Coaching: The Best-Kept Secret to Growing as an Entrepreneur
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Sometimes, a change at the top can be the difference between a perennial loser and a surprise contender. For proof, look no further than the Los Angeles Rams, a team which less than a year ago wrapped up a 4-12 season that included a midyear coaching transition.
New coach Sean McVay appears to have energized his players, helping the Rams capture momentum that was completely absent when the team lost seven consecutive games to close out the 2016 season.
Yes, the Rams play football, but there's a lesson there for startup and small business owners. Because, like professional athletes, entrepreneurs perform better under the guidance of great coaches.
And the news there is good: Due to the competitive advantages entrepreneurs enjoy from expert coaching, the marketplace for coaches has started to swell. According to the 2016 Global Coaching study by the International Coach Federation and PricewaterhouseCoopers, global coaching revenue was estimated to be about $2.4 billion in 2015, besting 2011's figure by a substantial 19 percent.
Not to mention what's happening with the bigger guys: Up to 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies now work with executive coaches, according to consulting firm Hay Group.
Yet, while executive coaching has gained traction, many startup founders lack access to high-quality coaches. The paradox? They can't afford an experienced coach, but need one to be able to build their companies to the point of being able to do just that.
What separates a coach from a mentor
I posted about this coaching paradox on LinkedIn a while back, and my post attracted a flood of comments. After reading them through, I realized that many people don’t understand the distinction between a mentor and a coach. While these positions might seem similar, there's actually a world of difference between the two.
"Mentors," for one thing, don’t usually follow a fixed schedule or require payment. They help with strategic issues, answering questions for founders without actively participating in company operations.
"Coaches," on the other hand, are not afraid to get their hands dirty. They are typically paid, and operate on, a fixed schedule to help entrepreneurs make themselves better. Mentors offer great advice; coaches ask great questions.
Based on the comments my post attracted, founders of new startups are hungry for a coach. There’s a huge gap in the startup community as it relates to coaching; everyone needs it, but relatively few people are willing to provide it for free. So, what to do?
How to bridge entrepreneurship’s coaching gap
The question is, how do we solve the paradox and match enterprising, young CEOs with talented coaches? The answer to this coaching quandary rests in the basic ecology of entrepreneurship. By studying the interactions between entrepreneurs and their physical environment, a cycle of mutually beneficial coaching exchanges begins to emerge. Here are its three steps:
1. First-time founders: Barter for coaches. Young founders probably can't afford to shell out more than $1 million a year for coaching sessions with Tony Robbins. Instead, they must find coaches willing to offer their services for a low cost. They also might be able to trade their own services for coaching.
My first coach, James, was also one of my clients when I was running my first company in Ohio. James was a sales coach who asked us to build his new website. When I initially met with him to discuss the project, I accidentally went to the wrong Starbucks. I arrived 15 minutes late for our meeting, which prompted his first lesson: “Be on time when you meet with people. You’re young, and you need to do the little things to ensure that others take you seriously and treat you as a professional.”
Many team members from BounceFire still remember “the call” James made to our office one day when things weren’t going well. We took our lumps, but we learned incredible lessons. He later admitted that he was deliberately hard on me because he wanted to see me succeed.
All first-time entrepreneurs should have someone like that to push them harder and help them navigate the early pitfalls of leadership -- inside and outside of work. Work your network to find someone who might be willing to provide a bit of free (or relatively cheap) coaching every now and then to help keep you on track.
2. Connect growing founders to paid coaches. Founders of expanding companies have experienced enough success to know where their problems lie, but they haven’t mastered everything. Paid executive coaches can hold founders accountable and provide detailed wisdom during critical decisions, making them a worthwhile investment.
Not sure what to look for in a good executive coach? Countless executives have gleaned incredible insights from the likes of Jerry Colonna, who uses self-inquiry to help executives hone their leadership skills and better understand themselves. Others take a more solution-oriented approach, asking questions to steer executives through routine business issues. Such was the case with Silicon Valley legend Bill Campbell. Find someone who meshes with your personal style, and view the monthly fee as a worthwhile investment in your company's future.
According to the study by the International Coach Federation, 23 percent of coaches surveyed said they primarily focus on executives. Growing founders should not hesitate to invest some time and money into someone who can help them get more out of themselves.
3. Develop successful founders into coaches and advisors. The path to coaching is relatively simple for successful entrepreneurs, because it's typically one of the key traits you develop as a leader. Find one or two first-time founders whom you truly believe in, and give them an hour or two of your time every month for coaching sessions. This will keep your coaching and leadership skills sharp, and you will be helping the next generation of entrepreneurs.
I am still working to become a better coach and leader, but I do advise several startups across the country. I also find myself in an advisory role for many of our accelerator startups. We recently took seven of them to GITEX Technology Week in Dubai, and it was great to spend time mentoring startup founders while learning about their unique struggles.
Once you have some experience, you might consider doing a paid coaching engagement with an active or growing founder. As you break your way into the coaching scene, don’t forget to continue to work with your own coach -- you’ll still need some help along the way.
Executive coaching shouldn’t be rare or reserved for well-connected entrepreneurs. A good coach can turn raw talent into refined expertise or refined talent into renowned success. From the greenest startup to the most seasoned veterans, coaching is the key to unlocking untapped potential.