How Founders’ Traumas Shape Their Startup Culture [Podcast #102]

In this episode of the SOL Podcast, we are having Samreen McGregor, founder of Turmeric Group, an Executive Coach who aims to create the conditions that leaders need to stretch beyond their existing capabilities and simultaneously preserve well-being. She also desires to inspire leaders, teams and organisations to embrace adversity as a catalyst for empowerment and well-being while rigorously expanding her clients’ rational, emotional, and intuitive capacity.

We addressed issues like the relationship between trauma, leaders and the business, paying attention to workplace culture, coaching, trauma’s effect on leaders and identity, cultural differences, pros and cons of it on leaders, startup growth, coaches and the role that coaches and advisors can play in all of these issues.

Our discussion revolved around the difference between coaching and mentoring, the demand for consultancy coaching executive leadership, and the role of leadership coaching in the start-up world.

Ozan Dagdeviren

Hello and welcome to the startups of London podcast. I’m your host Ozan and the founder of startups of London. Today I’m joined by Samreen MacGregor, who is an executive advisor and coach to senior leaders. We have a lot of interesting things to talk about the UK, the culture, the coaching markets, how culture grows in startups to almost effect on leaders, identity, and a lot of fascinating conversations. So, I’m looking forward to it already. Welcome Samreen.

Samreen McGregor

Thank you.

Well, let’s start with the difficult questions. Trauma, when we talk about that concept, it seems like a very distant psychological concept that should perhaps on the surface not really be about business. It is perhaps for some people difficult to make the connection between trauma, business, startup growth and so on. But I feel like there is a faint thread that turns out to be very important. And I would like to get your thoughts on that as we start. How does the previous personal history of founders effect the cultures of the companies they are building for the better or for diversity?

Wow, what a fantastic question to start.

Yes, sorry about that putting you on the spot. But I think we have to get the most difficult and the most important thing at the top of the conversation just to frame our conversation.

Well, actually, I’m just going to tell a tiny story about that, before I answer it specifically. I’ve recently written a book. And in the book, I explore this topic. And I explore it with especially during my research and preparing to write about it. But also to frame it within the context of my professional expertise. I’d actually talked about the subject in the fourth chapter of the book. And I had it looked at by a colleague of mine his name is John Higgins. He’s a researcher, and he’s written many books, and he read the book, you’re one of the first people to read a set Samreen, you need to put it right at the front. You need to put it right at the start. You can’t make people wait for this, because this really does position the whole purpose of this book, so I want to share that because  I think trauma is something that people maybe fear, that’s a generalization the way I even said that, but and I’m talking about it as if it’s something not,  relating to me. But the word trauma is about is it evocative and, but we’re living in a world where the backdrop is, it’s relentless. And it’s inevitable that we live through adversities, and things that challenge us. And the whole statistic around PTSD, anxiety and stress. And some have actually to just extrapolate a little bit, the long-term effects of the stress that we live data definitely are actually looking more and more warming. And therefore, for me, inquiring into it and just understanding it or perhaps not putting our fear to the side, but putting our fear instead of in brackets for a minute. Just to understand with a cold mind, what this means is really quite critical for leaders. Now you asked me specifically about leaders of startups or entrepreneurs, those who make a choice to take risks to be profitable or to scale something that is in line with a personal purpose. So, the learnings that come from adversity and the learnings that come from the discomfort that we face, when we live with trauma, are invaluable… Absolutely invaluable, because it’s through those learnings and through some of the emotional challenges that come with that journey that are hugely rich, and then it might not feel great, but they’re definitely very insightful.

We were talking about Gabor Mate. And just before the podcast for our listeners out there. And it turns out, both Samreen and I are taking a look at the same things. It’s kind of like a very quick coincidence. And yes, I’ve been reading Gabor Matta, his book, The Myth of normal, and in that there are a few things that stuck with me, but one of them is the differentiation of trauma with a capital T, and then trauma with lowercase T. So, the capital T one is the type of trauma that we understand when we use the word something big, drastic, uncommon, terrible type of a situation has occurred and it has scarred the person. But then there is the other type of trauma, which is just being exposed to systematic situations throughout our life. For example, I feel like we have to tie this to make the connection between the various psychological concept and leadership and startup and growth. make that connection really tightly because sometimes it’s not understood as well. But what happens is someone who is in business life, for example, meets leaders who are not honest to them, or feels kind of screwed over for a deal. Sometimes they feel like they are let go of a company unfairly. They’re not getting paid unfairly. And these are all macro traumas like the trauma with a lowercase t. And as a result of people show a certain adaptation. And that adaptation as I see, it is becoming more okay with being dishonest to the people that you work with, and so on and so forth. And that really does shape how the companies operate, you give feedback to the CEO, and then you get yelled back, and then you don’t give it for a second time. And what happens then the company culture is not a transparent culture anymore. Can you reflect on these topics submarine before we carry on?

Absolutely, I think you raise something that’s a phenomenon in any social context, in a business, or corporate startup context, it will be very frequent that we see individuals acting upon their experience of the past that subconsciously influences and colours they present. And without being conscious or understanding or being able to identify the connection between something that may have happened in the past to make sense of how they’re behaving in the current, it is unlikely that some of those adaptations will stop happening. So a great example is if someone has had very frequent feedback from a particular stakeholder boss or partner within a business context, and that person has been perpetuating a pattern that may have been established in their childhood because a parent was far more critical than was helpful for that person to grow into a more confident and assertive state, that pattern will continue to show itself in his or her relationships in the current. So, a stakeholder might make expectations and that person will just say yes, and a subordinate or a partner might even behave in certain ways that undermine the level of trust that they share. But because it’s not questioned, it’s being influenced by subordinate behaviours from the past. And that’s just such a, it’s a costly way for our relationships to evolve in the future.

This does make me think of this physics analogy almost, they say 98% of the total matter is dark matter, right? We don’t see it, we don’t interact with it, just like that. It makes me think, in actuality, perhaps, let’s say at least 50%, of how people behave in relation to the people they work with, is shaped by their corresponding past experiences and past trauma, both with capital T and a lowercase t. But we never talk about it. And it’s never part of the conversation. It’s never part of the discourse. Isn’t that very weird?

Oh, absolutely. I think, one of the things I’ve been trying to encourage people to notice and being mindful of is, what is the unseen? What are the things that we don’t talk about? What are the conversations we don’t have? Actually, often, it’s because we’re so task focused, with a world where our customers need. Their needs, their expectations, are highly demanding. And that speed,  you’ve got these challenger organizations, these startups actually, all of us are part of breaking through established industries that have worked really well in the past. And in the post-industrial revolution, the post-industrial revolution would have been far more certain, and far more predictable. So now these challenges are creating, that require us to respond very, very quickly. And this landscape requires us to move fast to focus on the task and to get things done. So, stopping just to go hang on a second, just while we’re having this conversation, can we just give ourselves a space to understand something that lies beneath, that neither of us are noticing? And perhaps is either unconscious? Or we just haven’t got the time to address it?

Do you think we need more of coaches and advisors? And what is the role they can play in all of these? And how does this topic tie to your book leader awaken?

Well, of course, the obvious answer is going to be yes. Given that I’ve been over the last 10, well, 11 years now, running an organization that puts at the heart of the business, that creating that space and time to slow down to think, to reflect to also notice what our bodies tell us because often that rhythm of life that I just described, we don’t have access to some of the really important signals that our bodies can give us. So yes, of course, coaches, mentors, and people who are skilled at enabling individuals and teams, I would say, to just slow down, I actually introduced the top leadership development concept in the book called refraction. Going back to your physics analogy, which is if you look in the mirror, you’re reflecting And it’s bouncing, the light is bouncing off a smooth surface. But when something is refracted, and it goes from one medium to another, it needs to change speed. And if it changes speed and it goes faster, it goes towards the norm. But if it changes speed and it goes slower, it actually goes away from the norm. So, it encourages us to do something different. And that concept is absolutely what I think coaches and mentors enable people to do. There is a difference between some of the skills I would classify as skills that coaches with us, and what mentors would use. But I think, actually, on the whole, both of those types of resources should be able to work across that skill set. But some skills are about advocating, guiding, providing direction, and insight and building intuition by telling you, this is what I did, or this is how things work out there in forming, providing more prescriptions. Whereas on the other hand, you’ve got more than school or the coaching skills, which are far more catalytic, they’re Socratic. And they stimulate shifts in mindset but also shifts in a sense of lived behaviour and experience.

Indeed, this is truly a fascinating area of conversation. I think we definitely have a lack of people who bring in a deep level of understanding of human behaviour and psychology into the workplace to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of organizations to increase their problem-solving skills, and honestly make them happier places to work because it’s just a big part of our life. One example that I have ties back to an interesting conversation is again, about perhaps trauma and how it shapes us. But I think it goes beyond that, which is this new concept that I’ve learned called parts. I don’t know, have you heard of this, the concept of parts, the parts, and it’s actually that simple. It says just it ties into some concepts of schema therapy as well. But the basic idea is not only people that are diagnosed with schizoid personality disorders have parts, but having parts is a natural and healthy way of living for most of them. And what is meant by this is, I have a part for example, which is more attune when I’m out and social, I have a different part that is on the reins, perhaps, at home relaxing, and I have a different part when I’m trying to get the task done, et cetera, et cetera. So what I’m trying to say is, organizations set certain standards, and it’s kind of activates a certain part in all of these people. And the part that has activated may be hostile, it might activate the part that is defensive in people, not the most problem-solving part. So as a result of that your organization’s kept their capacity. But the sad thing is, they will never be aware of why their capacity is kept. And what makes me also sad. And I would like to get your thoughts on this. And I think that is kind of as a segue to understanding some of the demand dynamics in the coaching market in general. As someone who’s spent way too much time on human psychology, I actually feel okay, these are areas of growth, and huge value, huge financial bottom-line value can be created for companies. But when I have conversations with founders, I feel they see this as an afterthought and not a priority, and an ineffectual intervention in most cases. What is your experience with this? Do you think the demand for consultancy coaching executive leadership is on the increase?

Wow, a couple of things. Number one, I just want to very, very briefly respond to your point around pirates totally resonates. And yes, from a psychological perspective, and perhaps different language that I’ve learned is more about personas and how whatever context we’re in, those personas are activated and might stimulate projections of transference, depending on our experience from the past, how our personas evolved in the moment and in the present, and then how the culture around us or the social context around us, connects with those barriers, different personas so completely to completely recognize that in terms of the market for coaching, and I am going to talk a little bit about the numbers. It’s really, really surprising. It’s the coaching market. And I’m not saying executive, I’m not saying life, I’m not saying health, there’s a very a variety of different segments in that it’s been valued at 20 billion US dollars globally, in 2020, end of 2020 with a revenue of 2.9 billion. This is one in any of those across those categories. I’ll break this down in a minute. So, the current understand and I’ll come back to the afterthought point that you’re making, but currently, the evidence is showing that 99 10% of individuals, within companies that are receiving coaching and this is in a corporate context, are actually either satisfied or very satisfied with the results of receiving coaching. I would probably hazard a guess that that’s in the business coaching context, which would span across various contexts for professionals. Now, 96% are claiming that they would do it again, as in having another coach because the impact was in that moment and clearly, there was potential for continued growth and development and impact on their ability to perform within their context. Now, 93,000 coaching professionals are working globally, according to a number of differences. Well, this one came from the ICF could be the international coaching Federation, there’s a number of different six that I’ve picked up from various places. And online coaching platforms are currently valued at 2 billion. So likely they’re projected to grow, double, I think, over the next five years. They owe more than double actually. And then there’s an educational segment to this, which is in the universities, and this is one of my interests because in order for me to really built scale to the work that I do, I can’t grow, the number of leaders I work with, or the number of teams I work with, it’s just one of them. And so, collaborating with universities and organizations is really, really important. But the projected growth of coaching through the educational 12%. Now, just a couple of other things. So, in executive coaching, the future market insights have reported a $9.3 billion segment size market, a 1 billion increase in 2022, which I thought was extremely striking last year when I wrote about this. And it’s fascinating and I’m thinking, so there’s, and this has got to return on investment. So 30% of fortune 500 companies are using coaching regularly for their senior leaders. And for every $1 invested, there is a currently there is 7.9, dollar return on investment calculated, and the Institute of coaching reports a 600% ROI. So, there are some pretty competent out, don’t ask me to validate any of this data, but it is out there. And there is the one thing it does demonstrate to me is there’s interest in understanding and evidencing the impact and the value of coaching.

Hundred per cent. This we’re heading in the good direction. That’s what I gather from the data that you’ve collected and share it with us as well. It is perhaps distributed unevenly into some sectors and so on in larger organizations, with them having more resources and so on. And more parties, and more stakeholders, I think there’s a better understanding of the role of leadership coaching. And it is being embraced more and more, I would say I would concur with that in the role of the start of scaleups. Because they are usually younger founders as well. And the companies themselves are younger and there’s like an inherent focus on solving technological problems. And the sort, it just is not at the level that I hope it is, it should be. And I think there’s a lot of value that can be gained. But I think you’re heading in that direction, slowly. But surely, hopefully, we can accelerate that just a bit. Do you think that’s going to happen?

Yes. And one thing, just in response to your point about the younger generation, and those who make up more of what I would say, our leaders, inspiring Latino, growing communities in the ecosystem, 67% of Gen X leaders want coaching and recognize the need. What’s fascinating, in my experience of working with. I worked in a large corporate that set up a digital organization, the equivalent of an incubator, during a fairly significant joint venture. And I was an advisor and a coach to one of the much younger, really, really fascinating people who come in from various tech companies, established tech companies, but also, new and coming very interesting organizations in the tech world. And I noticed that the connection that a lot of these people that I worked with, they shared with their peers, was far more about a shared product or service that they wanted to create. They’re hugely passionate, but less connection with one another. It was a really interesting observation. And I noticed it over time. And the relational experience was far more about something out there that we’re working on together, rather than us as peers. And I do feel that. There’s no surprise there. They’ve grown up a lot of these younger people have grown up in a highly technological world, where we connect you with a barrier of an object, which is a technological device. So, oh my gosh, the opportunity and the potential for coaching, and or the space just to make sense of who am I? How do I connect with this other individual? What are some of the unsaid dynamics that we’re not actually addressing, will probably prevent or avoid some of the conflicts and frictions that the rest of the world has been feeling for many, many years, over time.

A part of this conversation goes back to how the UK culture, positions itself, compared to the rest of the world. I’ll say, the US as the centre of capitalism, perhaps. And, again, big parts of Europe, Germany, and France like they have different ways of approaching issues and society and employment, of course. I would say they are kind of less entrepreneurial, compared to the UK. So, the UK actually has a very particular place in the world, in my view, being kind of a certain type of average in terms of how the social state works, and how business-oriented it can be. But at the same time, there are other cultural dynamics here that I have observed, especially in the last five years, which has to do with a certain level of scepticism that is healthy at a certain dose but can also be a blocker after a certain while, especially when so much of entrepreneurship is about being optimistic, and for no reason at all, right? And then that kind of positivity carries on is infectious. And that’s, I think, a big part of it. But long story short, what I’m trying to get to, as in your experience, how do you think coaching and the coaches that are successful in the UK, are perceived? So, it’s a two-fold question. One is about, perhaps the general receptivity of the people towards coaching in the UK versus different parts of the world. And the second part would be, what persona of coaches, and this second part has specially to do with the identity I would say, arm more advantageous in terms of being successful as high-level executive coaches, who also make a good deal of money and who have high-level clients and are being respected, etc.

Okay, so the first question just coming,  and I’m just I just reflect on your use of the word possibilities, or as an entrepreneur, or you no inventor, isn’t it? We were visionary, those of us who want to create something that hasn’t existed before, through a startup, that there’s definitely this, my experience is that in the UK, and in Britain, most of my working life has been here, however, I coach people globally from across the world. And in fact,  on one day, I could be coaching, a very senior director and UNESCO, based in Argentina,  I could also be coaching someone in Sweden, in Sweden, and  another in the Far East, so

You’re the perfect person to ask this question. I’m glad they asked.

Absolutely, no, I mean, and it’s really interesting, because I actually haven’t lived here and actually grown up, and I’m going to use the word grown up as a professional consultant, and executive coach in a very British institution. And my early memories, were certainly in more of that cynical mindset, not my peers, in relation to what we offered clients or in relation to learning or in relation to,  really engaging in the Art of Possibility. So, in that way, I felt it was a wonderful, cultivating culture. But there were definitely very subtle nuances in me my own identity as a young woman trying to integrate into a very British institution, I just finished my master’s actually, when I joined this organization, and by my group was made up of about 30 different nationalities. And I was one of a kind, that made sense, we all belong 100% Because we were all so different. And it was probably one of the unusual moments in my life, where I felt I was part of something where everyone was similar because of our differences in this very British institution, which, by the way, I love and have huge amounts of respect, and affinity for because that’s where I grew up. It did not feel great. It felt at times I felt lonely. I was often on the margins. I felt I was always second-guessed, about what I was,  wanting to articulate and express and share. Now, do I speculate the cause to be bad intent or being,  an exclusive culture? No. Is it a product of the dominant culture and a lot of very, very shared norms taken for granted? Probably. And that’s just the reality now actually coaching a number of people globally who are into International, quite a lot of Europeans, South Americans and also Asian nationals. I’m finding far more people who’ve travelled who’ve worked who’ve had the experience I had living as a not a non-dominant culture in a dominant environment. And what I’m noticing is that valuation, and that sort of, oh, yeah, it does feel a bit weird, not being part of the dominant culture and having to, and that, for me, has been very, very helpful. As appear in organizations I’ve worked with, or in teams I’ve worked with, but also as an executive coach or as a professional that’s offering a service.

Yes, and on the first point, I don’t think it is in most cases. I don’t think it’s intentional when people make those decisions to go with consultant A, rather than consultant B because consultant A is more in line with what is idealized from within that dominant culture, right?

Or relatable.

Exactly relatable, that’s also a big, big part of it. People don’t make these decisions most of the time consciously. But that’s the thing, conscious or unconscious, the data doesn’t lie if 100 decisions are being made. And if 98 of those decisions are favoring a certain type of demographic, then we can understand, okay, we cannot blame the individuals. But then there is a common thread, there must be a common thread, right, and it becomes like the veil is lifted, and you will look at the numbers. And in your personal experience. If I can just add something of a personal note here. In my experience, I am, I’m so happy that I’ve had the chance to have the experience that I did, having grown up in a different culture than the UK, seeing how people see and appreciate and perceive my potential contribution, versus how it is perceived in the UK and versus how it is perceived in the US that I’m working with. This is such a productive landscape. Is anyone interested in sociology, to experience it personally, because it’s just like an A B test, right? I am the same person. But the reaction is different, sometimes better, sometimes worse. And I totally appreciate that. And I don’t blame the people. But I do blame the culture if that makes sense.

I love the way you describe that. And yes, it’s comforting to hear another individual who shares that it’s a sensation, isn’t it? And it really resonates with me.

I mean, just to be even blunter, in over 300 400 startups that I have seen, understood, and observed work as a consultant mentor. it is incredibly rare that I see, for example, a Middle Eastern consultant, or executive coach, for an English founder, I have never seen it. I’m sure there’s an example for it, right? But I’ve never seen it. And not even once. So, these things are perhaps skewing our perceptions in ways. And it’s just like a young black girl seeing a successful black woman and then saying, Yes, I can do it as well. So that kind of inspiration aspect, I think is also there for different backgrounds, different types of people. And I would say the same thing for most Asian people as well, I have not seen a lot of Asian consultants. I’ve seen people in the workforce from all different nationalities. Right? But this is my specific obsession with this at the level of executive coaching. So, there is almost perhaps I’m beating a dead horse here. But just for the sake of making it absolutely clear. I think there’s a feeling and idea of I will work with people from all cultures. But if somebody is going to tell me what to do, then I will be more selective about which cultures I will receive that from.

Yes. And one thing that might reassure you, but equally disappoint you, I over the last few years have built coaching faculties where we offer essentially, we offer organizations, a group of coaches that we work as a team. So obviously it’s confidential, the work they do one to one, but then we come together for peer supervision. And then you notice some of the dynamics that are happening in the organization, some of the leadership themes that come from that show themselves through the work that we do want one. Now, similar organizations I’ve worked with have said, can you make sure that the faculty is diverse? I kid you not. It is really, really interesting. The demographic is predominantly white women. And in terms of the choices that I’m having to select from, actually increasingly male as well. So, but again, trying to find that diversity I’ve noticed myself going, oh, hang on a second. I’m having to look for it. And it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I’m having to look for it. So I think that validates a little bit of what you’re saying. But equally, there are organizations deliberately requesting that diversity.