How coaching can help founders survive and thrive in 2023

Founders don’t need me to tell them they’re in the midst of a difficult operating environment. Global venture funding slumped 35% in 2022. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, US-China tensions, the pandemic, and associated global supply and energy crises, underpin a difficult macroeconomic setting for business. 

The latest crisis feels closer to home for founders. The upending of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) has been big news. While much of the public won’t have known SVB before last week, it has been the bank for the startup community for a long time; their staff understood startup psychology, partnered with their founders and would often back them when nobody else would.  This won them the reputation that their name not so subtly implied.

What founders do now, next week and in the months ahead will determine whether their businesses survive and thrive or become mere footnotes in history. It is in this context that founders could benefit from the expertise of a professional coach. And you don’t need to take my word for it. Take the likes of Jeff Weiner, former CEO at LinkedIn, or Sheryl Sandberg, former COO at Meta, they both hired an executive coach to help develop their leadership and communication attributes. Even Elon Musk works with one.

What is coaching? Usually offered by an accredited professional with sector experience, coaching is a development practice to improve effectiveness in role. The International Coaching Federation defines coaching as “partnering in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires a person to maximise their personal and professional potential."

If this hasn’t peaked your interest, I’ve distilled down three critical ways coaches can help founders navigate challenges and build effective, empowered teams geared for growth.

Finding focus

Although each founder’s start-up journey is unique, there are common experiences all founders can relate to. For example, managing a small team, creating, and then selling a vision to investors, taking products to market, and driving customer acquisition and retention. Leading through difficult, and often unforeseen situations too. The list goes on.

These situations often require founders to be a jack of all trades, but scaling a business beyond the start-up phase or managing crisis situations – like the SVB crash – require focus. And there is a difference between being tunnel visioned and focused. All founders know they can’t be all things to all people, forever. A transition in thinking is required. They’re all too aware of the turnover rate of start-up CEOs as their companies go for growth.

Coaching can help founders figure out how to find focus through trying times, by offering a confidential, safe space to assess the task at hand. Or in an event like the SVB collapse, how can a founder firefight for their company while also zooming out to get perspective on the situation and be strategic?

Lead with your strengths, collaborate on your weaknesses

If a leader hasn't fully examined themselves and their values, it can have a really negative impact on building the right workplace culture to drive growth. Sometimes founders can believe that they are their business, that its survival depends on them, and that its culture derives from them. This can be a dangerous headspace to be in.

Travis Keleneck is a good example of this. He created a behemoth business in Uber, but critics argued his dominating leadership style created a toxic culture that harmed its reputation and ultimately, allowed other market entrants to compete with it.

Of course, a founder’s persona, vision and passion are integral to start-ups; they wouldn’t exist without them. However, to truly scale a business and see it reach its full potential, effective founders shouldn’t ground everything they do on their personality, or feel they need to.

They have to constantly assess if they’re being used impactfully, and most critically, become specialists in building the people and teams around them that they can trust, delegate to, and accept healthy challenge from. Coaches can be helpful partners to founders by helping them to explore their strengths and weaknesses, and evolve their leadership style.

Getting practical support, free from conflict

Finding the right coach for you is important. This may sound obvious, but the best coaches are those who can quickly get to grips with the core issues, intelligently uncover new solutions and have a deep understanding of a client’s role. A great coach will ask their clients the right questions or encourage the right type of reflection.

And best of all, they’re not conflicted like a chair or a non-exec director – as important as they are - may be. Their knowledge and credibility are also important because you need to respect them to get the most from them.

Not only is knowledge important, type is too. Coaches typically fall into three categories: strategic – that focuses on helping executives develop and implement strategic plans for their organisations; transformational – that focuses on helping executives transform themselves and their organisations, and; tactical – that focuses on helping executives develop specific skills and competencies that are needed to achieve their goals and objectives. Some have the experience and capability to offer all three, but founders should think about who they choose in relation to their needs.

Startups are inherently risky endeavours, and founders and leaders need to be resilient in order to weather the ups and downs of building their businesses. The demise of SVB, and the wider banking crisis unfolding in front of us will make life difficult for founders. Some won’t survive, but no founder should have to tackle such challenges alone.

Coaches can help founders and leaders build this resilience by providing them with the tools and strategies they need to stay focused, motivated, and positive in the face of setbacks and challenges – and develop a growth mindset that is essential for success.