By: Sophia Matveeva
Entrepreneurship is hard on many levels, but one difficulty I did not foresee was the need for personal and professional development, which big companies often provide. While the myth of the entrepreneur is that of a visionary, following their instincts to build a global behemoth, the reality is that entrepreneurs are professionals, and need help to develop professionally.
Without feedback and a structure that a good corporate gives employees, entrepreneurs can be left in a vacuum, not understanding what they are doing wrong. In fact, startups often outgrow the capabilities of their founder, and venture capital investors hire professional CEOs to replace them. In a study of 212 startups, Harvard Business School academic Noam Wasserman found that it less than half Founder-CEOs were still CEO after three years, and less than a quarter of the CEOs of the companies that reached an IPO were Founder-CEOs.
While some of this change is because the founder is simply not interested in building the processes that come with scaling, another aspect is the lack of the founder’s development as a leader. So how can founders solve this problem, in the absence of a boss or a corporate development program?
Just like they solve all the other start-up problems: recognize there is an issue and make a plan to work on it. I realized this when one of our investors gave me feedback about the way I handled a meeting, and suggested that I invest in my development by getting a coach.
This happened seven months ago, and I do see changes in my work and life now. Company meetings run better, there is more clarity in what everybody is doing, which has resulted in a better product for our users and more revenue for the company. However, I also see the amount of work and energy this has taken from me, which leads me to conclude that taking your development into your own hands is like getting a part time job. Just like a job, it requires a vision of what you want to achieve, a strategy to get there and a team to help you along.
Getting a coach has worked well for me, but it is not the only way to grow professionally. I spoke to my coach, Harriet Minter, about her tips for taking your development into your own hands.
It is your job
“Part of your work is being responsible for your team, and you are your team.” The first step is the mind shift that your development is part of your job, which helps alleviate the misplaced guilt that it is not real work. Minter says, “If your company was doing the same in year one as in year two, and year three, you would not see it as a successful company, because it has no growth. So, if you as a leader are doing the same thing three years in a row, you are not growing.” Just as you put effort into growing your company and learning about industry trends and new technologies, it is your job to learn about your blind-spots and address them.
Start by getting a baseline of where you are by getting feedback from your team, your investors and your clients. Do not get feedback from just one person, “because feedback tells you as much about the person giving it to you, as it does about you. People will tell you what is important to them, which may not be important to you.” Minter recommends speaking to ten people to get a comprehensive view. Look for similarities among the feedback you get. If you speak to ten people, they may all have different views, but if you see a similarity arising, then this is where you need to work.
The Growth Loop
There is no point in gathering feedback, if you do nothing about it. Instead, see it as the beginning of your growth loop: feedback, learning, growth, practice, then more feedback, more learning, more growth, more practice.
Accountability is a big part of the practice piece, because we are all less likely to complete tasks if nobody knows we are working on them. This is where Minter recommends that you get a buddy, who does not necessarily have to be a coach. An entrepreneur friend, a family member or an advisor could be great buddies for your growth plan. Tell them what you are working on and why, and about upcoming opportunities to practice.
For example, if you discover that you cross your arms and come across as defensive when you feel you are being criticized, read about body language and find out what you can do to stop yourself feeling defensive. Then, when you know you will are going to be in a situation where you are likely to come across these triggers, tell your buddy in advance and tell them what you plan to do to handle yourself differently. Simply saying it to somebody can mean that you do it. Having a debrief after the meeting can help you get clarity on what you did and why. If you did not try the new behavior, then reflect on why, so you are more aware of your blind spots for next time. Doing a perfect job every time is impossible, but learning from each event is.
An entrepreneur friend said that the best advice she ever got was to work on herself as much as on her business. As hard as that may feel, when you have an overflowing inbox, deadlines and products to ship, taking time to manage the most important member of your team – you – is a key business priority. You owe it to your investors, your clients and your team. Ignore yourself at your company’s peril.