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Coachability is Overrated
The most overrated attribute that some investors look for in founders is “coachability”.
Do I have your attention?
It’s not that founders shouldn’t be coachable. It’s a good attribute. But I think there are two ways that an emphasis on coachability goes wrong.
The first is that there is a balance that a founder needs to strike between being coachable and leading with conviction. Yes, those two attributes are not mutually exclusive. But sometimes, in an effort to be coachable, a founder can lose their way. One of the favorite founders that I’ve worked with once said “it’s your job to tell me what you think, but it’s my job to decide whether I agree and act”. I agree with that. Founders own their decisions and outcomes in a way that investors or advisors do not. Founders that really internalize this tend to perform better. I find that when an entrepreneur starts to turn too much to their investors for feedback, advice, or approval, it’s a sign of major issues. By the way, this is why the job of the founder/CEO is so hard, and why I think it’s so important to go out of one’s way to support their mental and emotional health.
The second is that there is sort of a paternalistic tone to the idea of a player/coach relationship. Sort of like “the player should do what I say” or “I know what to do, so you should listen to me”. I’m sure most investors don’t intend for this, but I do see it quite often. We live in a world where most investors (myself included) tend to have an inflated sense of their own value and knowledge. It’s super easy to impose one’s ego on a founder, especially if the entrepreneur is quite green. From my experience, however, the best founders tend to feel a little out-of-control. They make contrarian decisions, push faster and harder that I’m comfortable, or question advice in an aggressive search for truth. These are not necessarily attributes of someone who is not-coachable, but they can seem that way. I often think of a quote from the NBA coach Greg Popovich who said that “Timmy stopped listening to me a long time ago”. Of course, Timmy is Tim Duncan, and that statement came from a place of deep respect and a long and productive relationship. But the best of Tim Duncan and their team came from not listening to everything that Pop had to say.
Personally, I try to stay away from the word coachable because I think the ideas are too imprecise. To me, the attributes around coachability that I care about are:
1. Ego Strength 2. Pace and hunger for learning 3. Great execution 4. Strategic thinking
Ego strength to me is how well an individual can take feedback and hear it objectively and not personally. Can you have an honest exchange of ideas without worrying about the person responding defensively because of a bruised ego?
I also love founders who have a hunger for learning and are always looking to find ways to be better. They are quick to seek out guidance and advice from those who know more than they do. Usually, this is not the investor, although the investor may be good at pointing a founder in the right direction. This attribute is super relevant throughout the entirety of one’s career because a founder can always be leveling up and changing markets benefit those that always maintain a beginner’s mind.
The last two attributes are different than what most people think of as coachability, but are intimately related. Great execution speaks for itself, but I actually think that most people who love coachable founders actually love founders that are great executers. I find that most people do genuinely listen to others, but few synthesize feedback into action and then put it into practice. The execution is what you can see as an output of the feedback.
Related to that, strategic thinking is the ability to make good long-term decisions with imperfect information. It’s the ability to know what advice to take and what advice to ignore, or how to synthesize feedback to draw completely different but correct conclusions. Again, when most see a coachable founder, they see a founder that chooses the right feedback to take, and the right feedback to ignore.
So, that Is why I tend to gloss over the feedback about whether a founder is “coachable” or not. There is too much baggage in that description that I think is too hard to parse through. I’d rather focus on different things.