The Entrepreneur Athlete
Entrepreneurship is hard. A founder can traverse an entire spectrum of emotions ranging from abject misery to extreme excitement, often, all in one day.
As a founder, you need to be multi-faceted. You need to rally troops but not drink your kool-aid, inspire investors but be earnest, think big picture but have an eye for detail, act like a visionary and yet be grounded, be the sublime storyteller but not embellish the truth, exude confidence but be humble, manage crushing workload yet have a work-life balance, be productive at work and yet find time for a sport. If that’s not enough, you also need to find time to be a supportive partner/offspring/family member/friend. Talk about ultimate pressure.
The journey is so personal, so arduous and stressful that it’s very difficult for anyone else to even fully comprehend let alone understand. By the time you emerge on the other side, having either closed your business or sold it, most entrepreneurs discover that life has passed them by while they continued to live in their head.
Entrepreneurship is similar to competitive sport
Hardly for the faint-hearted. And the first thing competitive athletes are taught is to ‘stop-living-in-your-head’ and ‘get-out-of-your-own-way’.
As an athlete, you have to learn to pace yourself. You must have single-minded focus on your goals and train your mind to overcome obstacles. You need to think of an objective beyond your own self, effectively inspire yourself and others, learn how to deal with failure, sacrifice daily comforts and recoup from injury/loss. Much like a founder.
The difference is elite athletes rarely embark on that journey on their own. But founders regularly remain solitary and lonely. The rigour, discipline and mental fortitude required for competitive sport is exactly why elite athletes have coaches and this is why successful founders need one too. However, so few do.
Angela Duckworth is an author and psychologist who studies what traits differentiate successful people and why. She finds that what makes someone succeed or not is often a function of mental models, grit and mindset. Less to do with revenue, KPI’s and company metrics. Yet time and time again, founders ignore the one variable in the equation that can alter the balance between success and failure — themselves.
Part of being a founder is about recognising your own potential, learning how to handle stress/anxiety and letting go of limiting stories. Another major part is recognising that companies are actually a living, breathing reflection of their founders and often problems faced by founders/founding teams are reflected in company culture, especially at the early stage.
There is a reason why some of the best founders in the world including Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt worked with leadership coaches like Bill Campbell. The same reason why Matt Mochary works with Brian Armstrong (Coinbase), Steve Huffman (Reddit), Sam Altman (Open AI) and many others. Or why Y Combinator has Amy Buechler. Or why Steve Cohen, the legendary hedge fund manager used Gio Valiente, an elite sports coach to motivate his traders. It’s the same reason that makes Denise Shull incredibly successful.(FYI, she is the inspiration behind the unforgettable Wendy Rhodes character in Billions who coaches Bobby Axelrod and his mercurial band of traders).
The subtext is clear - unless you learn to tap into your full mental potential as an individual, achieving extraordinary success or triumph is hard.
As an ex-founder, I had the good fortune of having Judy Wilkins Smith coach me on how to unlearn my limiting beliefs and see emotional patterns. And as an investor and founding general partner of a fund, I continue to use a coach. There is no weakness in it. Or shame. Or stigma attached to personal improvement.
Especially because there are so many instances where coaching can have profound impact.
As an early stage investor, I see founders often face the same challenges — struggling team motivation, lack of co-founder alignment, absence of speedy execution, fuzzy visions, siloed work styles, unhealthy working relationships, lack of clarity, constantly changing north star metrics, poor operational practises, toxic working cultures, high attrition-the list goes on.
While lack of funding is often stated as the main reason for why companies close down, a deeper diagnostic reveals the above underlying issues. In reality, a lack of awareness around founder coaching can often lead to early demise of start-ups and founder burnouts.
How can a coach help?
A good coach helps the entrepreneur unravel the big questions — Who are you? What do you want to achieve? What is in your way?
Navigating the daily challenges of a start-up is exhausting and having someone who helps you get a “balcony view” of your life can have a significant impact.
As a founder, you may also find yourself asking questions like — How can I motivate people? What is my leadership style? Do I assert myself too much? Too little? Why is my co-founder not performing anymore? How do I come across when I pitch? Why can’t I communicate my vision to investors? I am geared for results but why is my team not executing? I am overwhelmed, how do I ask for help without looking weak? Everything is a priority, how do I focus?
Behind all these questions, there are hidden systems and beliefs at play.
This is where a coach can help. Alignment of visions, understanding personality/ leadership styles and belief systems can often uncover and fix problems in company cultures. A coach can help you separate the signal from the noise and teach you how to tune into what is critical. A good coach will help enhance personal insight and provide the right tools.
Yet, talk of mindset improvement and coaching with founders is often met with variations of “I don’t have time for this”, “I don’t have enough funding to afford a coach” or “ I don’t need anyone, does Elon?”.
This is a classic symptom of missing the forest for the trees — short term orientation rarely builds a successful company. The best founders I have known are vulnerable, eager to seek help, self-aware of their own limitations, constantly striving for improvement, curious about their own selves and how they relate to the world around them.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates
This is why at Lumikai we have three leadership coaches empanelled to work alongside our founders. We understand that sometimes the mental battles are far more challenging to navigate than the physical ones.
So, if you are a founder, achieving your full potential is a goal worthy in itself. You owe it to yourself.