Opinion Piece: How Smart Entrepreneurs Become Natural Leaders- Part 1

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About the author: Graeme Thickins has been a marketing consultant to early-stage technology startups for three decades and is based in Minneapolis. He's also both a mentor and a coach and an angel investor. In addition to his own blogs, his writings have appeared in Chief Executive, The Angel Journal, Computerworld, CIO, eWeek, ReadWriteWeb, eContent, and elsewhere. Follow his latest writing on Twitter under the handle @graemethickins.

Does starting a company make you a leader? Not by a long shot. The journey may begin there, but unfortunately many never make the grade.

Why is it some founders excel at mastering leadership?

There can be many reasons of course. But a large percentage of entrepreneurs will tell you what made a difference for them was one particular thing: a coach.

Coaches are all about building leaders. Case in point: the late, great Bill Campbell, who established a reputation as “the coach of Silicon Valley” to such legendary founders and CEOs as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Eric Schmidt, and Larry Page. He held that only one thing determines whether or not you’re a leader: the opinions of those you’re supposed to be leading, as described in one media tribute to him.

Steve Jobs said about his early years at Apple with Bill Campbell as his coach and confidant: “He loves people, and he loves growing people… Apple is only its ideas — which is only its people.” And no one can argue that Jobs became a leader of people.

Mentors are about giving advice. Coaches are about asking questions.

Bill Campbell knew that he was often expected to have all the right answers, but that was not the way his coaching methodology worked, according to his friend and former colleague at Claris Corp., Randy Komisar, now a VC at Kleiner Perkins. (They worked together after Campbell left his role at Apple as VP of Marketing.) His coaching style involved a relationship with the founder or CEO, Komisar said, and an ongoing dialogue about self-development. He felt they should feel comfortable talking about anything. In a typical session, said Komisar, Bill would ask questions like these: “What are we trying to fix? What can we do? How much of it is people? How much of it is technology? How much of it is process?”

Is it common for entrepreneurs to have a coach? They may not speak openly about it but, if you ask them, most successful founders will say yes. Who are these coaches, and how do they differ from other types of coaches — like executive coaches, general business coaches, or so-called life coaches?

There are many examples of these latter types of coaches who’ve written best-selling books and gone on to become millionaires from highly paid speaking engagements or the sale of seminars and courses. But do all coaches seek such fame? Certainly not — only a tiny fraction. And, let’s face it, such famous coaches are well out of the reach of entrepreneurs. They’re priced for Fortune 500 executives.

Sure, you can buy a book. But a book is not a coach.

Game Time

Do entrepreneur coaches share traits with athletic coaches? Absolutely! And most all of them played one or more team sports when they were younger — learning at the hands of good coaches, observing how a well-coached team becomes a well-functioning team, and living through the ups and downs that any team experiences.

Here’s how I think about it: for entrepreneurs and their coaches, their sessions together are like practice — and the coach owns that. All the rest is game time — and you own that. It’s where you put in place what you learn from all your collective practices over time.

All good entrepreneurs know they cannot succeed on their own. Even “solopreneurs” have a team around them — not in the respect of a management team and employees, as they will when their venture gets larger. But “team” definitely comes into play for them even in the early days when they first set out. That team often includes certain family members, their closest friends, their lawyer, accountant, and certainly contractors and other “partners” in their success. And, yes, it’s fair to say their customers, too — because they want you to succeed as well! (Maybe more so.) You want them on the journey with you.

What, you haven’t thought about customers as team members? You should.

But that team of yours also needs a coach. You, as the founder, are the captain of the team. The coach is the person who helps you build your leadership skills. And helps you build others into leaders — as Bill Campbell most certainly taught.

Why Do Company Founders Seek Out a Coach?

It’s lonely out there. And, yes, many founders are loners in their own right — especially if they’re conducting business as a solopreneur. But most all know they need support, encouragement, and objective feedback about their business, their management style, etc, and that they need to take off their blinders sometimes. A good coach helps them do all those things.

Certainly, if married, a founder gets support, encouragement, feedback, and more from his or her spouse. But most need someone more detached, objective, and experienced in working with other entrepreneurs over years, even decades — and that’s where a coach comes in.

Entrepreneurs need a coach at many times in their journey, but especially in the formative stages when they’re seeking to build a stable, cash-flowing, growing business. To grow means having to face decisions at every turn — and all good founders seek advice from those they trust when they’re in unknown territory. If they don’t, they put themselves at a severe disadvantage.

Check back next Thursday for the second part in this story!