For startups to grow fast, the founder needs to grow faster. But sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, and your position of power in the company means no one will give you objective feedback.
Recently several of the founders in our portfolio have asked us to recommend a high quality executive coach to help them develop the skills necessary to scale their business.
When the founders in our portfolio consistently ask the same question, we listen. If it’s important to most of our founders, it’s likely a challenge for all founders. That’s how we ended up open-sourcing our seed stage term sheet, legal DD checklist and ESOP docs.
So here we want to explain what executive coaching is, why a coach can be critical to helping a founder upskill as their company grows, and provide an open source database of executive coaches that have been recommended to us by founders and other VCs.
What is executive coaching?
As your company grows, there are fewer and fewer people you can be honest with. Coaches are there to act as a safe, confidential space for founders to share their concerns with someone objective and unattached to the outcome.
Your coach builds a relationship with you to understand the core of what drives you, and through that process can uncover the areas to work on to take you to the next level — everything from your interpersonal skills (communication, delegation, team-building), self-management skills (handling stress, understanding your intrinsic motivation) and leadership skills (planning, decision-making, conflict management, organisational culture).
Through conversation with you, and sometimes your colleagues and family members, your coach can help you examine your own own thinking and decision-making, provoke new ideas and insights, and commit to action steps that will help you achieve your goals in areas as broad as setting goals, managing stress, handling cofounder conflict, and communicating with employees.
How is it different to therapy?
While therapy is typically reflective and driven only by conversations with the client, coaching is action oriented, high performance focussed, and can be informed by data from colleagues and family members in addition to the client.
Types of coaching
While a coaching relationship typically starts with the founder, many companies see the benefit and extend the practice out to the company more broadly:
Co-Founder coaching: This is helpful to keep your relationship with your cofounder(s) aligned and conflict-free as you scale.
Exec team coaching: The exec teams needs to scale as quickly as the founders, and rapid growth often leads to tension in the team due to scarce resources and conflicting priorities. Coaching can help both individuals and team cohesion.
Culture and org strategy: As you grow from 20 to 200 to 2000 you will inevitably encounter new problems — your early employees may feel disgruntled as new recruits are promoted over them and the early initiatives you used to build culture won’t scale. A coach can help you think through how to support an inclusive culture, open communication, and a coherent org structure as your company hits new milestones.
What is the structure?
Most often coaching relationships will last between 2 months and 2 years. They can consist of 1–1 meetings, 360 feedback from your team, and shadowing you in meetings, on phone calls and in email.
Costs vary by coach, but they can be $300+ per session. It’s expensive, but this should pay back quickly by enabling you to perform at a higher level and reach your company and revenue goals faster.
How to find one
The best way to find a great coach is through referrals, so we’ve put together a list of coaches who have come highly recommended to us:
Everyone has a very different style, so we suggest you meet with a few and ask some questions before committing.
- Their focus — do they focus on helping you with personal areas like self-acceptance and anxiety? Or more practical approaches like org design and communication?
- Their interpersonal style and approach — would you prefer someone warm and supportive or critical and direct?
- Their application of theories — does the coach have any specific theories, models or frameworks they use? How rigidly do they follow them?
- Their way of working — how often do they want to meet and for what time period? Will they interact solely with you or will they want to speak to colleagues and shadow you in meetings?
This will be hard work, your coach will hold up a mirror to a number of facts you’d prefer not to face, and will create action plans for you to consciously address your personal challenges. You’re unlikely to get the full benefit from one session, plan for at least 1–3 months of work to start seeing a real difference.
You wouldn’t hesitate to get a coach if you were training for an Ironman, so use that same logic to engage an executive coach as you run hard at building a global, category-leading company.
Access our recommended list here 👈👈👈👈👈
If you have worked with a coach who has experience in high-growth companies and should be added to our list, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
A full list of AirTree’s Open Source VC resources can be accessed here.