In January 2021, I attended a seminar on coaching startups hosted by WBECS. This seminar was a treasure trove of information. As I have been coaching (training and consulting) with startups (in India) since 2011, I was keen to know how the approaches discussed by the US based coach may overlap with my experience abroad. While boiling down all of the numerous takeaways was a challenge, I thought to focus on the three main lessons below.
According to what I gathered from the discussion, there are two main reasons that startups need a lot of assistance in establishing process. In some cases, some startups are founded (and staffed) by young professionals with little to no corporate experience. In such cases, such founders and employees do not really know what corporate structures or corporate processes look like and how they may or may not influence their business objectives or client engagement strategies (in my approach we also look at how a lack of these processes may impact building and maintaining trust when working with US Americans).
Another reason that some startups lack this structure is due to a mix of getting off the ground quickly (they work under highly agile, iterative processes) and, especially for some entrepreneurs and start up founders with some corporate experience, they may be rebelling “against the corporate system.” While this may work with startups with a small total company strength, once it surpasses 30 or 40, communication and processes should tend to become more formalized and structured to help the business function with some amount of predictability and professionalism (internally and externally).
Authentic Journeys’ Learnings
We have worked with startup founders and teams that came from both backgrounds noted above. In both cases, the one common thread was the fast pace of trying to get things moving and adapting to change. This causes a situation where the founders and team members may not find coaching practical, as in some cases, coaching takes “too much time” and doesn’t always appear to lead to quick, implementable solutions. So, an approach of coaching, consulting and training bode well. It’s also important for the “coach” to be agile in such situations to adjust to the need of the hour. So, in some cases, the coach will need to be educated in or have background knowledge in business processes and terminology.
When we talk about building processes, we are not just referring to high level processes. We are also referring to the building blocks of the organizational communication and business process structure. A few areas Authentic Journeys has guided startups with to professionalize from within and with external partners is through:
Aiding development teams in implementing a change request process (ideation to implementation and follow through)
Identifying and managing processes for business trips abroad (especially for professionals in India)
Performance Improvement Planning
When a company is just starting out, with only a handful of members, long term career planning or business projections may not be the first thing on everyone’s minds, as the most pressing concerns revolve around client acquisition, client engagement, client retention and repeat business. However, as the company grows and remains viable for years, employees (and founders) would naturally want to understand their career trajectory and how they can build their skills as they grow with the company. Due to this, setting KPIs (Key Performance Indicators – employee goals) and OKRs (Objectives and Key Results – business drivers) becomes important, not only for long term business growth, but employee retention. While this was generally done behind the scenes, recently Authentic Journeys has really tried to take a key role in aiding business growth through the programs through the training needs analysis (TNA). In addition to working with you to identify the intended goals or outcomes for the program (What would you like to see different from the team members who attend after three months?), we strive to help you identify how to tie those training outcomes to the individual participant’s KPIs (performance review goals), and ultimately to the OKRs (or your business drivers). We do this through goal trackers. When we start any program through Authentic Journeys, we create a goal tracker for each individual participant. On the tracker, the participant will self-rate themselves against the training outcomes AND their personalized KPIs. The manager will also rate each participant as well. This rating is done at the beginning, mid point and the end of the program. These goal tracking sheets and KPI trackers can also be enhanced to use in your organization, as some startups we have worked with have done (we welcome that with open arms).
Example Goal Tracking Sheet
Click on the image to view a bigger size.
In addition to tracking the individual’s performance, we also have conversations with mid-level managers, human resources personnel or/and the founders to identify the business drivers and how the KPIs are tied to those business drivers to help see tangible process. Some examples of this may include:
OKR: An improvement of client engagement will be shown through increased client retention (from 70-80% in Q3), and more client testimonials (collect and share 3-4 testimonials in Q3 as compared to 1-2 in Q1).
KPI for Business Analysts (BA): Through tailoring our sales conversations and product demos for each specific client and using more questions to direct conversations (percentage of client talk time to BA talk time will shift from 40%/60% to 70%/30%)
OKR: When we engage with and understand our clients better, we will be able to provide them a more customized solution, increasing our onboarding rate from 30%-40% in Q4.
Because startups may have a fluid organizational structure, we may see that the founder handles all of the business administrative functions on their own. Or, in some cases, a small group of founders share the responsibility and may jump in and handle situations as they arise, not based on a role, but based on whoever is available to handle the situation at the moment. I have seen this in startups in a number of ways. For example, as I am an outside contractor, there will be times I would get to meet directly with the founder in a one to one meeting for the needs analysis. In other cases, I may meet with the co-founder. In other cases, I may meet with an entire team of individuals, any of which could be my contact person at any given point of time. Even as the startup grows and evolves more of a fixed organizational structure, it is possible roles remain fluids (from my point of view). Or, depending on the situation when there is a dedicated contact person, there may be certain situations where the founder has to get involved in the decision making process. The one advantage I have truly seen from a coaching and training perspective is when a founder helps to kick off a learning program or is involved in the “graduation” or completion of the program. It is truly a motivational moment for everyone involved to see and feel the founder’s motivation for the reason behind implementing and seeing such programs to completion in the startup environment, especially as day to day workloads can be chaotic at times.
One of the management teams I have worked with for almost a decade.
As we close this timely discussion, one of the themes you may have noticed throughout this piece revolves around the question, “Do we really provide pure coaching to startups? Or, do we provide a mix of coaching, consulting or training?”
While this question warrants a discussion in itself, it is safe to say that in a majority (90%) of the needs assessments we have conducted, teams want training. This can be for a variety of reasons. The problem or business reason has not yet been clearly identified at the time of the call. So, rather than jump to a conclusion, we always prefer to take a step back to provide some consulting in the needs assessment, have a discussion around their KPIs, OKRs, and best hopes and outcomes for the program. Through this process, we often adjust it to a mix of training and coaching (the most popular) or coaching, training and consulting. In some cases, training may not be the answer at all, and, as we notice this, we are moving more and more towards coaching and consulting (with a structured outline to keep us on track).
It goes without being said that due to the fluid and somewhat chaotic nature of startups, it’s important for coaches to be flexible. I have had to “wear all three hats” in some engagements I have conducted. In fact, I’d say, it’s quite normal to have to switch between roles. For example, when someone wants advice, I may start with a coaching approach to understand their best hopes or outcomes, then facilitate their brainstorming and knowledge around that area. However, based on my expertise, I may ask to offer a few ideas to add to the mix. However, I would never say my ideas (even in consulting roles) are implemented as initially suggested (and I endorse they never should be). Why is that? Well as we brainstorm ideas, we add mine to their list of already prospected ideas, then they will discuss how they see each idea implemented, then prioritize them. Based on their priority we move forward with trying to see how it may be implemented. Even if the idea I suggested is the one they ultimately decide is best, we then talk at length around how that idea would really fit into the culture of their team/company and other factors to really customize that idea to their situation. Only if these conversations take place, then the ideas, once implemented have a better success rate.
To sum up this timely topic, coaching startups is an amazingly fulfilling journey. If you enjoy the thrill of changing your trajectory on a dime, being agile and managing ambiguity, coaching startups may just be the path for you! If you have questions around this or are a startup looking for coaching, training or consulting, do get in touch with us.
Author and founder of Authentic Journeys, Jennifer Kumar has lived between the US and India since 1998. She has worked with over 60 companies (a majority of these being startups) in India providing training, coaching and consulting. She is looking forward to speaking with you! Drop a line on WhatsApp at. +91 95 393-47529. Do let us know how you found us!
How we build trust and safety in coaching engagements as per the ICF professional guidelines