How to Coach Startup Founders and Adapt to Different Styles

In this blog post, I interview Alisa Cohn who is an executive coach who works with senior executives and high-potential leaders to help them create positive permanent shifts in their leadership impact and the results they achieve. She was named the #1 Startup Coach in the world at the 2019 Thinkers50 Marshall Goldsmith Coaching Awards in London, and also named one of the Top 30 Global Gurus for Startups of 2020.


  • How she coaches the founders and the cofounders in the startup world.
  • Adapting to different styles in a high-growth environment, 360-degree feedback, and conscious communication.
  • Switch between personal and professional mindset, the power of breath in and out.
  • How to plan for high stake conversations and calming techniques.

Not only these practices are applicable to Startup founders, but also to everyone who has direct reports or in similar capacity.

Now, the interview starts:

Nishant: You were named the #1 startup coach in the world at the thinkers50 Marshall Goldsmith leading coaches awards in London. How do you coach the founders and the cofounders in the startup world?

Alisa: If I think about founders, they really have a few common elements. So first of all, they’re not always aware that like they’re the founders and they’re the CEO that people are looking at them a certain way. They’re just thinking —hey, I’m me, and they have to kind of get used to the fact that they show up as the boss.

The second thing I would say is that they are constantly having to adapt their style. That’s what a high-growth environment is. It requires you to adapt your style. So you have to be constantly learning and accelerating your own growth to keep up with the needs of the growth of the startup.

Nishant: You mentioned that they have to adapt to different styles. Do we have different kinds of styles?

Alisa: Yes, we definitely have different kinds of styles. In fact, leaders will often say to me, “I am not a micromanager” — this isn’t my leadership style, but the truth that it is much more effective to figure out what is the situation demands — read the room, figure out, what’s the situation requiring of me, and adapt to that situation because everybody needs something different. I have a client I’m working with right now, and he realized that one of his direct reports needs a lot of positive feedback and positive strokes. Another one just needs to know “what do you need me to do differently?” — kind of like just the criticism or just the facts.

So, he’s got to adapt to style to each of these different direct reports to be effective and that’s the name of the game – “getting out of people, all they have to give”.

Nishant: I’m sure this is not easy. This is so difficult. How do you coach them to adapt to different styles because every human being is different?

Alisa: I know. Well, each founder is different. So how I coach is different depending on the founder. What I try to do is meet people where they are, and we actually go over specific case studies really to find out what’s actually going on in their environment and how do you need to adapt yourself.

But it’s also just highlighting the need for them and the opportunity for them to recognize that yesterday’s playbook is not going to necessarily work today. And the last thing is that I do 360-degree feedback and 360-degree feedback is when I talk to people all around the founder to find out what’s working and what’s not working about their style, so they have an opportunity to make changes.

Nishant: When you say what’s not working, is it kind of feedback?

Alisa: Yeah, people give the founder or the CEO feedback. They give me feedback so I can give it to the founder about how they need to adapt their style. So for example, one of the clients I work with is a CEO of a really great company and he’s fantastic.

He just wasn’t communicating enough and people didn’t know what he was thinking. So that was not working about his style, by the way, it wasn’t a criticism. Also, it didn’t mean he was a bad person. It just meant that he had to be more conscious of communicating what was on his mind so that people would be able to follow him better.

Nishant: Conscious communication is something that we all struggle with because sometimes when we are not having a great day in our personal lives — we go with that mindset in our work. So how to juggle between a personal and professional mindset?

Alisa: We have to switch all the time. When you go inside of work, you have to switch too — it might be you’re communicating to an all hands and talking to everybody, you might then be having a difficult conversation with one of your executives, you might then be trying to sell and close a candidate and another executive.

And then you might have to have a conversation with a sales prospect. You’ve gotta be constantly recognizing what’s needed here and find tools to help you switch between mindsets from personal to professional and the different contexts in your professional life.

So the first thing to do is to recognize that I have to be able to do that and to leave time and space it could just take really one or two seconds to breathe in and breathe out and realize I am now in a different situation.

The Buddhists say with every breath I am a new person. And getting practice doing that and recognizing you have to do that and leave the past — meaning — the past situations, the past discussions, and go into this next situation with a different mindset. That is the trick that helps really make people powerful.

Nishant: Do you specifically tell executives to breathe in and breathe out or do you use terms such as mindfulness?

Alisa: I sometimes use the term mindfulness and they don’t always relate to that. So sometimes it’s “breathing in and breathing out”.

Sometimes it’s “put your hand on the door handle and in doing, when you feel your hand on the door handle of that conference room or that meeting that you’re going to — when you open the door, realize that you’re crossing over into a threshold of something different and switch gears”. It’s about what it is about being present.

Being present and realizing that I can be present and then switch gears and be present and then switch gears and be present.

Nishant: It’s kind of a transition between two activities when we are going from one activity to another activity. Do you recommend any other practice when we are in that high stake conversation or when we are going to any important meeting? What should we do before going to those highest-stakes ventures?

Alisa: Well, before you have a high-stake conversation — it’s actually really important to plan for it and to plan how you’re going to “be”. What’s going to happen, like predict inevitably how they’re going to upset you in some way. How will you get back on your game when they throw you off your game?

How will you recalibrate your equilibrium when you get sort of a little bit ruffled and also in predicting what they say. How do you then predict how will you plan to be more conscious of what you’ll be able to say in response?

If you enjoyed reading this post, you can listen to the full interview on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle PodcastsOvercast, or on your favorite platform.

Show notes: Alisa Cohn on Startups, Executive Coaching, High Stakes Conversation, Better Decision Making, Meditation, Pausing, and more

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