Coach Secrets: Thriving through the pressures of being a startup founder, Part 2 of 2
A recap of our 'Founder Ladder' event, organised with our friends at Earlywork
The early days of a startup can be very intense and founders may face many challenges. At Medoo we thought it would be good to hear from founder & leadership coaches on these challenges and explore ways in which founders can grow through them.
This is the second (and final) part of our recap of Medoo’s first coaching panel event that we ran in June together with Earlywork, “The Founder Ladder: Secrets to Growing Yourself as a Founder”. In part one of our recap, we introduced our panellists, Peter Huynh, Veronica Mason, and Sarah Nanclares; and covered how to navigate the pressures of being a founder.
Now in part two, we talk about the things that founders can do to build a great culture at their startup, and how to handle conflict if and when it arises. Let’s dig in!
Building culture as a startup founder
Let’s say your startup is fairly successful in the early stages and now you’ve got a team and the product is growing. There’s a whole new set of challenges, stemming from the growth of your company. What would you say to founders who are looking ahead, thinking, how can I prepare myself for that?
Veronica believed that the changes between being a founder just focused on your product versus having to wear many different hats can be very intense. The biggest challenge she sees that comes up with founders is that ‘people and culture’ element. For founders, trying to empathise with not only yourself, but with others, and actually get them to be on board is an important skill to master. Cultivating the power of empathy is especially important now that the founders need to grow themselves exponentially.
Sarah posited that founders put a ton of effort into their product, their business vision, mission, values, and other things like that. But not as many make the investment early on into putting that same effort in their personal leadership skills. They could turn those questions on themselves, like “What are my values? What is my why? Why do I want to be a leader? What sort of leader do I want to be? What do I stand for? And what don't I stand for as a leader, not as the owner of a business, but as a leader, as a person?” Answering those types of questions can give new founders a huge amount of clarity.
Peter agreed with that wholeheartedly. He’s firmly of the belief that the business will only go as far as that the leadership continues to level up. For the founders to be able to look inwards is such a fundamental step for that growth. When founders have that foundation, and that foundation is solid, that’s when their requirement to look outside for validation becomes so much less. Peter said that this internal compass was really important as you are going through the founder journey.
This is because, Peter continued, once the company has grown and they’re at a series B, the small boat has become a small ship. Everything takes that much longer to turn around. This is when founders may start noticing that parts of their company culture can start to drift. So, founders need to make sure that behaviours that match your values are rewarded. Founders can also use their core values as a filter. People attracted to a particular value will stay in the company when that value gets rewarded. Doing that helps the business find the right folk that fit the organisation.
This was a nice segue into our next topic, which was about building culture. What are elements that make for a great culture in a startup? As the startup grows, how do founders maintain, or even make their startup culture better? And how can founders set that up from the early days?
Sarah felt that as founders and leaders, they should know your limitations and not apologise for them. It doesn’t matter if the founder is a technical leader or a people-first kind of leader. They should be loud and proud about it, and not try to be something they’re not. Their next mission is to find someone for their founding or senior leadership team who will step up to that mark. By continuing like that founders can have a purity of intent that filters through their company culture.
Veronica thought that transparency, candidness, and having open space for that is what creates great culture. It filters down because the founder is giving this space for employees to be who they are, as well. What she often sees happen, is that a founder gets a little bit controlling and micromanaging. Then employees don't have the psychological safety to be autonomous, and that actually backfires on the business. She advised founders to work harder on themselves than they do in their job, because that's how they’re going to be able to give the most value back.
Peter’s view was that leadership drives culture, and that it's culture that drives sustainable performance. If you flip it in that way, the role of the leader becomes quite different. It's not a command and control situation any more. The founder is creating the space for great work to be done. it's not, I give you instructions and you do my work, rather, this is your work. So the question becomes how to create a space for others to do their best work, both physically and metaphorically speaking.
It’s very hard to be a single co-founder, so people try to find a co-founder. How can you discover within a short amount of time, whether someone would be a good fit for that co-founding team, or not?
Peter joked that he tends to get called in on the other end, when things have gone wrong. But what he has noticed is that the strongest teams are ones where the values are well aligned. They don’t have to be exactly the same, but either very similar or complementary.
Sarah warned that it's very tempting to choose a friend, but to think about it carefully. There are many assumptions that get embedded into a partnership between friends. For instance, because we're friends, we are going to trust each other; we've got each other's back! This type of thinking comes from the founder’s emotional mind and can backfire. Trust is a very important aspect of the team’s relationship in Sarah’s opinion. Before accepting the partnership, founders should consider their relationship with the concept of trust and ask themselves questions like, “Who do you trust? How do you trust? And how do you not trust?”
Veronica offered that when conflict does arise between founders, it’s best for them to take their ego out of the discussion. She reiterated that founders needing to have an awareness of who they are, is vital to successful conflict resolution. By understanding their background and what their triggers are, they can become really clear about what they want.
When looking for another founder, writing down what they want can help them get clarity allowing them to focus on other things, like whether they have an energetic match. If you have enough clarity, you'll find that you pick up on stuff that you would never have picked up on before.
That wrapped up Medoo’s first coaching panel event, “The Founder Ladder: Secrets to Growing Yourself as a Founder”! The biggest advantage that founders can have to create a great culture is to know themselves, and have a lot of self-awareness. This will allow them to have more clarity on what they want. This can guide them to finding the right co-founder and senior leadership, which in turn will help them scale the culture they want to see in their startup.
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