In autumn and winter, I have worked more than ever with owners and management teams at technology start-ups from all sorts of fields. I could easily fill pages with how specific every one of them was/is, as well as what life is like in a start-up. But first, let’s linger a moment on the similarities to working with owners of more established companies, or top managers.

From my experience of  working with accomplished people in challenging situations, I know how to find out what to do so that they find the energy for their projects. I’d like to stress that a mind-set that doesn’t assume that I “know better what it’s like for you”, or what the best thing to do would be, is key. Basically, my magic ingredient is liberating people into the experience of an „I – you“ relationship – instead of a mechanical „I – it“ (with „it“ being skills, behaviours, or goals) relationship.

My “special sauce” is that I get a feel for the deep creative struggle embedded in my client’s challenge. This is the centre piece. Only in a second step,  we discover how the issue needs to be addressed – for example, there is a world of difference between attributing a problem to a value clash between key people, or see an underlying systems dynamic at work that is quite independent of the personalities involved.  This one is a classic: senior corporate players who join a start-up trigger an “immune reaction”, much to the owner’s surprise.

Individual struggles can take the form of a dilemma, myth or a double bind (a Batesonian idea), that people get caught in. For example, every manager needs to take a stand in these three: “I must be the leading expert AND I need to develop a team of competent, self-accounting professionals.” Or “I need people to do what I want, AND I need them to show initiative and think independently.” Another one is, “We need clear structures and systems in place – AND we need people to be customer-oriented, flexible, and collaborative”.

The moment this diiemma is exposed, the change process picks up speed… For the beginning of change is not an instruction, but an awareness, a noticing. Developing the practical steps is always only the second step. Of course people need tools if they want to translate their changed thinking around their role into observable behaviour, and impact the company. These „thinking tools“ range from working constructively with your own beliefs, right up to managing stakeholder expectations. Specifically, I help them focus their energy and their thoughts, increase the quality of their options, and concentrate on battles that are worth fighting.

I’ve never met a standard personality, so I don’t have standard programmes. Since people turn to me when they need results quickly, and often in a high-stress situation on top of that, I have to tailor my input to what that person’s can take. It’s a bit like if your best race horse has a problem that isn’t physical, you call in a “horse whisperer” – someone who can tune in to the deeper fibres of what that individual needs. Why do weeks of testing and then put them through a three-month standard exercise programme, if you can get the horse up and running in a matter of days? Let’s leave this metaphor, obviously my clients are no race horses. I’ve been working with self-paying clients for 20 years, so if I wasn’t able to deliver on the results side, I’d long be out of business! But it’s never just „quick fix“, we work on sustainable results.

There is method to my madness though… I do have a standard format for the first few sessions. These are high-intensity filled with breakthrough insights, but also have humour and lightness of touch. We definitely zero in on mind-sets before looking at skills, tools, and information – where I have a range of topics ranging from 30-120 minute units to bring up where this makes sense.

Right from the first session, people experience what they are capable of given what they told me was important to them. They see exciting new pathways, and have lots of stuff they want to put to the test. When they then experience that they work in practice, they are really “sold” on our collaboration.

Change looks hard when people are stressed already. So we need to generate extra energy to help them stay the course. The secret is “self-directed change”, which is what we work on from the first session. We use the energy that comes from deeply reconnecting with their goals, and make this meaning come to life.This is a ground-breaking as well as a new one for most people. Our sessions are intense, creative and fun. And when at the end of a session their eyes start shining, that’s a moment of true beauty.

And now back to founders: Founders are typically game-changers, explorers or even mavericks from their early days. They hang out with people who are like them, and obviously start their company with people they’ve known for a long time. In many cases, these people are almost family, in some quite literally. This makes conflicts and misalignments such a threat to the founder’s support system- they don’t just affect business, but their whole life.

So if you are a founder, you know that even in the best of times you “ARE” your business; it’s not the place where you work. You are constantly “ON”, thinking up new and better ways to do things, make new plans – but you also muse on misunderstandings, problems, or perceived hurts in your downtime… All of this is human, but you need to find ways to deal with this stuff so that you can get it out of your system.

In essence, my work with founders has 3 parts: (1) Creating clear goals that energize and nourish them, (2) Developing the mind-sets and toolsets that will get them there, and (3) Staying at this level and then focus on developing others to share that stage. Since you are working on you own goals from Day 1, i.e. your vision of who you can be, there is no resistance attached to developing new skills and especially mind-sets, or dropping those that no longer support your vision of the company. The difference this makes is hard to overstate.

I have a presentation on these stages if you are curious to find out more. I’ll be happy to set up a time and take you through these benefits, including real results of people I’ve worked with before. This is also true if someone suggests you might want to look into working with me – which often isn’t immediately appreciated, as it can smack of „do they think I’m not good enough?“ that triggers all sorts of negative emotions in our brains. Don’t go there. Find out for yourself.

This in fact was one of the biggest changes in COVID times for my business: Where before, I would be talking to owners/founders directly, now I started talking to those who had a lot to lose if their leaders failed – investors.  The combination of having so much skin in the game, and seeing the cost of not investing in the team seemed obvious. Especially VC investors are aware that at the end of the day, the value of their investment rests on a handful of people; so it makes sense if give them what they need to show up with 90% of their potential, instead of 40% – which can easily happen when people get caught in a loop, feel in survival mode, or avoid crucial decisions because they don’t want to face a conflict… As stakes in companies are bigger than PE, there is often someone who will make a referral, AND press for a decision.

I am a big fan of “skin in the game”, and like to work where results aren’t optional but an absolute condition for finding the budget. I’d like to stress that when I work with someone, they commit to the results we work out in our first session, not “to get some coaching”. My clients invest in the best support to ensure that they reach their goals if humanly possible.

With the onset of the crisis, companies became careful with their budgets. And “development” sounds like such a soft cost, so is immediately affected by budget cuts. I knew from back in 2008/9 that automotive would take a hard hit, which is where I always have a lot of business. Having had to make sense to decision makers for so many years (with a little help from clients, who keep recommending me to them) helps me now that the threshold is higher.

Of course having “skin in the game” is not limited to start-ups – and some people who look like perfect corporate players also have significant skin in the game, not just financially. It just happens to be investors rather than management teams now who often won’t accept the cost of inaction. Because it’s tempting to forget that ignoring an issue has a cost attached, too.

I look forward to the days – realistically in late summer – when companies feel confident again about their future, and revert to caring for their best people. As I am writing this (in March 2021), only those with the strongest organisational culture have had the foresight to help their most crucial contributors „sharpen the saw“!

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