February 23, 2017

Coaching Startup Leaders: Bringing the Heat...and the Heart

What Transparent Leadership looks like in coaching startup leaders
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We are in Week 2 of the demanding MergeLane accelerator, which this year has brought together nine companies from around the world with at least one woman in leadership. These weeks are intense. We kick the program off with a day of intimate immersion -- getting to know one another deeply and getting up to speed with the principles of Transparent Leadership, which form the foundation of our program. Following that orientation, each startup team in the cohort meets with 50-60 program mentors in 25-minute meetings over the next nine days. It's a demanding time, an enlightening time, a bonding time, a rapid learning time. With my preference for both intensity and depth, it's my favorite kind of time.

MergeLane Accelerator 2017 Cohort

Tonight at a cohort dinner we were reflecting on judgments we each had formed about others in the group. I did mention "transparent," and we're not kidding. A couple of the CEOs in the program shared with me that they had expected me to be a complete hard-ass, beating them up, shredding their ideas, and forcibly pushing them to win. Each of these CEOs said they had been warned about this as being part of my "brand." They said in the recruiting calls I was tough, terse, and direct. When they got to the program, they were stunned. One said she wondered once she met in person "who is this woman? Where did Sue go?" I apparently was warmer and more caring than they'd ever expected.

I'm thinking about this tonight. A core element of this transparent leadership approach is revealing, again and again, our own vulnerability. In coaching all the leaders we and I work with -- both women and men -- the big goal is building self awareness through spotting the specific personality traits that we each deploy to cover up our fear or other emotions. Because that approach is so important to our form of leadership coaching at MergeLane, we program leaders practice it too. It turns out that as a startup mentor or coach, I (and maybe you) am unlikely to show up as an undiluted "hardass" if I'm willing to be aware about the times that I screw up, avoid my own emotional world, or stay curious about whether my opinion is "right."

I identify as an Enneagram Personality Type 8 -- the "Challenger" -- and for me the bulk of my personal work over the last few years has been catching my tendency to push or challenge for its own sake. I used to bring way more fire, and often people on the sidelines got burned. When I'm present, I remember that the point of all that intense challenging in the context of startup coaching or accelerator leading is to help these startup founders find the highest versions of themselves and their companies through our program. I discussed this balance with Nicole Glaros of Techstars on the Real Leaders Podcast I did with her.

The balance takes as much heart as heat, and it was great to have this reflection from these CEOs to help me see how my "brand" is evolving.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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