Why Your Start-Up Needs A Coach

Permission to be empathetic.
Leading teams becomes a lot more joyful, and the team more effective, when you know and care about the people.
-Trillion Dollar Coach

Love in Silicon Valley

Bill Campbell was one of Silicon Valley’s most valued and best-kept secret coaches. He helped build Google, Apple, and Intuit. Among many others, he mentored Sheryl Sandberg, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Marissa Mayer, and Eric Schmidt. He passed away in 2016 and “the Coach” left behind a legacy of having helped grow companies and support individuals in achieving their definition of success as well as an abundance of respect, friendship and love.

In the book “Trillion Dollar Coach” authors Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle tell the story of Bill and his extraordinary capability to coach. They divulge the playbook of a man who helped companies and people achieve success and greatness. What you might be surprised to learn is that one of the chapters focuses on “The Power of Love”. What is a chapter about love doing in a book about Silicon Valley leaders and their businesses?

As the chapter points out, you don’t often hear the word “love” in a business setting. “We’ve all been conditioned and trained to separate our personal emotions from the business environment… But not Bill. He didn’t separate the human and working selves; he just treated everyone as a person: professional, personal, family, emotions… all the components wrapped up in one. And if you were one of his people, he cared about you fiercely and genuinely.”

Emotions Rule

Thanks to the many research scientists and experts, we now know that emotions are responsible for the decisions we make, every minute of every day. Our emotions drive thoughts, which drive behaviors, which then create real-life experiences, which then drive more emotions, thoughts, behaviors… and so on.

As living, breathing, human-beings we do not exist without our emotions. They are a huge part of us. Denying their existence, suppressing, or ignoring them renders us incapable of showing up as whole and complete individuals. Emotions also have a sneaky way of making themselves heard; even without our consent, they often give the game away to those who know us well.


Illustration from No Hard Feelings

 The belief that emotions do not have a place in business is outdated. We must recognize that emotions are a real part of life for all of us. Learning what they mean, how they show up in relationships, and the part they play at work is becoming the norm for modern day businesses and management books. Norms or not, there is still much work to be done as we continue to learn and put new habits into practice.

We all are impacted by our own emotions as well as other people’s. The phrase emotions are contagious is very real. Ever felt the tension in the room when someone walks in a room and raises their voice? Ever noticed how you feel inside? As Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy share in their book No Hard Feelings, emotions infiltrate absolutely every corner of the working world. Yet, we don’t have to be concerned; there are ways to become fluent in our own language of emotion.


Illustration from No Hard Feelings

 Accepting emotions in business does not mean radical transparency and open airing our emotions publicly at work. Believing it is acceptable to outwardly express emotions of anger, frustration, and irritation whenever they are felt is not the goal. Yes, sometimes it is ok to express anger. Finding the right outlet is the most important part. To understand our emotions better, it’s important to ask: “Why am I experiencing this?” Our emotions are like a GPS system, they are giving us internal guidance. How we respond to them is a skill to be learned and developed.

Expressing all emotions through behaviors (remember emotions lead to, thoughts, lead to behaviors, etc.) just because they are felt is not conducive to creating a supportive, high growth, high achieving business environment in 2022 and beyond.

Startup Culture

There are many stories that exist of toxic business cultures, especially in the start-up world. The majority of toxicity is expressed through behaviors like: dishonesty, mistrust, backstabbing, taking credit for someone else’s work, downplaying others, gatekeeping, lying, not showing up, taking unnecessary sick days, not caring for others in an inclusive environment, sneering, making jokes at other people’s expense, gossiping and much more. All of these are behaviors and they point to needs not being met.

The impact of toxic cultures destroy individuals and businesses. The rate of toxic culture growth has been exponential in recent years. The antidote to this is to begin uncovering the reasons behind it and address the root causes.

Start-ups are fast paced and dynamic, there is high risk, high pressure, high performance, and high excitement. Emotions run high, stress is part of the equation, and anxiety often runs rife. Even for the most experienced of individuals, start-ups are not for the faint of heart.

Most start-ups are fixated on delivery and growth at the cost of anything. That means even at the cost of life. Work 24/7, commit to 48 – 72 hour stints without complaint, forget healthy eating, movement, or sleep. Don’t complain, you are paid well and the perks are great. When we IPO you will be a millionaire; this is the promise of future reward in exchange for soul-selling and burnout. Culturally too we have created lifestyles that keep us ‘always on’ with no regard given to downtime. The message is clear: there’s no need to unplug and rest. People can just keep going, take another Xanax to calm the anxiety, or an Adderall to help the focus – the slippery slope begins.

As an Entrepreneur, start with that and you will create a toxic business and your people, including you, will burnout at some point – emotionally, physically, spiritually, or all three. That toxicity for your business will quickly result in doors spinning as people join and leave on the merry-go-round, relationships fracturing, investors becoming irritated, and clients queuing up to complain.

Understanding balance, wellbeing and having a coach in your corner will help you avoid a lot of the pitfalls that start the above patterns. A coach may either prevent you from capsizing or offer you and your business a lifejacket even if you do take a dip.

The Coach

Coaching in business has not yet really entered the mainstream lexicon. Leaders, visionaries, managers, and mentors are more frequent references. Coaches, however, have a powerful place in the business formula, and especially in the start-up world.

Coaches are separate from the roles of leaders and managers. They are not woven into the fabric of the cultural norm, they do not report to HR, and they are not tied to company performance outcomes in the conventional sense. A Coach plays a very different role.

Consider the professional world of sports. Depending on the sport, athletes often have both a manager and a coach. Dip into the world of athletic coaching by watching Ted Lasso to get a creative view of British soccer coaching. While a fictional series, there are still some poignant coaching lessons for us all.

Back across the pond in the U.S. Coach K, Michael Krzyzewski, the head coach for over 40 years for Duke University’s basketball team highlights the power of a coach in his book Beyond Basketball:

“In all forms of leadership, whether you are a coach, a CEO, or a parent, there are four words that, when said, can bring out the best in your team, your employees, and your family.

“I believe in you.”

Those four words can mean the difference between a fear of failure and the courage to try. When you look someone in the eyes and tell them, “I believe in you,” you are letting them know, “You are not going to take this journey alone. I’m not going to allow you to.” When someone believes in you, it helps you overcome the anxiety that comes as a result of feeling alone. Belief raises your confidence level and allows you to try things that are impossible to do by yourself.”

Coaches develop close, trust filled relationships with individuals. They encourage and challenge them to grow and try new things. They bring a touch of toughness to the relationship dialogue, help individuals maintain self-belief in their ability, and lead them in processing situations without telling them what to do. To develop the individual’s courage and risk tolerance to risk making mistakes, they don’t just linger in theory or process. Instead, coaches easily shift conversations towards application and action. The coaching relationship evolves over time, deepens, and moves on in time in accordance with changing needs. That is not a criticism of the coach or the individual, it is a celebration of the successful growth development.

If coaching is critical in professional sports, why does every individual in business not have a coach? How can we expect founders and entrepreneurs of businesses to thrive and be successful without one? Finding the right support to achieve balance is critical in life, wellbeing, and in all aspects of business – especially entrepreneurship.

The Entrepreneur and The Coach

At the beginning of an entrepreneurial journey, entrepreneurs do not know what they don’t know. However, the most experienced serial entrepreneurs with 20+ years under their belt know their success has, and continues to be, supported by the coaches that have been alongside them in their journey.

The pressure of start-up life is fraught with highs and lows. It is a journey often isolated and lonely. Having a coach in your corner is sometimes the only source of encouragement helping you maintain sanity when things get bumpy. Coaches can be the voice of reason to help you navigate safely through the rapids of start-up life. That relationship is sacred and safe; a coach is someone the entrepreneur trusts implicitly as a guide through business’ greatest challenges.

Entrepreneurs deal with intense emotions and situations throughout their journey from isolation to depression. They have to come to terms with the founder mentality they battle – specifically, that “I am my company” syndrome. They experience ever increasing bouts of failure fear, face financial risks, experience anxiety, uncertainty, stress, imposter syndrome, and unwittingly adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms. Self-talk can be incredibly cruel too; self doubt often creeps in as beliefs and values are all ferociously challenged.

Dealing with all of this is not easy and as an Entrepreneur, it’s not necessary to face it all along. Why make the journey harder than it needs to be? Why try climbing Everest on your own? Sure, a very small number of people do, but you can guarantee they didn’t make Everest their first solo climb.

If it’s too much for professional athletes to manage without a coach, let’s challenge and change our belief that entrepreneurs are supposed to successfully build companies without that same coaching support..

Just because you can endure, doesn't mean you have to

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