Working in close cooperation with and coaching the founders and leaders of a business is the type of work I most enjoy because it is about helping them achieving their potential. Facilitating the achievement of human potential to the fullest possible extent in a business is in my opinion one of the most exciting missions.
To be able to serve such a mission in business one needs structured thinking and true compassion, the first making it possible to approach often complex situations sometimes from unusual angles and the latter being the condition sine qua non for sharing the feelings and passions of people, without which even the best plans and decisions fail to generate business value.
Just a couple of days ago I had the opportunity to take the founders of a fast growing business to an off-site workshop aimed at helping them define key directions regarding both their business strategy and their personal goals and expectations as founders. The decision to prepare such a workshop came when I realized that the founders of the business had highly fluctuating positions when considering potential investors for their business. It was almost as though different people where speaking to me at different times about the same topic, and in fact that may have been exactly what was going on.
From my training as a master practitioner of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) - a discipline that sometimes causes heated debate despite the indisputable added value it can bring - I know that human beings have several facets that seem to have their own agenda in the human psyche. Each facet generates thoughts, feelings and actions that serve one or more specific goals, which that part of the person feels are its best possible contributions to the person. When someone is not confused or troubled in any way, when someone is "aligned" in the sense that all of the facets of her psyche contribute their part to an overarching goal, then things flow pretty smoothly: thoughts, speech and actions are quite coherent and the commitment to a course of action is quite unwavering unless new data come in that justify a change of position. Of course, the opposite happens when "parts" of a person seem to pull in different directions because the agendas they serve seem incompatible at first glance. I thought that was probably what was going on with the business founders who were ambivalent about a number of issues regarding the development of their business. So I used my NLP skills to develop a tool that can be used in workshops as well as in one-to-one sessions with people pursuing business quests and which I am publishing here under Creative Commons license (NC-BY-SA).
The founder of a business has several facets or roles, four of which are dominant in my opinion. Although from person to person there may be variations of these four dominant parts or even additional part, my method focuses on these common elements of a founder's personality. Let me quickly present them (and I apologize for the very general statements whose sole purpose is to sketch quick profiles here) and then show how to use the method. Having a rough understanding of these different roles is quite important to be able to identify who speaks when a founder is talking. The diagram (click on it to get a larger version) shows the four roles and the intensity of ties between them.
The Entrepreneur is the most obvious and most public facet of the founder. The Entrepreneur is the most active part in pursuing the creation of a new business, the mastermind behind the business concept, the inspirer and "strange attractor" for talented early joiners and crucially, the top salesman for the services of the newly created business. His strongest skills are selling, building partnerships, generating a vision and communicating with enthusiasm and authenticity. Typically, the Entrepreneur's values are creativity, discovery, creation, growth, innovation, merit... although there may be other values as well and these may be expressed differently. Although he knows that risk is inevitable, the Entrepreneur will seek all possible ways to keep risks under control. His outlook on life and the world is usually positive (typically he believes success is possible provided he works hard to pursue a vision).
The Professional is the second best known part of the founder's personality. He is the expert in a specific field, the part that provides "technical" content and so-called hard skills. Depending on the field of expertise, the Professional will pursue a number of key values that are typical in that field (e.g. creativity for ad execs, precision for software engineers...) and the role of that part in the founder is to provide assurance to the world that the founder is competent to act as a provider in his chosen field of business. The Professional bears a heavy load whenever the founder needs to assert his rights as a legitimate participant in an industry or profession.
The Private part is the founder's non-business life, which is sometimes neglected or forgotten, but acts as a strong driver of many decisions. Ask successful founders and they will all tell you how important the private facet is and how essential it is to find the right tension between business and private spheres. That part's mission is to contribute to the founder's inner balance and to create places and times where the founder can rest and take a few steps back to consider things without day-to-day business pressure. Needless to say how fundamental that part is and I can speak from personal experience both because at times in the past I minimized the energy alloted to that part and because I was lucky to get a lot of strength from that part of my self while going through some very tough challenges a few years ago.
The Shareholder / Investor is the least acknowledged facet of the founder. Many founders forget that when they work without pay, do extra-time, put their money in a business or generally speaking allocate existing resources in a way that can only be justified by the expectation to get more resources out of the business in the future, they do act as investors. Investors of a very peculiar type perhaps because most of their resources are generally speaking non-cash, but investors still. So in a way, it is quite paradoxical that so many founders have such hard time accepting the logic that drives professional investors, although the scant respect of the latter for so-called sweat equity may be an explanation. The Shareholder is the part of the founder that seeks a fair return on the investment and wants to secure the founders' assets. The values he will typically adhere to are efficiency, profitability, productivity, fairness, security, power-influence and control. His beliefs about the world are not necessarily positive and may sometimes be quite paranoid, especially when prospective investors require terms that may be detrimental to the founder's position.
The method is based on the principle of inviting each of the four parts to express its position relative to a given issue that the founder is facing. Relevant issues may be both business decisions from strategy to day-to-day situations, and more personal decisions ranging from the longer term commitment of a founder to her business to deciding about which kinds of investors to accept as partners.
Each of the roles is assigned a physical location in the room where the exercise is taking place (see diagram - click to enlarge). When the founder is physically located at that spot he is only allowed to speak in the name of the role of that location.
Step 1: The facilitator invites the founder into the space of the exercise and asks him to quickly explain the issue that he wants to solve.
Step 2: The founder is asked to choose the first role for which to express an opinion or decision on the issue. The facilitator helps the "part" of the founder express clearly its opinion, position or decision and notes down a couple of sentences that express that part's input. Then the founder is asked to choose the next role to be involved in the process and the step is repeated.
Step 3: Once all parts have made a statement that reflects their position, the founder and the facilitator move to the neutral spot to act as non-judgmental observers or coaches. The facilitator invites comments from the founder about the interactions between the roles, the situation, any potential conflicts or issues of compatibility between the roles' positions. The facilitator helps the founder express his analysis from the neutral position (i.e. without being identified to any of the roles, without expressing judgments about the roles or their positions...).
Step 4: Once the analysis of the situation is done, the facilitator will invite the founder to imagine possible changes to the positions of the roles that would help them cooperate better in the resolution of the issue being discussed. For each change suggested from the "coach" position, the founder is invited to go back to the positions involved in the change to check how that specific change would affect their opinion, position, decision or general contribution to the solution of the issue being discussed. If additional issues arise, the facilitator may decide either to interrupt the exercise and discuss those issues first (potentially using this same method) or to note the issue for later. Once a role's position is modified or reviewed, the founder goes back to step 3 to review the situation and to step 4 to identify additional improvements.
Several iterations of steps 3 and 4 may be necessary to achieve a fluid set of positions that is defined as a set of positions such that all roles contribute to a commonly acceptable solution in the issue raised by the founder.
Step 5: The facilitator asks the founder to build a short sentence that integrates the four perspectives and expresses the founder's attitude, opinion, decision or plan for the issue at stake. The founder is then asked to detail how that sentence will translate in his actions in the near and longer term future (in NLP this is to create a bridge to future real-life situations and hence some sort of foundation to actual implementation of the integrated position of the founder).
I have had a couple of opportunities to try this method and it does bring some pretty good results both in terms of how founders feel about the issues tackled and in terms of their actual actions relative to these issues. For those of you who use the method or a variation of it, I would be very very interested indeed by your feedback. Suggestions and ideas to improve this are very welcome.