From nascent firms to Canva, coaching is everywhere in start-ups

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

Start-up founders are anxious overachievers, says University of Sydney coaching researcher Dr Michael Cavanaugh. As it turns out the next generation of business leaders, building the disruptive models of the future, aren’t immune to crises of confidence.

As one venture capitalist puts it most founders are “smart, neurotic and lonely”. And with board directors above and subordinates below, the entrepreneurs behind Australia’s start-ups have few people they can talk to on the same level.

Enter coaches. They’re often former founders, investors or executives at established firms who can lend an ear and offer guidance. In an unregulated field, these coaches have free rein to pick techniques based on their own study, lives or fads. And while many of them are sincere in their efforts to help founders find their bearings, there’s no shortage of opportunists peddling a potent mix of platitudes and self-help aphorisms to earn rates of more than $500 an hour.

Sydney coaches Hannah Field, a former start-up worker and venture capitalist, and Wayne Reuben, who was a healthcare executive.

Charlotte Bradshaw, the founder of clinical trials start-up Evrima Technologies, gets regular cold messages from coaches trying to drum up business.

“Hi, are you looking to take your leadership skills to the next level and achieve your professional goals?” one coach wrote. “If so, I invite you to take advantage of my executive and business coaching services.”

Bradshaw declined, instead hiring Wayne Reuben, a former regional boss for large healthcare companies in the hearing and optometry industries who she knew via professional connections. Reuben charges about $20,000 for six months of intensive coaching, including one-on-one sessions, interviewing colleagues to gain “360 degree” feedback and sitting in on meetings.

“I always thought about it as [like] elite athletes who always have a coach,” Bradshaw said. “It’s not about underperformance, it’s that how do you get the most out of not just myself but for the broader team as well.”

Reuben will not take on people who have been forced into coaching by investors or others who see it as a quick fix for their issues. “I don’t have an interest in that,” he says. Instead, he wants enthusiastic clients like Bradshaw, who are looking for a neutral sounding board or to compress Reuben’s decades of expertise into months of their own lives.

There are no hard numbers on the popularity of coaching in Australia, but figures from the professional social network LinkedIn suggest there are thousands of coaches. Investors are pushing its growth.

One major US investment fund, Felicis Ventures, which has stakes in Australian companies including graphic design software maker Canva and employee survey tool CultureAmp, devotes 1 per cent of every cheque it writes to founder wellbeing. Others, such as the Australian firm AirTree Ventures, are big advocates of coaching. A new Sydney start-up, Medoo, is building a software platform to help coaches manage their business.

Canva’s founders Cliff Obrecht, Melanie Perkins, and Cameron Adams rolled out coaching across the business, which is known for its cooky corporate culture, after enjoying working with coaches themselves.Credit: Louie Douvis

And start-up founders aren’t the only ones seeking a guiding light. One coach, Hannah Field, says up to 30 per cent of her clients are venture capitalists. Junior staff are being coached too. Canva has a team of seven dedicated internal coaches who are putting about 140 of its staff through a three-month program at any point.

Sarah Nanclares, Canva’s coaching chief, says the program is available to everyone at the company, though it has a list of priority people. Even the public relations representative who organises the interview with Nanclares has recently done the program. A six-month waiting list shows how much Canva’s staffers like it.

‘Everyone’s a coach’

Unlike psychology, coaching is not a regulated medical profession. While there are private coaching courses and certifiers, they operate without government oversight. “Everyone’s a coach,” Nanclares says ruefully.

That means people with no qualifications can just decide to be coaches. “There’s a range of people in the industry, many of whom have had little or no training,” says Cavanaugh, the deputy director of Sydney university’s coaching psychology unit. “They just rely on their life experience to offer advice.”

Paulwyn Devasundaram (right) and Allard Van Helbergen, co-founders of Medoo, a coaching software company.Credit: Steven Siewert

Paulwyn Devasundaram, a former Canva employee and co-founder of coaching software start-up Medoo, which has released its software in open beta form, acknowledges that bad coaches can cause problems but wants clients to still be able to pick people they relate to.

“I think certification is great because it provides structure, but at the same time, how do we make space for people who come into it from their life experience and want to share that without causing harm?” Devasundaram says.

“So I think there’s a balance to be found there.” She believes in coaching overall, which helped her rapidly learn to manage over 100 staff in her late 20s as Canva grew rapidly.

Nanclares, who has a background in alternative medicine, is wary of university coaching programs, seeing them as being orientated more towards work. “They often sit more in the human doing side of stuff, rather than the human being side of stuff,” she says. She is unafraid of heady language, wanting her coaches work to be “transformational” and help their charges with their “purpose [and] meaning not just for the work, but … as a contributor to the planet.” If that means delving into personal relationships, Nanclares is happy to go there.

Nicole Karagiannis, another coach whose day job is as the HR head for health start-up, has a similar bent. She will “go into that really deep level of inner child experiences, childhood experiences, and so on” if necessary. “That is the deep heavy lifting work. And yeah, I do go there. I do have the skills to go there,” Karagiannis says. “I’m not interested in solving the superficial question. It’s about the sort of the deep few layers beyond that.”

But she, and all the other coaches who spoke to this masthead for this story, are adamant that they are not veering into the territory of counsellors or psychologists. They emphasise their experience in different coaching techniques and certification. And they differentiate their own work from therapy on the basis that it is used to solve past problems whereas coaching is focused on accomplishing future goals, but without the same practical expertise that a mentor or teacher might provide.

“The statement that coaching is not therapy, while to some degree accurate, I think is often used as a protective device by coaches,” says Cavanaugh. In reality, he says, coaching often draws on methodologies first used for therapy and some clients may benefit from both. “There’s a sort of gray area between the two where therapy coaching overlap.” Good coaches, Cavanaugh says, maintain clear boundaries, operate under supervision and have extensive training.

The Business Briefing newsletter delivers major stories, exclusive coverage and expert opinion. Sign up to get it every weekday morning.

Most Viewed in Technology

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article