Ask the Expert: Best coaches have been down the road you’re walking

Ask the Expert, Startup Initiatives |

This article first appeared in the Union Leader in June 2020

“Get a coach” is often the advice business leaders receive, especially if they are starting a new business.

If the leader is young and embarking on a new enterprise for the first time, the advice is even stronger. This is sound counsel but not always the easiest to implement.

No one, regardless of how good or smart you are, can go it alone. Books and seminars have been written on business coaching. An industry of over $2 billion in the Unites States has been built around the notion that people need help with their businesses.

That does not include the books that have been written and the podcasts that are promulgated. The best starting point is to define the characteristics of a good coach — and one that matches your business — that are key to your business.

Let’s consider four attributes of a good coach and, in the spirit of alliteration as a memory tool, we identify: Competence, Character, Chemistry, Communication.

The first attribute of a meaningful coaching relationship is that the business leader can draw on expertise that will complement the business.

Years of experience in a field may be one indication of competence, but depth of experience is more meaningful. The best coach or mentor that will match your needs has been through the experiences you anticipate for your business. If it’s technology development, the coach should be able to demonstrate technical competence.

If you need help raising capital, the amount of capital raised over time and its sources will be objective measures of competence. If the need is market assessment — often addressing product-market fit — the coach should demonstrate the ability to describe the market and the kind of customer to approach. If the issue is commercialization, determine the ability to describe what sales channel will be pursued and how customers will learn about the product or service you offer.

Character is often described as integrity. This is not just about honesty and staying within the limits of the law. Cutting corners in quality, for example, may yield short-term profit but will likely damage the brand’s reputation, especially over time. A coach demonstrates a high level of integrity when a mismatch in a business relationship exists and determines that it’s time to part ways. This will mean the loss of a client but the addition to the coach’s reputation. If the business is a lost cause (it happens to the most wonderful dreams), identifying the fact — often called failing fast — will be better for everyone, as painful as the short-term decision may be.

If the working relationship is fraught with tension, there is no formula for success. This idea of chemistry is probably the most difficult to assess and certainly difficult to quantify. Startup teams that are formed by founders that have successfully worked together in the past are an example of demonstrated chemistry. The same can apply when a mentor relationship is pursued. It is the feeling that the coach and the business leader “click”, share common (or, better yet, complementary) perspectives, and do not experience open conflict. It may be difficult to quantify but you’ll know it when you see it.

Communication must be open and frequent. The ability to communicate in a way that is helpful to the business will be based on trust, that both the business leader and the coach can speak openly, and that any subject is safe. This will be the case when things are going well and when things are difficult. Having the hard conversation when needed will strengthen the business, its leader, its place in the market, and build the resiliency of everyone involved.

The key to coaching and being coached hinges on these attributes but not at the expense of the individual. Steven Spielberg, not widely known for his business coaching abilities, said, “The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”

Roy Wallen is the CEO of TendoNova, a development-stage medical technology company addressing chronic tendon pain, and of Directional Healthcare Advisors, an advisory services firm specializing in commercialization of healthcare technology.