Optimizing Founders' Coachability for Successful Startups
Results-rich coaching requires the coachee to be coachable. Below, we show that higher coachability of founders, promotes StartUp success.
It is often said that founders' coachability is the most critical factor in early investors' willingness to invest. Business angels regularly complain about entrepreneurs' willingness to listen to their advice and ability to translate their feedback into actions for greater success of their StartUp. They accuse founders of excessive self-confidence, ego and self-will.
Below, we first strip the concept of coachability of its fluffiness. Then we examine whether entrepreneurs in StartUps are best coachable, or not. Finally, we discuss the fears and thoughts that can prevent founders, and others, from being coachable.
Ciuchta et al (2018) designed, first in an exploratory and then in a testing study in close collaboration with the SCORE network (Service Corps of Retired Executives) , a 9-item validated measurement scale for the coachability of StartUp entrepreneurs.
In our experience, due to its high social desirability, this questionnaire is not an instrument useful for selection purposes. However, it is a unique discussion document at the start of individual coaching, mentoring or investing: to what extent is the founder accessible to feedback, willing to learn and committed to his StartUp?
In relation to the Big Five, more coachable entrepreneurs also score higher on openness and friendliness, while emotionality correlates negatively.
Johnson and Kim (2021) also designed - among four different target groups - a coachability scale for a broader adult audience. With 24 items, they measure five underlying themes: comfort with coaching, development orientation, feedback humility, emotional reactivity to feedback and orientation toward negative feedback.
Each of these themes correlate with the Big Five personality traits. They can also demonstrate other meaningful relationships, e.g. with respect to self-efficacy, locus of control and others.
This means that coachability has to do with the coachee's whole person, not just a small special trait.
Specifically, what does this measurability of coachability mean for you?
Often, you have many constraints when putting together the starting team. By discussing the coachability of the founders, you can better assess to what extent they are influenceable as individuals. And how you want to colour the mutual relationship: from highly counceling (for low coachable entrepreneurs) to highly consulting (for highly coachable entrepreneurs). That low coachable entrepreneurs face a time-intensive process will be clear.
As an entrepreneur, it is important to recognise and acknowledge in yourself that you are not infallible and want to gain insight into what, in your personality or past experience, limits you in your successful development.
If you are unsure whether it makes sense to be coachable as a founder, the following section is for you.
Does the much-demanding StartUp environment necessitate coaching from its founders? Or not at all?
The study by Ciuchta et (2018) shows that more coachable founders during pitching to investors - when they have their own coaching experience - bring about a greater willingness to invest.
Kuratko et al (2021) show among 401 StartUp mentors and 695 founders, that coachability is positively related to StartUps' observed progress (growth in sales, market share, reputation and - where possible - profitability) and willingness to invest in the company. Higher coachability is also positively related to innovativeness. The StartUps were active in medical technology, software and internet, multimedia communications, electronics, manufacturing, energy, nanotechnology and chemicals.
Morris (2015) found in a large sample of New York tech StartUps that the most successful founders (exit of at least $M100 and/or top 10% funding raised relative to peers and/or top 10% of peers in employment growth) were mentored by other successful entrepreneurs.
Letwin et al (2023) examined a decision tree under which conditions the coachee is best to follow the advice of his mentor and when it is better to ignore the advice. Determining factors include: the extent to which the advice could be discussed and analysed in depth and carefully together, the quality of the relationship between mentee and mentor as seen e.g. in the degree of support after the non-unanimous decision was taken.
How can you apply this finding?
StartUp founders are often distinguished by a high degree of obstinacy. You have to be convinced of your own merit and be very persistent (some might call it "stubborn") to take all the cliffs to set up a StartUp.
Making yourself coachable is a good idea: you can do a lot on your own. However, an experienced mentor is invaluable. Together, you can do even more!
If you feel constrained to set yourself up coachable, read on!
How to increase coachability?
In another post, we described that successful coaching does not depend solely on the coachee. But the above may have made you curious about: can we make a less coachable founder more open to mentoring?
Cognitions can limit people's coachability. A cognitive behavioural coach can work with the founder's limiting thoughts below to bring about the mental shift from ego to willingness to learn.
- Fear of failure: People may be reluctant to show vulnerability for fear of failure or judgment by others.
- Pride and ego: Maintaining a positive self-image can make it difficult to admit mistakes or ask for help.
- Belief in unchangeability: A belief that traits and skills are fixed can discourage someone from being open to new ideas and improvement.
- Avoiding difficult conversations: People may be reluctant to receive or give feedback, fearing confrontation or uncomfortable situations.
- Insufficient self-reflection: Some people have little awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, making it difficult to open up to coaching.
- Perfectionism: A striving for perfection can lead to great frustration and therefore fear of third-party suggestions for improvement.
- Fear of the unknown: New approaches and ideas can seem threatening to people who are comfortable in their current way of thinking and acting.
- Doubt about own abilities: A lack of self-confidence can make it difficult to be open to guidance and feedback.
- Fear of judgements: Fear of what others think can hinder people from speaking openly about their challenges and needs.
In the coaching relationship, there is plenty of room to question each other critically. However, a defensive response undermines the other's willingness to continue to connect the dots.
By discussing founders' coachability, you clarify the mutual expectations needed to first get the funding in place and then make the StartUp successful.
We advise investors, founders and other stakeholders to discuss "coachability" as an explicit topic, at the latest as part of due diligence.
Please do not hesitate to contact us.
Ciuchta Michael P., Letwin Chaim, Stevenson Regan, McMahon Sean and Huvaj Nesij M. (Betting on the coachable Entrepreneur; 2018)
Johnson Matthew J. en Kim Ki Ho (2021; Coachability and the development of the coachability scale)
Kuratko Donald F., Neubert Emily en Marvel Matthew R. (Insights on the mentorship and coachability of entrepreneurs; 2021)
Morris Rhett (2015; Mentors are the secret weapons of successful StartUps)
Letwin Chaim, Ciuchata Michael, Stevenson Regan en McMahon Sean (2023; Being coachable can pay off for founders – up to a point)