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Coaches vs Cheerleaders
You need both coaches and cheerleaders on your team, here's how to tell the difference.
As a founder, you are constantly facing impossible odds. The natural reaction is to surround yourself with very supportive people, the kinds of people that believe in your vision and believe you can overcome those impossible odds. In fact, many of these people will believe in you so much that they won’t question you at all. I call these people Cheerleaders.
I used to be a Cheerleader.
I say that in the past tense because I learned the hard way that while founders need cheerleaders, you can be lead astray by them. Sometimes you need someone who will tell you that you’re wrong and force you to face the harsh truth. I call those people Coaches. Coaches support you when you struggle, but push you to be better. They celebrate your successes and help you learn from your failures. More than anything else, coaches are always honest with you, even if it is telling you something you do not want to hear.
Today, I’m a Coach.
While I’m sure you can understand the value of having both Cheerleaders and Coaches on your team, it can be hard to tell them apart in the fog of war. When you have people surrounding you telling you what are you doing is great, are they coaches or cheerleaders? How do you tell the difference?
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They Might Be a Cheerleader If…
Cheerleaders are everywhere. Your friends, family and co-founders are all cheerleaders. They want you to succeed because they like you and believe in you, which gives them the bottomless well of support they lend to you. You will be humbled by the outpouring of support you receive during the early days of your company building.
Unfortunately, you will find that support will only go so far. Soon you will face real decisions with real consequences and you will need a different point of view. You will need someone to disagree with you, and here your cheerleaders will let you down. Few of them will understand enough of what you are doing to help, and the ones that do might fear hurting your feelings.
Nevertheless, you need these people around you for the entire journey. During your dark days, and there will be dark days, these are the people that will make it easier to deal with the darkness. These are the people that will always make you smile, and you need to smile.
They Might Be a Coach If…
Great coaches are a rare breed. Many seasoned entrepreneurs, while survivors of the company building struggle, are better at speaking than listening. Many others are biased by their personal experience and pathways to success and have difficulty adapting to new approaches. Both of these groups will seem like coaches at first, but will let you down when you fail to take their advice one or twice.
A true coach listens to you more than they talk. They don’t always know the right answer, but they can tell when you don’t know it either. They don’t try to prove they are smarter than you, they try to get you to show how smart you are yourself. In general, they will eschew the spotlight in favor of helping you step into it. Coaches are people who earn your confidence and with whom you can discuss anything and everything without fear of having it spread.
Not all coaches are right for all founders. Finding a great coach is like recruiting a co-founder or executive, you will meet a lot of people before finding the right one. However, if you find someone you like, who is honest with you and makes you better at your job you should hold onto them with all your might.
Building a Complete Team
I can’t emphasize how important it is to have both Cheerleaders and Coaches on your team. With only Cheerleaders you will lack the critical perspective that will help you improve. With only Coaches, you will struggle during the darkest days when you need unequivocal support.
So, where do you find them?
There are almost certainly Cheerleaders and Coaches in your personal social network already. Have a serious talk with the people around you about what you are doing, and what you think you need. Ask fellow founders for the best coaches they know, and think about which of your friends support you no matter what. Be honest with everyone and see how they react when you make yourself vulnerable.
Worst case, if you can’t find the right people in your network, start reaching out to people you respect. You’d be surprised how helpful those of us who have been in the game for a while will be for complete strangers.
After all, we need Cheerleaders and Coaches ourselves.
This is an essay I wrote a decade ago and is even more true today than it was back then! If you’re a founder on a new journey, good luck. Everything is new, and yet everything is the same.