Leadership Coaching Helps Entrepreneurs Break Through Obstacles to Scale


It’s not easy solving the world’s biggest problems, but social entrepreneurs around the globe are working to do just that. At Miller Center, we understand that one size doesn’t fit all, and we support entrepreneurs as they grow and scale, with a full suite of services including curriculum, customized training, bespoke mentoring, executive leadership coaching, investment readiness, and curated introductions.

High-potential Miller Center alumni can access customized services to help them break through the obstacles to scale, improve financial sustainability, and secure the capital necessary to grow their impact.

In the first of our series on customized training, today we’re spotlighting executive leadership coaching. Executive Fellow Linda Keegan, who manages Miller Center’s Executive Coaching and Management Development program, has been consulting with companies of all sizes over the last 25 years.

We also spoke with Miller Center leadership coach and Executive Fellow Susan Pohl, who works with C-suite leaders to examine mindsets and behaviors and builds coaching plans together with the executive to bring about positive change.

Finally, Dhananjay Abhang, co-founder of Cleanergy Tech Solutions, which provides sustainable, organic waste management solutions in India utilizing Kisangas, a decentralized biogas technology, shared his observations about his executive coaching experience. Dhananjay is part of a Miller Center and Chevron initiative, Advancing Climate Resilience Solutions in the Asia Pacific Region. The program is designed to promote climate resilience through social entrepreneurship and to further climate-smart agriculture, safe water, and reliable low-carbon energy to vulnerable communities in Asia Pacific through customized support to high-potential social enterprises. Cleanergy/Kisangas will also host Miller Center student fellows this summer, who will work with the team on impact metrics.

Miller Center: Why is leadership coaching important for social entrepreneurs?

Linda Keegan: Daniel Goleman developed the concept of emotional intelligence over 30 years ago. He suggested that there is a difference between technical competence and leadership competence. That was a long time ago and yet people are still getting promoted to senior-level positions because they are the best engineer or the best accountant or the best operations person. They are often not educated on how to be a good manager of people.

Likewise, social entrepreneurs have a technical idea. Once this idea takes off, they must learn how to hire the right people, develop them, and motivate a team.

As coaches, we try to impress upon them that managing requires a unique mindset and learning certain behaviors and frameworks. They bring us leadership challenges, usually involving how to select the proper people, how to set goals, build processes, and ensure good relationships which we help them solve.

Miller Center: What is the executive coaching process?

Linda: The process of coaching leaders is very dependent on the leaders’ objectives. Often, they want to know how they are perceived by their peers and direct reports. In these kinds of cases, we will do a 360-review which involves interviewing up, down, and across their organization to reflect themes of what is going well and what isn’t going so well. This gives the social entrepreneur some feedback they can discuss with their coach. It’s often a good jumping-off point.

Dhananjay Abhang: When I began working with Susan Pohl in June 2022, my first priority was to identify the challenges that I was facing as the co-founder and leader of Cleanergy Tech and Kisangas. The second priority was to examine the organizational challenges. Both priorities were important. I started with my challenges as a leader, and how I was feeling about them and shared these with Susan. She gave me great input on how to think about those challenges and work through them. A founder needs to be able to identify the areas in which he needs help. If not, it becomes very difficult to run the organization.

Miller Center: What are the most important leadership practices?

Susan Pohl: Hiring the right people, setting a clear vision, motivating the team, and skillful delegation are some examples of best practices that are important for social entrepreneurs as they develop their leadership capabilities.

Many of the people I have coached struggle with moving from the role of individual contributor to learning how to delegate and motivate others on the team. One person described it as changing from being a juggler of tasks to a symphony conductor who provides direction but does not do the work. A question I often ask social entrepreneurs: “Is this a task that only you can do?” If the answer to that is “no” it opens the pathway for a conversation about delegation. If the social entrepreneur doesn’t practice delegation, problems will develop when there are too many things for the social entrepreneur to get done. As things slip off the plate, the entrepreneur often feels overwhelmed, stressed, and out of control. Delegation is a vital component of leadership and an essential leadership skill to learn and practice.

Dhananjay: As a founder, spending time on creating the vision for the company and on strategic issues versus handling the day-to-day tasks is very difficult to prioritize, especially in the beginning. My goal was to strike the right balance between the two, particularly in the first few years, but it is always a dilemma. You have to gradually move towards strategy full time when you feel that your day-to-day operations are streamlined, and you are in the position to hire. That’s the approach we followed for the past three years.

Delegation was an area where Susan really helped me. She shared the “Skill Will Matrix,” a tool to assess an employee’s performance based on competencies and motivation. I’ve used that quite a bit as my company has grown and we have hired more people.

Miller Center: What are some other leadership challenges that you have observed?

Susan: Motivation is another leadership challenge for many social entrepreneurs. Since most entrepreneurs are self-motivated, it is often challenging for them to see that not everyone is motivated, or inspired, in the same way. If there are questions about motivation, I ask them to conduct surveys that ask employees to rank order the most important things for them in the job. I then ask the entrepreneur to do the same ranking. The results are rarely the same. Again, this provides an opportunity to reorient the social entrepreneur to another point of view and to acknowledge differences on the team.

Is everyone really motivated by money and title? Are all employees inspired by the same story? How is the world perceived by the employee versus the social entrepreneur? Holding up this mirror by asking pertinent questions is a gift that the coach can provide to the entrepreneur.

Dhananjay: Inspiring people is not easy because there are so many difficult times you go through as you work to grow your company. During these challenging times, it’s tough to keep people motivated versus inspired. Why? Because being motivated is just for the time being. Employees can watch a video, listen to someone speaking, and feel motivated for maybe a day or two. Inspiring people is more about the long term and culture. For me, having clarity on where we want to take our company moving forward is what counts.

We are very clear that our fundamental business model is strong, and we will build it slowly and be in an even stronger position. Our company is not only about creating impact in society, but we are also creating a sustainable model from a profitability point of view, which is also very important.

Miller Center: What else can you share with social entrepreneurs, that will be helpful to them and their organizations as they contemplate their own leadership?

Susan: Many social entrepreneurs I have worked with at Miller Center struggle with the two traits of perfectionism and procrastination, which are often two sides of the same coin. Although perfectionism can be a healthy motivator in moderation, excessive perfectionism can cause stress and lead to future procrastination. Wanting the work product to be perfect is often a deterrent to beginning the work. Coaching social entrepreneurs around these two challenges can help enrich their leadership skills.

Social entrepreneurs have the big ideas, the motivation, and inspiration. How these get communicated to employees is vital to the success of the organization and it is an area where the coach can provide valuable feedback to the social entrepreneur.

Dhananjay: Founders make so many mistakes, especially in the start-up phase. If you are the only person executing every task, it becomes difficult to manage your time and determine how to prioritize. You have a mental block and then you think you don’t know what to do. Susan helped me a lot with tools I could adopt, and then I streamlined them. It made a big difference to me so I can prioritize the things that are important. Everyone needs a Susan!