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What does a founder coach do?
As a founder coach, I often reflect on what exactly my job is. Just as it is the case with the CEOs I work with, to do a great job, founder coaches also must have a good idea of what our job is and what it means to do it well. Even though coaching as a process is fairly well-defined, founder coaching is not widely understood yet.
First of all, a founder coach is a coach. That is, the definition of coaching by the International Coaching Federation, fully applies to founder coaching:
ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.
International Coaching Federation
While founder coaching fits this definition, there are important additional considerations that differentiate founder coaches from coaches working in other domains, e.g. executive coaches, career coaches, wellbeing coaches or life coaches.
First, founder coaches bring their entrepreneurial experience into the coaching process. Entrepreneurs usually reach out to founder coaches because of their own experience as entrepreneurs. As founder coaches, we have street cred and battle scars. We founded, raised, hired, fired, sold and pivoted, discovering firsthand what The Struggle feels like. While coaching is not advisory or consulting and founder coaches don’t tell clients what to do, our experience heavily informs the questions we ask and helps us empathise with our clients.
Second, founder coaches embrace the psychological dimension. In my experience, the biggest blockers and the biggest breakthroughs are found once the entrepreneur chooses to explore how they are getting in their own way. As coaches, we are trained to focus on the present and the future (rather than the past, which therapy often aims to heal) and know the boundary between coaching and therapy. This is right, and yet I find that the best founder coaches don’t hesitate to go straight into someone’s childhood, if needed, to help them understand why their company is the way it is.
Psychologically, founders are different from the rest of us. Founders see the world and themselves through a unique lens, and they need their founder coach to see the world through their eyes. It takes a crazy person to take significant risks to achieve an impossible dream and believe that they are capable of doing it. Furthermore, the traits that sometimes make founders successful, such as narcissism, are often integral to both their success and struggles, creating a complex picture that the founder coach needs to understand. Finally, the energy that drives founders to build their businesses is often rooted in adverse childhood experiences. Often, kids who would become entrepreneurs had to grow up faster than they were supposed to. Founder coaches need to know how to work with this experience, and be informed by the work they’ve done on themselves.
Third, founder coaches are often working with a renewing agenda. That is, while in other domains clients often engage coaches to help achieve specific goals, e.g. get a promotion, get in shape, go through a life transition, founder coaches are often working with their clients side-by-side on an ongoing basis, helping them face the inevitable challenges and grow as a result. It may be a co-founder issue this month, fundraising next month, and pivoting the product the month after. Each experience is an invitation to grow.
Fourth, founder coaches are usually able and expected to provide additional services to support their clients, such as offsite facilitation, 360 reviews or observing senior team meetings to give their client a richer picture of their performance. In fact, they are uniquely positioned to do such work well because they deeply understand their client and their business.
Fifth, the wider context of founder coaching work is business performance. Founders engage coaches because they want to do a better job, which then translates into superior business performance. While coaches aren’t directly responsible for any numbers, the reason the Trillion Dollar Coach Bill Campbell was called Trillion Dollar Coach was because he helped create over a trillion dollars in value. My own clients judge our work based on how their revenue, growth or impact (or other relevant metrics) are improving over time, even though in our coaching sessions we usually talk about anything but metrics.
It’s important that the founder always stays in the centre of our work though, and not the metrics. As a founder coach, my job is to help the founder do what’s right for them, and sometimes it may be stepping down or even shutting down the company. Either event may negatively impact the metrics but it will be the right thing to do for the founder.
I define a founder coach as an entrepreneur who uses their coaching skills, practical experience, and an understanding of the founder psychology to support continuous personal and professional growth of their clients in service of the company's success.
A job well done, then, for a founder coach, is a client who has grown their self-awareness and skills and has used them towards better business performance and improved well-being.