The Untold Stories of How Founders Affect Culture with Sophie Theen
This interview is a transcript from Inter:views, Cracking The Entrepreneurship Code, with Sophie Theen, Author, Coach, and Startup Advisor. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Entrepreneurs are bold and risk-takers. They do not allow themselves to be held back by the fear of the unknown. They pull the trigger, make mistakes, fail, learn and bounce back better and bigger. Though most of them face many challenges, they never give up.
Successful businesses have a strong culture, and the founders have the most significant influence. Culture is essential to a business because that makes it different and unique from others. Culture is the go-to method they apply to handle customers and solve problems when they arise. But how do you develop a sound business culture? How do you measure if the culture of your business is correct, and what do you need to do to pivot?
Join this conversation with Sophie Theen and get the entrepreneurial motivation you need to push forward as a startup founder. Sophie Theen is an award-winning HR and diversity & inclusion professional.
Your book is called "The Untold Stories of how Funders Affect Culture." What are those untold stories?
The untold stories are mainly from the perspective of startup operators living and breathing those up and downs in these companies, myself included. And that's how I started with the book. I ended up putting together a collation of 10 types of founder behaviors that distinctively make them different from one another, but also highlighting their success and failures in building this culture.
When I first started writing it, it was a kind of therapy for me. This was five years down the road after I had my first taste of working in a very fast-paced startup environment for the first time in my life.
So, it was therapeutic for me because they were untold stories of mine. But as I kept writing, what was really interesting was that I was interviewing people with similar experiences, and more and more people were connecting me to those people who I actually didn't know were in my vicinity. And I realized altogether several operators experience very similar experiences, and that is not just limited to the HR professionals.
The book is about not having a date at the founders but really meant to be a validation to all of us operating in this space. That is equally rewarding but can also be incredibly challenging at the same time. If you find a way and know how to learn from these stories and navigate those circumstances, the more awareness we can create with this book, the better-informed people are before going into that space. So that's the whole point of producing the book and putting it out there.
Are you telling people that being an entrepreneur or startup founder is challenging, there are rules to respect, and it's not for everybody?
For sure. When I was putting the stories together, these were about the operators that were currently living in those experiences as well. So, it's almost like you may be stuck in a challenging environment where you don't know how to navigate, understand, or even comprehend where to begin.
And hopefully, with some of these collations of stories, you'll be able to feel that there's a community out there that feels the same as I do. Maybe I should reach out and ask for help. I'm not on this on my own. So hopefully, that will give people some hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, whichever decision they choose.
It is challenging but also very rewarding when you get out of this tunnel. I think it's essential for us to learn the magic of balancing these two acts, and when you crack it, you will hopefully find more joy than torment.
What are the common patterns you see among founders?
Entrepreneurs are usually bold risk-takers and very commercially savvy. This is why they started a business. They want to solve more significant problems in the world, but I have found that they don't very often have high EQ or aren't excellent communicators, which, if you really think about it on a small scale, is exactly how we would prefer our managers to be.
So, being a founder is no different from being a good manager except that they also have to carry a lot of weight on their shoulders, for example, carrying all the departments, the functions, and reporting back to the board. They have stakeholders that they need to worry about. I think having skills in communication and high EQ on top of all these things is the difference that makes an excellent founder.
What is business culture, and why is it so important?
Culture is critical. I know it's a word that people throw around. But for me, from my experience, culture is really what makes the company unique to itself. I would pretty much say it is the DNA of the logo that you see. It's made up of the people's behaviors, the founder included. If you think about it, it's almost like it's their go-to method when they're reacting to a specific business problem, how they serve their employees and customers, and how they put the product out there for the world.
It's the touch and feels you get when you walk into a company, regardless of whether it's virtual or physical. If the DNA of a company isn't precisely aligned with what the product is really about or the purpose of why this company exists, then it will continue to stay dishonest in its cost and who it serves. And what good is that to anyone at all? So great businesses with great cultures are usually very honest about what they believe in, and it becomes their core principle in everything they do. And that makes up the behavior of the people within the company itself.
When you're running a team, even as a manager, you may have some subset of skills that you have not harnessed in life before, or it's maybe just not something that you have learned throughout your journey and never really gotten the chance to. So, instead of penalizing this particular leader or manager's downfalls, maybe let's focus on how we can fill the team or the company with these gaps.
There are great leaders out there who are very self-aware of where the lack-offs are, and therefore they built incredible leadership teams to help them run incredible businesses. I believe having EQ is a way of translating into this intentional reflection where you truly understand your lack-offs and therefore seek help to bridge those gaps.
How do you know when you've built a great culture?
For example, you would know a culture is not exactly the way you have envisioned it to be when you start building your business, is when the environment begins to change, and it starts to become really uncomfortable for everybody, including yourself.
Say you have a product that isn't released on time. Not because of the delays that were caused by the outsourcing team, the licensing, or whatever external, but because the internal team couldn't get aligned on what exactly needed to be done. So, this is a people problem.
When we see an issue like this, we would think that the solution here is to change the culture. And in many ways, we're calling this creating a better-performing culture.
We talk about better-performing culture. We talk about honest and transparent culture. We talk about a well-being culture. We talk about people-centric cultures. There are many ways of skinning the cat, but when a problem is directly related to people’s problems, you will have a culture problem.
We often talk about vulnerability; there is this tendency that, as a business owner, I can't be vulnerable; I can't show others that I am vulnerable. What's your opinion on that assumption?
Is it true that you cannot show vulnerability? And at what point do you draw the line that vulnerability is actually a detriment to the business? So, for example, I've worked with some incredible founders. They are not necessarily vulnerable, which is not the word that I would use to describe them, but they definitely show a lot of empathy and compassion, which technically means they're able to be in your shoes to understand how this impacts other people in the company and therefore then make objective decisions beyond that.
Suppose we're having a one-to-one say with my CEO founder. I will feel they're vulnerable because they're willing to tell me what is bothering them and how it affects their feelings. So, when they implement solutions and communicate to the teams or the company that, say, for example, we are struggling with some business leads, instead of showing vulnerability, I would then stand in front of this CEO or founder where they would basically say to the sales team that we need to do better for X, Y, Z reasons.
They basically translate what they're feeling and their compassion towards a business objective. So, at what point do we draw the line and say vulnerability altogether is a detriment to the business is something I cannot answer, but I have definitely seen and worked with founders and CEOs who can show some level of vulnerability and have been able actually to bring more people on the journey with them.
A start-up is an incredibly challenging place, and you've got to be able to enjoy the work that you're doing, and if you don't really understand what the founder is trying to achieve, it makes it really hard for you to be part of this journey, fighting the same battle together.
But not all days are rosy. So, how open can you be about that with your team members and tell them, look, I'm not having a great day today?
I love this question. I feel like this shouldn't be a question that we need to encourage ourselves to ask. In what ways does an entrepreneur become inhuman? They're equally as human as every single operator in the company. It doesn't matter if you're in the C level or whatever team you're in, you are still human.
One of the things that we don't talk enough about, which is one of the things that really affects entrepreneurs’ life and their ability to connect with a community that can help them, is the sheer fact that we are creating this taboo against ourselves. That we're not allowed to show that we also have emotions, or we're not allowed to show that we're also human.
Some days are more complex than others. This is precisely where the needle needs to move, to change this conversation. I'm in a position where I have hard days myself, but because I used to be an HR person, it makes it easier for me actually to say to my team, look, I'm having a really tough day. I'm just going to go for a walk. See you in 40 minutes.
What did you discover about yourself since you started your entrepreneurship journey?
It's been incredibly propounding that my self-awareness has taught me that I am someone who needs to be honest about when I need to ask for help throughout this learning journey, which has been obviously expedited at such a fast pace, but at the same time, it's also been rewarding because I never noticed that there is such a great community out there that are so supportive.
I used to think I needed to do this all alone. I used to think I was entirely responsible for the company and my team; therefore, I should have the answers. And little did I know that throughout this journey, a lot of people are either in the same boat or I've done this 10 times more than I have. And therefore, I reached out, and I've learned to rely on a community that I initially didn't think existed.
Why is it so difficult to ask for help?
When you have a lot of people coming to you asking for solutions or answers to their questions, you either don't have enough time in the day to go and seek out help or most of the time, you're put on the spot to immediately have the answer to those questions if you want to show credibility.
This is a real struggle when it comes to being a leader and a sole entrepreneur, for example. At the very least, those people start with not knowing whether your answer is correct or wrong, but having to come up with an answer anyway, is incredibly intimidating for any entrepreneur that wants to start the journey with some perfect foundation.
You mentioned you have a coach, so that is one of the ways to ask for help. Why is it essential for you to have a coach?
I'm a coach myself, and I believe every coach also needs a coach. I think there's always a second perspective that you let your biases shield over if you don't have a coach. It's almost like when I have a terrible day, maybe talking to my best friend, who has probably known me for the last 30 years, would not necessarily help because the bias is there. They're there to help make me feel better. Whereas my coach is someone who tells me, well, it's okay, Sophie. You're feeling bad about yourself, and so is everyone else. You're just having one of those days. What can you do about it?
I think having a coach ask you that outright question that you should have been asking yourself anyway is an excellent reminder that everybody needs help along the way.
What does it mean for you to be an entrepreneur today?
The first thing that actually pops up in my mind is freedom. Because I am now in a space where I get to choose the work that rewards me for working with people that enhances my life experiences. And I think that is very important to me.
But on the other hand, it also makes me feel that I am a lot more accountable and responsible as a human being for a particular purpose. Because as a leader, I am now responsible for my clients. The work I put out there, any influence you, by chance, create along the way, along the journey, and obviously the responsibility towards my team.
There's definitely a lot of joy in being an entrepreneur, given the freedom. But at the same time, it has expedited my self-learning a lot, which is what I genuinely enjoy.
Take all your experience over those years; what is the one practical recommendation you would give any entrepreneur out there?
It's like a singing track for me. The practical recommendation is to ask for help; a little help goes a long way. Reach out to your community. You're not on your own. Many other people, countless people, are out there in the same boat, in the same environment, and probably thinking about the same thing. You're not exclusive to your own experience, and whenever you can get out of your shell, reach out to the community and start building your own network.
You never know. There are days you asked me earlier, what am I excited about when I wake up in the morning is, you know, feeling connected, feeling belong to a community and a network that I actually belong to. And I think that's a great feeling to have, especially in today's circumstances.
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