Building a CEO skill set in startups with coaching
So I’m developing a working hypothesis about startups and the people who lead them. Wanna hear about it?
Here it is:
The founders and CEOs of startups need help managing their own psychology, their ‘demons’ if you will; many are geniuses, but are totally unprepared for the complexities of running a company; they are entrepreneurs with strong egos and personalities, who need to realize how much they need learn, and start asking for help.
Maybe it would be helpful if I shared some of the reasoning behind this position. What kind of data have I collected that would back up this set of assertions?
1. I read a blog post (http://www.markevans.ca/2016/02/16/unicorns/) by well-known marketer and advisor to tech companies, Mark Evans, about the ‘death of the unicorn’. He argued that there is more pressure than ever before on startups to produce, generate revenue, and become sustaining businesses. Leading and operating businesses is now a skill set needed by most startup CEOs.
2. Despite these demands, many founders/CEOs may be ill-equipped to humbly ask for help. Lars Dalgaard (previously of SuccessFactors) described this in a recent post (https://medium.com/software-is-eating-the-world/thoughts-on-building-weatherproof-companies-6a72c658f72b#.o6t74hmbx). These founders are people that want to bend the world in their image. They have been good at everything their whole lives. Asking for help does not come naturally.
3. I read the book ‘The Hard Things About Hard Things’ by Ben Horowitz. It told the tale of how he built and sold his company, yet he admitted that he was not prepared for the demands of being a CEO. In fact the book represents a summary of all the hard lessons he painfully learned along the road to the sale.
4. I took note of the recent implosion of the company Zenefits. According to the NY Times’ reports, a core reason for this business’ decay was the incompetence of its leadership (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/18/technology/zenefits-scandal-highlights-perils-of-hypergrowth-at-start-ups.html?_r=0).
5. Finally, I spoke to someone deeply involved in the tech industry, here in Toronto, who said that most startup CEOs are (and I quote!) “young punks that don’t have any experience, background, or maturity”. They went on to say that “they don’t have the ability to manage their own psychology, their own demons, because they’re engineers with big egos, who think they know everything but actually know nothing about running a business.” Alright then.
This leads me to conclude that many founders/CEOs at startups desperately need to invest in coaching. They need someone to help them transition from an engineer to a general manager, or better yet a business leader. They need someone to show vulnerability to, in their darkest and most stressful times. They need objective feedback, from an outsider who hasn’t ‘drunk the Kool Aid’. They need someone to help them realize that they don’t know everything, but that’s ok, and that they can ask for help and still succeed.
The psychological pressure on founders/CEOs to succeed can be immense. Significant personal and professional development is required to persevere and transcend these challenges. Coaching is a tool that can many more should embrace to help build their CEO skill sets, manage their ‘demons’, and support the growth of their companies.