Start-Up Self Care: Leadership Lessons from Executive Coach Alisa Cohn’s New Book

October 21, 2021

Behind every successful startup executive is a successful startup coach, or at least that’s the case with Alisa Cohn. Cohn’s been imparting leadership lessons at some of the world’s most well known brands and companies (Venmo, Etsy, Tory Burch, Google, and The New York Times, to name just a few). Now she’s summed up over 20 years of coaching experience in her new book, From Start-Up to Grown-Up: Grow Your Leadership to Grow Your Business.

Call it the startup founder’s playbook, Cohn’s approach goes beyond the mechanics and economics of running an organization. Instead, she helps founders cope with the existential aspects of leadership: how to deal with the constant uncertainty, grapple with the seeming enormity of the job, and nip imposter syndrome in the bud. 

Her book also offers personal testimonies from some of the most notable founders today, like Alexi Robichaux, Cofounder and CEO of BetterUp, and Suzy Batiz, CEO and Founder of Poo-Pourri. 

What Cohn’s book emphasizes is the high price of leaders maintaining their personal well-being. In chapter two—“Be the Boss of You”—she writes, “Since you are the most important asset of your company, I’ll offer suggestions about keeping yourself healthy, thinking positively, and managing the many demands on your time.” Here’s a look at a few highlights from Cohn’s book. 

Becoming the boss of you 

Cohn generously allowed us to share an excerpt from her new book with you, along with some more of her tips and perspectives. Since Cohn takes an inside-out approach to supporting founders, we figured we’d start with an excerpt on conquering your inner demons. 

Alisa Cohn's Book Cover for "From Start-Up to Grown-Up" featuring Leadership Lessons for Founders

[Excerpt] How To Deal With Your Demons 

“Insecurity is almost part of the job when you start a company. You’ve raised five or twenty or 100 million dollars — that’s a lot of responsibility. You’ve hired a team and told them about the great future everyone will have if you’re successful. And yet you often feel severe self-doubt. It may show up as the worry “who am I to make this a reality?” or it may be the feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing and will sooner or later be exposed as a fraud. 

The feeling of imposter syndrome – that your luck will run out – can overtake you regularly or jolt you in certain situations. You read about how famous CEOs handle things, you picture Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, and you think you’re not doing it like them, so you must be doing it wrong. Your employees are second-guessing your decisions, the investors are looking over your shoulder questioning you, sometimes kindly, sometimes not. Someone asks you a basic question about your metrics and you can’t answer it off the top of your head. The pressure on you builds and you often don’t get any positive reinforcement

What the phrase “imposter syndrome” obscures is that it’s not a single, monolithic thing. It takes many forms and flavors of self-doubt that get triggered in founders in certain situations. There is, however, a way to resolution: tapping into your underlying fears and concerns, using strategies to resolve them, and finding ways to both dance with your demons and move forward anyway.”

Practical Self Care Tips for Start-Up Founders

While there’s often a myth that founders need to lean towards complete self-sacrifice, “your role requires selflessness and self-discipline, not self-immolation,” she writes. Throughout her book, Cohn’s leadership lessons include a whole lot of salient and sustainable coping strategies for founders to consider implementing.

“Grow your leadership, grow your business” — A Summary of Alisa Cohn’s Leadership Lessons

  • How to be your own best friend: How to challenge negative beliefs and combat negative self-talk, see yourself through the eyes of the people around you, and allow yourself to be human (not superhuman).
  • How to maintain the most valuable asset (You): Sleep, exercise, nutrition, and some stress relief. “If your hunger is going to cause you to lash out, have a snack,” says Cohn. (Some solutions really are that simple.)
  • The best way to get through your day: Habits, routines, rituals and leadership practices, along with morning and mid-day routine ideas. “Get an alarm clock that is not your phone and keep a pen and paper on your nightstand. When you wake up, take five breaths and then write down five things you are grateful for. Then get out of bed and get ready. Before you start your workday, write down three things you want to get done and one thing you want to let go of. Then read a part of the highlight reel you created – even just one or two of the highlights helps put you in a good mood.”
  • How to get it done when you can’t get it all done: Two key principles to time management: reducing distractions and carving out time for deep work. 

Clearly Cohn’s book provides a treasure trove of leadership lessons. All that said, Cohn offers a potent reminder that, “the roller coaster of a startup can be traumatic when the downs are happening to you.” So if you find yourself, “thinking destructive thoughts about yourself or anything else, you should get help. If someone close to you suggests that you are hurting yourself, physically or mentally, you should get help. If you’re in doubt about it, you should get help. Find a therapist to support you and get you through dark moments.”

Find more Leadership Lessons from Alisa Cohn on the OpenView blog

How the Best CEOs use ‘Thinking Time’

How to Build Organizational Confidence in Your Team

How to Keep Your Co-Founder Relationship from Sinking Your Startup

Alisa Cohn is an executive coach, author, and speaker. She writes for HBR, Inc and Forbes and guest lectures at Harvard, Cornell and The Naval War College. Her book From
Start-up to Grown-up will be published in the US on Oct 26th. You can pre-order here.