Mark Zuckerberg. Steve Jobs. Elon Musk. Tony Stark. Only one of those four is fictional, but all share in a popular mythology that the most successful CEOs are independent visionaries who create value through sheer inspiration and force of will.
That idea has deep roots in the American ideal of rugged individualism. And for startup founders, it means the weight of their companies' success or failure ultimately falls on them. This is a heavy burden for first-time founders especially, but it obscures a truth that applies to many more: Leading a successful company often requires an enormous amount of support, and not just from employees within their own organizations.
At any rate, that was my suspicion based on my own experience as a startup founder. So I put it to the test (albeit unscientifically) by surveying 56 venture-backed startup CEOs on how they get the personal and professional support they need to keep their companies moving forward. This anonymous survey targeted three groups:
- Seed-stage CEOs, whose companies have raised less than $5 million in outside capital
- Early-stage CEOs, whose companies have raised $5–25 million
- Growth-stage CEOs, whose companies have raised more than $25 million
What I uncovered was a dramatic departure from the image of the hero CEO. From executive coaches to support groups and personal therapists, CEOs rely on a surprising range of people to help them succeed. It truly takes a village.
Ajay Kori, the cofounder of UrbanStems, a high-growth on-demand flower startup, had spent months on the road trying to raise his seed round with plenty of rejection coming in. "I was starting to seriously question my strategy and what we were building," Kori told me.
With no previous experience fundraising, he reached out to a mentor who's the founder of a "unicorn" startup. The friend told Kori how he'd pitched 200 investors and received only 10 yeses. That helped Kori contextualize his own situation. "Hearing about the uphill battle an insanely successful founder had to fight was the exact push I needed to power through the rejections and close that first round."
You may not consider this type of interaction a form of support, but we'd be overlooking its influence by dismissing it. My survey found that it was ubiquitous: 96% of entrepreneurs reported talking to peers on an informal basis over the last 12 months for advice and support.
As an early-stage founder, I always thought coaching was silly. What role could a coach play that a board member couldn't? Then I realized that most successful CEOs I personally knew or knew of had used one. Famously, Bill Campbell, the Columbia football coach turned CEO of Intuit, was the coach to tech giants like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Eric Schmidt, and Larry Page.
And indeed, all told, 39% of CEOs in the survey used an executive coach in the last 12 months, a proportion that increased dramatically as their companies scaled. While 32% of seed-stage CEOs used a coach, 60% of growth-stage CEOs did the same.
Bryan Neuberg is a managing partner at Neuberg, Gore & Associates, an executive coaching firm focused on tech companies. He listed the range of situations where a coach can be helpful:
The CEO is in the weeds acting like an individual contributor; the company lacks organizational discipline and consistently misses deadlines; the CEO is too aggressive with her leadership team, or is too conflict-averse and avoids having the difficult conversations needed to keep the company on track.
All these challenges are things executive coaches have the experience to help startup leaders sort out—and founders seem to be pretty keen to let them. But while most coaches help people understand their mindsets and underlying motivations, coaches aren't therapists. Yet it appears CEOs gravitate to them, too.
It seems reasonable to expect that the stress of the startup experience could lead entrepreneurs to experience a host of mental health issues, yet we rarely envision that as linking up with the popular notion of the hard-driving, independent visionary.
One academic survey finds 49% of entrepreneurs reporting at least one mental health condition like depression or anxiety in their lifetimes. And while that's on par with the incidence of mental wellness issues in the U.S. adult population, it shows that even the most heroic-seeming of CEOs aren't exempt.
My own survey asked about the use of psychologists, psychiatrists, and licensed therapists and found that 9.3% of CEOs had used a therapist in the last 12 months. But again, startup growth and success was correlated with increased support. There was a big shift between stages, with only 4% of seed-stage CEOs having used a therapist, 10.5% of early-stage CEOs, and 30% of growth-stage CEOs. In addition, experience was a factor: Just 3.9% of first-time CEOs had used a therapist, whereas 14.2% of serial CEOs had done so.
Presumably, as expectations and stress increase, the proactive or reactive need for a therapist increases as well. To be sure, more seasoned entrepreneurs may be more likely to be able to afford these forms of support, but it seems noteworthy that forward progress in the entrepreneurial experience coincides with the choice to gather help.
What's more, it's the early stage that appears to be an inflection point. While only 10.5% of early-stage CEOs reported actually seeing a therapist in the last 12 months, 21% said they plan to do so over the next year. As companies grow, so does the need for external support.
Samer Hamadeh had just launched Zeel, an on-demand massage app, in late 2012. Because of the success of his first company, he was in the Young Presidents' Organization (YPO), a CEO support group for people whose companies have gained significant traction. Working to get this new business off the ground, Hamadeh invited the members of his YPO chapter to try the service during their summer vacations. He got piles of feedback that allowed him to perfect the app and validate the idea. But what happened next was surprising.
"At the end of the summer," he told me, "one of the YPOers, Ryan Freedman, reached out to say that he wanted to invest. That email and subsequent meetings led to his Corigin Ventures leading our seed round in the fall of 2013. Ryan has been on the board and an amazing investor ever since."
Formal support groups like YPO and Vistage come with heavy price tags, but for the CEOs who participated in the survey, they're a popular choice: 22% of entrepreneurs reported using one in the past 12 months, and 37% plan to do so within the next 12 months.
There was also a significant split in formal support-group usage between first-time and experienced CEOs. Only 14.3% of first-timers have joined a formal group, while 30.7% of serial CEOs have.
Across every segment of CEOs, one thing seems pretty clear: CEOs rely heavily on support, whether it’s working informally with peers, hiring a therapist or executive coach, or joining a structured support group.
This shouldn't really be that surprising. Startup founders often rely on exhaustive networking (sometimes to a fault) to get the word out about their new ventures and attract funders and customers.
But—perhaps partly owing to the hero CEO myth that popular culture clings to— the need for personal and professional support still seems to take entrepreneurs by surprise. The survey results suggest that for new founders, the pressures that later lead to building that other type of network just don't register at first.
Ultimately, building companies is a group activity. No matter how visionary, hard-driving, and self-reliant, that's something every CEO comes to learn. And over time, it becomes clear to many that you need the right people in your corner for more than just strategic purposes. Great leadership really does take a village, including in ways we don't always imagine it to.
Update: A previous version of this story misspelled UrbanStems CEO Ajay Kori's name and mistakenly stated that Zeel was in beta at the time its CEO offered access to YPO members in late 2012, not 2013. Both errors have been corrected.