Startup environment: coaching for innovation


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Coaching – empowering people to come up with their own solutions to issues or goals – is being extensively used in Fortune 500 companies. But what does coaching look like in startups?

I posed this question to Ülo Vihma, personal coach at Pipedrive, a sales and management software provider, one of the largest startups in Estonia. Mr Vihma, who previously has extensive experience in coaching for “regular” companies, has now coached in the company’s Tallinn, New York and Lisbon offices.

Is coaching at a startup different?

“On personal level it is not much different. People are still people. But there are three distinct elements of the organization and culture of startups, at least here in Pipedrive. First, similar to most companies bent on digital innovation, also this firm is focused on growth. The tempo of work and the output is high. But at the same time – and I guess this is the main difference with so-called regular companies – we refrain from building mid-level management arrangements and departments. Instead, we focus on the self-management of employees. This also means, thirdly, that self-esteem and -value of employees is also very high. If they don’t like it here they look for jobs elsewhere and for a skilled engineer there are opportunities galore,” says Mr Vihma.

Mr Vihma then explains that these characteristics of a startup is a reason why this particular type of companies were among the first in Estonia that employed coaches and incorporated them in their human relations strategy. Estonian startups are doing really well, in fact there are more unicorns (firms valued 1 billion or higher) per capita than anywhere else in the world. This also requires special attention to the crucial element that makes the success possible – the people. On one hand, innovation and growth-oriented organization requires flexible arrangements which, in turn, benefit greatly from coaching. On the other hand, high pressure creates risk for burning out and this has to be tended for.

What is self-management?

“This means an attitude that people cope well with their work and their life. They can guide themselves, they are happy and motivated. This kind of self-dependence has proven to boost innovation. But here this corresponds to the degree of liberty on organizational level,” Mr Vihma says.

“For example, in the Lisbon office, a manager of 20-some engineers – we call this a tribe – left. We then asked if instead of hiring a new manager this tribe would like to manage itself… and they agreed. Four leading engineers stepped forward and distributed the management tasks among themselves,” Mr Vihma elaborates.

“When there are a lot of opportunities around it is especially crucial that you think through what are your own personal goals and what are the obstacles in achieving them. This is where I can help,” Mr Vihma explains his daily work. “But at the same time, because a lot is expected from people, they may push themselves too much. This is another reason why coaches are important, because they help to recognise the symptoms of burnout and respond to them adequately.”

Leaping towards potential

“It is not uncommon that a person who, for example, is hired at the support team and after some time knows the product really well and is willing to move on to either marketing, research, data analysis, or products development. Just yesterday I was coaching a guy like this. He is studying engineering and I helped him to plan his next steps within this company to make realistic expectations and to achieve them.”

“It used to be that everyone in the western world had a therapist. Nowadays the word coach is much in fashion,” Mr Vihma puts his work in a larger perspective. “We can see this from the proliferation of types of coaches: executive, business, personal, life, career coaches and so on. The latest trend is climate change coach,” Mr Vihma muses. “But the core of their work is the same – to ask questions and to reflect back the answers. This deceptively simple process can have tremendous returns.”

Written by
Peeter Vihma

Sociologist, filmmaker & author


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