At Sounding Board, an executive coaching startup, the coaches get coaching, too

Everyone could use an executive coach — even executive coaches.

Such is the thinking of Christine Tao and Lori Mazan, co-founders of Sounding Board, a two-year-old, San Francisco-based marketplace focused on leadership coaching that has so far raised $1 million in seed funding led by Bloomberg Beta, with participation from Precursor Ventures and numerous angel investors.

Some of these investors are people Tao met while an SVP at the mobile advertising startup TapJoy. TapJoy is also where Tao met Mazan, who has been helping companies develop their talent for more than 20 years. “Lori started out coaching our CEO,  then coached me when I got promoted into the executive management team,” says Tao.

In fact, Mazan is continuing to coach some of the roughly 30 executive coaches who work with Sounding Board as contractors, and she isn’t alone, says Tao, noting that many of the startup’s senior coaches work with more junior coaches. (Sounding Board’s eight full-time employees also receive coaching.) “We definitely walk the walk,” says Mazan.

They also talk the talk, as we discovered in chatting with Tao and Mazan earlier today about the importance of coaching — and why more employers would be silly not to take advantage of it to help a range of people within their organizations.

TC: There are so many coaching startups. How do you distinguish Sounding Board from everything else out there?

CT: We combine best-in-class coaches with a tech platform that’s scalable and affordable and outcome-oriented. It’s also a lot more cost-effective compared with other coaching platforms.

TC: How much more affordable?

CT: A weekend of traditional executive coaching in the Bay Area costs between $25,000 and $30,000. We’re about a tenth of that price, and instead of sending someone to a workshop for a couple of days, you pay the same for six months of training with us.

LM: We’re modeled after traditional coaching engagements, including at Chevron, Genentech and a lot of other big oil and manufacturing and biotech companies where I’ve worked over the years. What we’ve done is take what worked at the top of the house and just bring it down to lower managers and senior leaders.

TC: You work with both big and small companies — from the Japanese giant Rakuten to venture-backed Quantcast. Which is the easier sale?

CT: Hah. Both venture-backed companies and bigger enterprises go through huge periods of growth and they elevate folks into leadership roles in which they don’t have experience. High-growth startups innately feel the pain of having talented folks in roles for which they have no skills. On the other hand, public companies often are easier, given that they have a budget and they’re used to investing in training and developing employees.

TC: Do you tend to coach one person at a time or do you do your coaching in batches?

CT: We typically teach a cohort over a six-month period, where the employees are meeting with a coach who has been chosen based on their particular needs and learning styles and [with whom they interact] via video or phone and who they engage any time through Slack or email. When a company on-boards with us, we collect a lot of data around key leadership values and goals, including from managers — they let us know what goals they have in mind for a person’s leadership development. And that person [who will be coached] provides us insights into their personal goals as well.

TC: For people who haven’t had coaching, it all sounds awfully squishy. What are some concrete ways in which the coaching will change based on the individual?

LM: We have 12 developmental areas, and each is personalized for an individual. One of the most popular has to do with managing up and across an organization, meaning we work with people wanting to have influence with their manager and their peers and maybe even their manager’s peers across the organization.

Every approach will be different, including based on whether the person is working in a very high-pressure, fast-paced environment or a more slow-paced and amiable one. It’s also very different if you’re in engineering versus sales, for example. Let’s say you’re in sales and you want to influence your boss. You might need to paint a bigger picture and give examples around how your vision will improve the quota you need to make. On the engineering side, it’s likely that you’ll have to be very detailed.

CT: When Lori coached me, we worked on language I used when talking with one of my CEOs, down to incredibly minute details around the order in which I presented ideas. It made a huge difference. Whereas the feedback was that this person felt like I would dump my problems on him, by instead providing recommendations up front to him and offering many fewer details, he thought I was being more “solutions oriented.” The reality was that I was mostly sharing the same things.