Why, What, How, and Who
Coaching versus Advising
I spend most of my professional time investing, writing, teaching and advising startups, and coaching CEOs. Though we all have experience with having or being advisors (see my Startup Life: Wear Sunscreen/Advice on Advising), we’re less familiar with the goals and techniques of coaching.
I’m going delve into what I strive to provide in my coaching practice, give you a framework of different coaching approaches and personalities to help your decide what works for you and, in the TL;DR below, go into the methods and goals I use and how they differ from those when I’m advising.
The goal of Coaching
I work to create for my clients a sense of:
Having their Challenges Understood and Being Supported in meeting them.
Being in Flight: Unexpected novel opportunities and roles opening up before you.
Being Challenged: You are led to examine the contours of your comfort zones in a controlled and illuminating fashion.
Gaining Vision: You can see the box (the one you need to think outside of), and over the horizon.
You have new Options: You see more possibilities over more time-frames and more frameworks to evaluate them.
You have more Backbone: You are more resilient when you're out on a limb; your self-chatter is more constructive.
What do you personally need in a coach?
This item is homework for you. Starting perhaps with the kinds of things I mention below under methods and goals, decide what you want having a coach to change for you or help you with.
How is my approach different?
Many coaches come from a background of therapy, psychology, or organizational behavior, and often work with a whole team or company.
I’m a computer scientist and engineer with a 30+ year career in Silicon Valley as a Technology Executive, Venture Investor, Founder, Educator, and Advisor. I’ve advised over 150 companies and had dozens of operational and leadership roles. I chair the Advisor council at UC Berkeley SkyDeck, where I also teach and advise, and I blog on startup issues at Art of the Start.
I support my clients’ growth by helping explore their most salient challenges, with a compassionate and reason-based, action-oriented focus.
I mostly work with individuals, rather than companies as a whole, so I can be a trusted confidant without conflicts of interest; someone with whom my clients can safely explore uncertainties and opinions without it influencing their work relationships or how they’re perceived.
What style of coach suits you?
There are many approaches, personality types, and communication preferences coaches may favor. The attributes I list below form poles of a continuum. They can guide you in deciding what you think works better for you in a coach. I’ve bolded the ends towards where I gravitate, though I’m not a polar extreme on any.
I’m convinced that having a good executive coach by your side has the best ROI of anything you can do for yourself and your business. The time requirement is minimal, a couple of hours a month, and the total cost is low, a bit more than $1k a month.
If you’re interested in seeing if I might be the right coach for you, drop me an email.
TLDR: Methods and Goals
For those of you who are interested in what goes on under the hood of my coaching, I’ll share with you some of my own goals and methods in coaching.
Questioning your Answers instead of Answering your Questions.
While an advisor’s role is to suggest answers to questions in their area of experience and expertise, a coach brings your attention to how you are coming up with your answers, so as to open new ways of thinking about those questions.
Finding the Questions behind your questions.
The questions you ask yourself are themselves determined by how you think about your situation. A coach helps you identify your motivators and help yo contemplate modifications and enhancements.
Understanding-first over opinion-first.
When actings as an advisor or board member, my goal is to understand your situation and give you my opinion on it. It’s up to you to decide if and when it applies and how to implement it.
As a coach, I step back and am more quiet, asking more questions about motivation and framework so I can position my contributions inside your own framework of thought to best be understood and acted on.
Challenging your established methods.
We tend to solve problems using methods with which we are familiar and expert. A coach makes you aware of that mental default and uncovers different ways of approaching and solving problems.
Challenging your habitual expertise and roles.
We have all been praised and obtained success by being highly skilled. The skills that got us here, though, may not be those we need as we evolve into new roles and grow our organizations. We need to identify the shift that’s needed and to cope with the feelings (lack of competence, discomfort, lack of flow) that follow from leaving our comfortable competencies behind.
Helping you be intentional, strategic, and relax your expectations:
We make decisions based on our sense of a correct set point for something: what is fair or just; fiscally prudent; appropriate treatment by and of colleagues, competitors, or clients; degree of appreciation and being valued and respected; our desire for altruism and our sense of mission; the stories we tell ourselves.
Though we may feel correct in these criteria, this sense is often rooted in unexamined sources in our past. A coach helps you consider when these feelings may not serve you well, may be self-centered or short-term, and helps you imagine alternate perspectives, timing, or priorities.
Helping you hack your thinking:
A coach can help you target predispositions of habit and thought and make new decisions around them. These predispositions include legacy considerations of:
proving oneself in the mirror
making decisions with imperfect information
The tools for changing the way we think about these are inquiry to discover what the pre-dispositions and sustaining beliefs, and re-framing through the use of language; naming concepts/reification; NLP; analogies; visuals; mathematical models; research findings; or surfacing trends from popular culture.
It is hard to change one’s mind or widen one’s perspective. Like dreams, which illuminate deep truths but quickly fade after waking, different ways of thinking are quickly paved over by the mind wanting to tread its habitual paths. A coach can help bring these new thoughts full into the light, finding resources and stories, names and mental frameworks that provide a bridge to or an anchor for new pathways of thought.
Helping you see and navigate beyond the current horizon.
Our vision is bounded, and as founders, we have pressing, near-term visions. We find it hard to envision distant futures and larger outcomes (except money; we can easily picture money scaling up—numbers are easy to scale). A coach helps you visualize remote futures and pick tools and timeframes for getting there.
An outsider can prompt you to realizations and perspectives, judgments, and reactions that you can’t unearth for yourself.
I am keenly aware that there is much that I ask, challenge, or prompt my clients with that I would not be able to do for myself.
It's not just about thinking: if it were you'd be able to do it for yourself.
Everyone I work with is driven, successful, and intelligent. For all the reasons given above and more, change isn’t just about thinking, but about having our thinking redirected or set free to explore new avenues.
In addition, there are emotional aspects of being a founder which take primacy over thought and need to be dealt with through other channels.
Helping you be a meta-expert.
None of my clients lack expert advisors. They have plenty of sources of opinions, expertise, and analysis. A coach can help you reconcile, direct, and prioritize how you want to attend to and deploy these experts.
A coach can be a sounding board for nascent, half-baked, or conflicting ideas, serving to bridge the gap between “muddled awareness” and a “considered viewpoint” that can be shared with your organization without appearing uncertain, vacillating, or revealing doubts and gaps in leadership.
Getting comfortable with discomfort.
Growth comes out of stepping up to discomfort, yet we naturally try to reduce it. A coach helps challenge you to seek out and endure discomfort with the goal of breaking through and becoming more resilient to the specific discomfort, and to discomfort itself.
Communication/Interpersonal Issues/Conflict Resolution.
Follow-through and accountability
A coach tracks your progress and challenges, prompting you with
Questions for yourself
Marc Meyer is a long-time Silicon Valley technologist, founder (6 startups, 4 exits, 1 IPO), executive, investor, advisor, teacher, and coach. He has invested in and advised over 150 companies, chairs the Advisor Council at Berkeley SkyDeck, is on the Selection Committee of HBS Alumni Angels, advises at multiple accelerators, and has an Executive Coaching practice helping leaders achieve their greatest potential.