Start-up leaders need to hit the pause button


By Martin Vogel

It was a session of two halves at our start-ups event last night. In the first half, we heard all about the game-changing dynamism of the start-ups world in which things move so fast, dog years seem long in comparison. By the second half, we were attuned to the shadow side of the sector, in which things move so fast, people barely have time for a life outside of work. We could see lots of ways coaching could help. But how to make the case, when start-ups put a premium on solving things in-house?

One thing which came through strongly was the incredible sense of opportunity and development that fast-growing start-ups offer new starters at the beginning of their career. Helena Wood told us she joined Receipt Bank straight from university and had been offered challenge and leadership experience beyond anything that her peers in more traditional corporates have enjoyed. Maria Campbell, who runs HR and recruitment at Mondo, said the job changes every week. Each month looks easy in retrospect, compared with the challenges the present month throws up.

Both gave the lie to the notion that Milennials want something different out of work than previous generations. Their hopes and desires are much the same: earn a decent living, enjoy some freedom to be productive, achieve a degree of work-life balance along the way. The difference is that they’re realising some of these aspirations more easily in workplaces which give them the space and responsibility to make a difference – although their pathway to owning a home is more challenging in a city whose house prices are out of reach, unless their start-up hits the jackpot with a successful IPO.

Nelson da Silva who runs Receipt Bank spoke of the need to establish a culture of fast learning and development. He expects the number of account managers the company employs to grow from five currently to 300 by 2018. Coaching may have something to contribute to helping the minimise the friction associated with such an intense pace of change.

The approach GrantTree takes to handling these challenges is to foster an open culture with a high degree of self-management. Anybody in the company can implement anything if they take appropriate advice – and they’re about to extend this approach to allowing people to set their own salaries. Paulina Sygulska, one of GrantTree’s co-founders, described how this calls for simultaneous qualities of arrogance and humility from entrepreneurs: the arrogance to visualise that something is lacking in the world and to build something to fill the gap; the humility to step back sufficiently to allow space for those who join the company to bring their experience and shape it how they need to. “From tunnel vision to landscape vision,” was how she described it.

As the gathering split into group conversations, it became evident that the start-up world isn’t particularly familiar with what coaching has to offer. In fact, although GrantTree has worked with coaches on specific issues, the whole idea of bringing in external contractors to address internal leadership development seems to go against the grain of start-up culture. Start-ups have a strong belief in their own ability to solve their own problems. But we heard a good deal of striving to reinvent the wheel as companies discover tensions institutionalising between different groups of staff and struggle to find methodologies for easing them. Coaches who want to build their practice in this world can certainly find opportunities to add value, but will need to think about how to get alongside the businesses to earn a hearing.

In some ways, there is an affinity between the entrepreneurs and the coaches. Both sides share an attraction to creative and innovative ways of approaching things, and appreciate the sense of freedom from corporate ossification that can come in larger organisations. It became clear, though, that start-up life isn’t all enviable. The relentlessness of pace and intensity can be exhausting. While there is an impressive dynamic of learning, the stimulation comes so fast that there’s barely an opportunity to step back to let things settle. Paulina told us she’d made a conscious effort to build other interests into her life, to create a space for personal development away from work. But it’s easy to imagine how the all-consuming nature of the work could squeeze out the possibility of a hinterland for many in the sector.

Our final thought then was that this is perhaps one of the most valuable things that coaching could offer start-up leaders: the space to stop and not just reflect but turn one’s attention elsewhere so as to allow things to synthesise in the background.

Many thanks to Paulina, Maria, Helena and Nelson for sharing their experiences so openly. They helped create an energising and inspiring evening that was greatly appreciated by the rest of us.

Image courtesy Diane Tisseur.

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