A Coaching Research Paper on Coaches in High-Tech Startups
by Razan Jalajel, Career Coach, PALESTINE
A high-tech startup is defined as a newly established business venture with a technological component, that is in its first stages of operation. Startups are designed to scale up and operate at a fast pace (World Bank, 2018). Startups all over the world need to pass through a long and challenging process to go from having a new product idea to becoming profitable (S. Sheriff, 2020).
Palestine is no exception to worldwide startup ventures. The entrepreneur community has been making real achievements. This is despite the political unrest that is creating a real challenge and negatively impacting the economy’s growth. Further, the Palestinian mindsets are not sufficiently flexible yet. Entrepreneurs are encouraged to innovate and come up with creative ideas, however, the system is not equipped to support them in case they fail. Despite all these obstacles, more individuals and incubators are trying to support the high-tech startup ecosystem. This market has a real potential to expand and grow faster once these businesses find the right human resources (C. Minsky, 2019).
The startup ecosystem is one of the factors driving economic growth in Palestine. The key strength of this ecosystem is the presence of highly educated graduates; however, they tend to be young and with little experience, mostly with no managerial experience. This is considered one of the biggest challenges facing this sector and hindering its maturity. The study also suggests that these talents would benefit from additional support to succeed (World Bank, 2018).
As someone who is leading a high-tech startup in Palestine, I wanted to examine if having an experienced coach in a similar workplace can add value and help in supporting business growth and overcoming some of the challenges facing human capital.
The right people are key to a startup’s success and essential for creating a culture aligned with the company’s goals and objectives (V. Omprakash, 2021). This is because startups rely on innovation and appeal to customers through creativity and the ingenuity of their teams.
The main challenge in hiring for high-tech startups in Palestine is that it is hard to find a pool of talents with the required skills set. Furthermore, there are limitations in finding qualified hiring professionals. It is clear that companies strive to acquire the best talents, and unfortunately, this often leads to intense competition between startups (V. Omprakash, 2021).
In addition to the limited human resources, people have different personality types, they come from different backgrounds and are raised in their own cultures. With all this complexity, they still need to work together to achieve goals and develop effective relationships, because a high-performance team is built with the right balance of autonomy and cooperation(M. Ayyad, 2019).
Jung’s theory of psychological types assumes that random behavior is generally considered orderly and consistent. These consistencies are often caused by differences in how people make decisions and take in information (L. F. Capretz, 2002).
Software engineers are usually considered to be mostly introverts “oriented to a depth-of-knowledge approach reflecting on concepts and ideas”, they are also thinkers, “conclude, dispassionately and analytically”, moreover, they are judging “prefer to collect only enough data to make judgments before setting on a direct path to a goal”, and finally intuitive “attuned to the complex interactions, theoretical implications or new possibilities of events” (L. F. Capretz, 2002).
The complexity of these types of software engineers does not always meet the needs of startups. Talents with specialized knowledge in startups are also required to think broadly about a variety of areas and apply their knowledge to new settings. Software development nowadays is much more than just coding. It has to do with interactions between different stakeholders and teams (L. F. Capretz, 2002).
Millennials are individuals who were born between the 1980s and early 2000s. They are mostly looking for positions that help them grow fast in their careers, have an impact at work, and innovate. Millennials are willing to work as hard, however, they have demanded in finding proper work/life balance, flexibility, task-oriented businesses, and management that offers trust and transparency (J. Beyer 19, 2019).
As previously mentioned, the high-tech startup’s ecosystem is relatively new in Palestine. Accordingly, most of the available human capital are either fresh graduates or fall into the sinkhole of negative corporate culture and this is creating a lack of team spirit and can be toxic to the culture (A. Thorsen, 2019).
The probability of finding qualified leaders to hire is almost nonexistent. This creates a big challenge because the startup’s structure is flat and eliminates the gap between managers and their teams. As a result, all employees will be exposed to the tension and emotional ups and downs that their managers will experience mostly due to their workload, the fast decisions they are required to make regularly, and the pressure to accomplish a lot fast. This leads to increasing stress and pressure among colleagues.
Recruiting fresh graduates is less risky than hiring experienced candidates from a corporate background. This creates a challenge when they join a startup that offers flexibility and trust and expects high ownership in return. Often it is found that they interpret it wrongfully. The culture offers them to be more relaxed than needed and accomplish less than what is expected from them. Unfortunately, this brings immaturity and unprofessionalism (JobHero, 2015).
According to Alejandro Cremades, the author of The Art of Startup Fundraising, “being able to listen to customers, employees, and investors to optimize the chances of succeeding with whatever is in front of the entrepreneur from an execution perspective. Without listening, nothing works” (Forbes, 2020).
Coaching in essence is partnering with people to help them reach their maximum potential and thus achieve their goals. It is a practice that is individually tailored, where the coach listens actively and provides a safe, structured, and trustworthy environment to offer support and challenge by asking powerful questions. These actions enable individuals to identify areas for improvement, prioritize, and take action (ATD, 2021).
Workplace culture is of core importance, even if startups manage to attract the best employees, a negative workplace culture can contribute to a higher turnover rate among talents, decreased motivation and engagement, and overall decreased productivity. Negative practices such as poor internal communication, gossiping, micromanagement, unpreferable attitudes, and unhealthy competition, can all kill the success of the startup and narrow its chances to see the light (Forbes, 2020).
Atalay has mentioned three important actions that each employee needs to take to contribute to a healthy work environment; be generous in sharing knowledge and information with colleagues, value the efforts and experience of others to create confidence and trust, and support each other through offering constructive feedback and friendly interactions (Forbes, 2020).
Moreover, working in a dynamic workplace will require the workforce to have several soft skills such as strong ownership, problem-solving, customer centricity, can-do attitude, creativity, and logical thinking among many others.
In the context of Palestine, these soft skills become of a need given that the education system doesn’t equip graduates with those necessary skills, rather focuses on the curriculum and the technical skills. This creates a big challenge where the management needs to compromise and hire those talents based on their potential, and then coach them to acquire these soft skills during their first few months on the job.
Additionally, from an individual perspective many employees working in high-tech startups struggle with finding their work-life balance; startups are mostly full of challenges and the business requirement often change, this requires employees to have last-minute tasks to meet deadlines, in addition, they may also feel judged by their managers who work long hours themselves. This creates a risk of burn-out, which ultimately leads to higher attrition rates, and undermines the work environment in general (JobHero, 2015).
Coaching can help in creating and inducing a healthy work culture, by working closely with employees towards supporting them to develop the above-mentioned soft skills that are vital for the success and sustainability of a high-tech startup. In addition, it can help employees find the needed balance to continue being motivated and give their best performance to the workplace.
The world of tech encourages employees to learn by doing and use the approach of trial and error. This continuous need for innovation and dedication to get things done may lead to people failing several times through the process. Not everyone has the capacity to handle this pressure (ATD, 2021).
As mentioned before, working in a fast-paced startup, you are likely to find a young and inexperienced workforce who are surrounded by complex challenges and needing development in key areas of their jobs. Coaching can be done on the different levels of the organizational structure and in different areas based on the coach’s specific area of expertise.
Executives in startups lead it towards success, they are the high-level decision-makers, they influence others who in return subconsciously follow their path. Accordingly, these individuals play a big part in how the work culture is shaped in a top-bottom approach. Investing in coaching executives will reduce attrition, increase performance, and as such improve the overall culture and morale.
Many tech managers have never worked in a similar position before. Therefore, they are not used to leading and managing teams, and they don’t have the know-how in attracting and retaining talents. In-depth knowledge on how to motivate a team to take a new direction is also essential for managers. In startups these skills need to be acquired at the very early stages of the filling of a managerial position, as keeping the engagement and motivation of teams is vital. Leadership coaching can also support managers in building a clear roadmap for their personal and professional development.
Life, talent development, and performance coaching can help employees focus on different aspects of life, including career, relationships, soft skills, and others that may support their personal growth, make them more present and efficient in the workplace.
I am personally passionate about coaching because of the amazing benefits it has brought to me. I was able to improve my leadership skills by being more focused, empathetic towards my team, less stressed, and more efficient at work. I realized through my own development that leading a high-tech startup is more about guiding people to grow and adapt to change, rather than leaving it up to chance.
Coaching is often perceived as the only support for individuals to lead a happier life, however, in my experience, I found coaching to be very useful for business. Using coaching tools as a leader of small-medium size high-tech startup has demonstrated to be successful for the career growth of my colleagues, and improving the work culture.
Through my reading for this essay, I found that the focus is on the role of external coaches in businesses. In the sense of the added value of using external freelance coaches as consultants to assist in building a healthy work environment. However, being a Human Resource Professional has brought me to appreciate the need for an internal on-the-job certified coach with the know-how to help support the employees in the challenging sector of high-tech startups.
This is even more true for the sector in Palestine were coaching in my experience can contribute to the sustainability and even survival of a startup. In this essay, I have tried to present that Human Resource departments in startups can heavily profit from coaching techniques. I am hoping that this paper can be a point of start for other researchers to build a stronger body of evidence for the role coaches can play in the high-tech industry both as external consultants and as a full-time internal resource at the disposal of startups in the Palestinian high tech ecosystem.
World Bank, 1 May 2018, Tech Startup Ecosystem in Findings and Recommendations in West Bank and Gaza
Carly Minsky, 4 Feb 2019 Insider view: Palestine’s Problem-Solvers https://sifted.eu/articles/insider-view-palestines-startups/
Subair Sheriff, 19 Aug 2020, 10 Common Tech Startup Challenges – We Prototype Technologies
Varun Omprakash 21 May 2021, Tech Hiring Challenges Faced by Startups & Possible Solutions https://flexiple.com/developers/tech-hiring-challenges-faced-by-startups-possible-solutions/
Majed Ayyad 22 Oct 2019, Team Theory: Are Insects Better?
John Beyer 19, April 2019 Startups and Millennials: The Perfect Fit https://builtin.com/company-culture/startups-and-millennials-perfect-fit
Anna Thorsen 15 January 2019 Why Millennials are Choosing Startups Over Corporations https://www.valuer.ai/blog/why-millennials-are-choosing-startups-over-corporations
Forbes, 11 Feb 2020, Culture Matters: How Great Startups Will Thrive In 2020 https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellevate/2020/02/11/culture-matters-how-great-startups-will-thrive-in-2020/?sh=ae396fc7c76d
JobHero, 2015, 10 Disadvantages of Working for a Startup https://blog.gojobhero.com/10-disadvantages-of-working-for-a-startup/
Luiz Fernando Capretz, 01 Nov 2002, Personality Types in Software Engineering https://www.eng.uwo.ca/electrical/faculty/mcisaac_k/docs/mbti-IJHCS-v2.pdf
ATD, 2021, What is Executive Coaching