Entrepreneurship is stressful. Startup founders are tasked with not only building a business that obtains hockey-stick growth, but also with making sure their teammates, investors, and partners are happy. Along with all of that, founders are somehow supposed to also make time for their personal endeavors, relationships, and mental health. That can be a lot to ask. That's where leadership coaching comes in for some founders.
"Advisors are people that give you advice. Mentors are people who have walked the road before and can guide you through that. Coaches fit in a different position, where their focus is solely on the CEO and how the CEO is performing," explained Khalid Halim, Silicon Valley leadership coach and cofounder of Reboot coaching company, during his recent talk at RocketSpace.
Interviewed by Andreessen Horowitz partner Matt Levy, Halim discussed the art of keeping your sanity as a startup founder and when leadership coaching makes sense. He also hit on a number of communication and reflection practices that can help entrepreneurs operate more effectively. Here's a taste of the type of advice and guidance you might receive from a leadership coach, based on five key takeaways from Halim's interview.
1. Customize your communications up, across, and down the company. CEOs are tasked with communication in three directions, says Halim — up (to the board and investors), across (to partners/co-founders), and down (to the team). It's important to customize your message for each audience, as they have different needs and concerns.
Don't present your investor's pitch to your team in hopes of explaining the future, for example, or treat direct reports like partners. And remember there are some messages that are best reserved to a select audience.
2. Trust is essential for healthy co-founder relationships. The formula for trust is "sincerity, reliability, and competence," says Halim. "If either one of those three things are missing, you can't trust somebody. If you say I'll meet you tomorrow for lunch at 2pm, I have to trust that you really mean it, that you're sincere; that you're reliable, that you'll actually be there at 2pm; and that you're competent to get there."
If you've made it to the point where you don't trust — or respect — your fellow co-founder, there's likely no point of return.
3. Connect your company's mission with each teammate's personal mission. One of the common disconnects in startup organizations is the lack of alignment between organizational goals and individual aspirations. Halim says he advocates the idea of acknowledging employees' "nested concerns," the many aspects of their lives that matter, inside and outside of the workplace. Once an employee's personal and professional concerns are aligned, the employee is set up for success.
Beyond professional goals, everyone's personal concerns should be addressed. Team members may wonder: "This deadline is taking over my life... Will I have time to pick my kid up from school this week? Or see my best friend while she's in town?" The best managers make sure their colleagues feel confident about all aspects of their lives.
4. Your board is the editor, not the writer, of your company. Startup CEOs, especially first-time founders, can get into a mess if they create a dynamic with their board of directors in which other board members are seen as the almighty and knowledgeable, while the CEO is seen as someone always seeking their answers. Don't go to your board asking, "What should I do about this problem?" Halim cautions. Go to your board saying, "I have a problem. Here's what I'm thinking about. What am I missing? What are my blind spots?" Your board is the editor, not the writer, of the company.
5. Know that all problems are people problems. Your startup's success — or failure — depends on the people you hire. "Every single problem in your company is a people problem," says Halim. "And every single people problem is a communication problem."
Communication, then, is the key to a well-functioning company. Halim concludes: "We communicate from our values, what we care about, what we believe, which is why a shared mission is so important."
Around 20-30% of Andreessen Horowitz-backed startup CEOs work with a coach. If you're curious whether a leadership coach could be helpful for your own work, watch Khalid Halim's full interview on keeping your sanity as a startup founder: