When I started my entrepreneurial journey, I did not have a coach or mentor, so I had to walk a very long and dwindled path.
Although there was no formal coach for me for a very long time, I always had people around me telling me what I should do and what I shouldn’t. Every time I listened to someone, I had to navigate the complicated maze of thoughts that advice generated.
I know how painful that can be, which is one of the many reasons I started supporting startups in the role of coach and mentor.
Every founder does not have to repeat the same mistake to learn valuable lessons. They can learn from others, only if others are willing to share their mistakes and experiences without adding any spice to their version.
Startups usually starve for time and money. Helping them add some structure to their overall approach and adding some sanity is often helpful. Sometimes merely acting as a sound-board is all that is needed.
Teaching to fish
My approach always has been less of a consultant and more of a mentor or teacher. Consultants are usually required for a new idea or technology implementation or for handling specific tasks that are already well defined.
With the startup, this situation is quite the contrary. If it is their IP, then they should execute core tasks and outsource if the functions are non-core or not creating any IP.
Coaching is about teaching to fish while consulting is fishing — startup founders need to learn fishing, although they may need their dinner served on an occasional basis.
For early-stage startups, it is better to teach fishing than fish for them.
While coaching and mentoring several startups in the past five years, I followed and learned a few things.
People often tell entrepreneurs, especially startups, that they need to know their “why,” the purpose of being in the business. But in my experience, they already know it. Instead, the most challenging part for them is almost always — how?
1. Having a broad structure but being flexible
After all, these sessions are all about the startup and not about the coach. These sessions help to address the founder’s needs, not to impose my thoughts or perceptions.
I rather let the founder come up with questions instead of anticipating. I can always expect if it is a critical aspect, and they missed it, but mostly, their problems take priority.
2. Seeking first to understand
As Stephen Covey notes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
If you cannot understand what the founder is trying to say or where they are coming from, it becomes a critical problem. Moreover, it becomes more frustrating for the founders.
Once there is a frequency match, everything else goes well. Unless that (match) happens, working on having that is the only priority for both founders and coaches. I usually focus my initial few sessions on this aspect before formally engaging. It helps to keep things simple!
3. It takes a genius to ask the right questions
Yes, as Elon Musk says, “Many times the question is harder than the answer. If you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part”.
It takes courage, confidence, and, most importantly, real wisdom to ask a good question. Asking the right questions can help founders to navigate through the issues they are facing using their heads, and this provides required learning (to fish).
Additionally, I prefer to remain curious as it helps. Asking questions without judgment means founders can be relaxed and avoid being defensive (for their good).
4. Being a coach and mentor, not an instructor
Each startup is unique. Even if the product or service is the same, many things make every startup unique. So that means, following the exact instructions may not give the same outcome every single time.
As a coach, I prefer sharing my personal experience, own stories, approach, and why. I believe founders are smart enough to pick up cues from this and form their plan.
5. Acting as a sounding board
I did not know what a sounding board meant until the first seven years of my career.
It essentially means that you as a coach, when act as a sounding board, repeat or paraphrase the founder’s words (or statements). Hearing it coming out of someone else’s mouth makes it sound different. This echo usually helps the founders to clarify their thoughts and uncover faulty logic if there is any. If not, it helps in strengthening the common understanding of the problem the founder is facing. Once the problem is crystal clear, solutions become either obvious or are near visible.
6. Following up yet remaining patient
Patience is a virtue, and it is one of the many critical traits that a coach or teacher needs to have.
As a coach, I may have been there and done that. However, it is not the same for the founders. It takes some time for an idea or concept to seep in and start making sense.
However, following up on an agreed plan is to the contrary. There are far too many things for the founders to fiddle. Someone needs to keep a tab on what’s pending, especially if it is a critical one.
Usually, I remain patient, wait and watch, and can be a pest, and follow-up, when it is a must.
7. Appreciating what is going right
It becomes lonely at times for a founder, and frustration mounts rapidly. Despite doing several things right, one small problem can deplete all the mental capacity. In these situations, someone needs to look at them objectively and assess them. A coach can do this job at times. Also, when required appreciating what has gone well can be a powerful thing. It makes founders feel that things are not just dark, after all. If they can see that they have done an excellent job too, it helps them repeat success while working on the failures and setbacks.
If you are a startup founder
The environment you live in is one of the significant contributors to your performance. It makes sense to surround yourself with the best people and seek a positive influence.
Remember that finding a great coach or a mentor is challenging. There are several armchair experts out there. You want somebody you can relate to. Someone who has been through what you’re going through at some point in time — someone who can be empathetic, patient, and appreciative of top talent.
A good business coach is a mentor too. They are someone who has been there and done that!