wants to listen to a not-it-all?

Being willing to say I don’t know and learn from my teams has not only made me more valuable for them, but has provided me with an even larger base of knowledge to advise future teams. But that’s only after I’m done learning from them, of course.

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