Coaching at Primer

April 24, 2023
Mar 24, 2022

We’re trying to help our people become more resilient, more engaged, more creative, more willing to take risks, more curious, more comfortable with discomfort, more graceful when the heat is on.

From day one at Primer, we knew that we wanted to make coaching a fundamental part of how we operate. If you’re familiar with Wendy Rhodes from Billions, you might have a pulse on the benefits a great coach can bring to an organization.

There’s actually a longstanding tradition of coaches in Silicon Valley, but historically they’ve been sourced through whisper networks and reserved for founders and executives. Luckily, that’s starting to change. Companies are extending the benefits to employees as a perk – there are even platforms that will auto-match you to a coach and hook right into your company’s benefits tool. I’ve even heard it said that “coaching is the new therapy.” In all of these cases, coaching happens in some private, siloed room where people are getting a mix of Strategic Advice™ and emotional support, and all someone has to do is point the line on the budget and say “look how much we care!” for the job to seem done.

But we’re not out to pat ourselves on the back for caring about employees in some abstract, lip-service, we “invest”-in-our-team-but-aren’t-going-to-add-work-to-our-plates-to-do-it way. We’re not just trying to help people get better at plotting stuff on 2x2s or write better product briefs or offer a substitute to therapy where only work stuff is on the table. We’re trying to help our people become more resilient, more engaged, more creative, more willing to take risks, more curious, more comfortable with discomfort, more graceful when the heat is on – both at work and (equally as important) with their family and friends.

Our view is simple: better humans make better leaders and colleagues. And we want to build an organization where hearts and minds are primed to get there.

So we decided to run a coaching experiment at Primer that does a few things differently:

  • Everyone at Primer gets a coach (not just founders or leaders)
  • Coaches meet independently about the overall health of the organization (and share insights and patterns with me and Maksim)
  • We make leadership and communication the central pillars of coaching
  • We only work with coaches that we know are exceptional at their jobs, we’re not checking boxes for a jobs page

The (still-early) results are in and this model of coaching is already having a massive impact on our work, company culture, and satisfaction for our team members. I think we’re onto something, and in the spirit of helping everyone who wants to do great work, do it, we’re sharing more about it. 

The details 

While the coaching relationship deals with a ton of complexity, the implementation of this program at Primer is pretty simple:

  • Everyone gets access to a coach for a biweekly 1:1: Company leaders (for now, just me and Maksim) each have our own, and everyone else at the company works with another coach (three coaches total). Technically, it’s optional, but we highly encourage everyone to do it. Today, 90% of our team members see their coach at least monthly. It takes some team members longer than others to warm up to the idea, but on the whole, people who work at Primer love it.
  • A focus on leadership and communication: Our coaches focus less on “strategy” and more on helping us make better decisions, understand ourselves better, communicate more clearly with each other, and uncover collective blindspots. Framed differently, coaching isn’t (just) for talking about specific problems from a tactical perspective, it’s about growing in our ability to solve them.
  • Coaches meet independently every quarter. The goal of this meeting is to dig deeper into what’s contributing to the success of the team and what may be holding them back. Coaches share their observations on common themes and then put together a hypothesis about the root cause. This is where a lot of the magic happens (more in the next section) and where we really see our coaches’ talents shine. 
  • It’s not a spying mechanism. There is no gossiping or reporting on how individuals are performing. In the words of Maksim’s Coach, Johnny, “we are interested in the overarching patterns of the team, not the individual variance of experience.” With this goal, the incentive really isn’t there to drill down on the individual level. And plus, if the coaches were to lose the trust of our team members, they wouldn’t be able to provide nearly as much value, if any at all.
  • Observations (and solutions) flow through 1:1’s. Then, coaches can bring their cohesive narrative about what’s going on, their understanding of the direction and ambitions of the company, an individual’s role, strengths, and weaknesses, and how to lean into what’s working and steer away from what isn’t, to their 1:1 conversations. 

A very solid investment. When we tell people about this, they usually say, “sounds expensive!” And we usually say it’s more expensive not to. To put some numbers behind it, salaries + benefits account for about 70% of our operating budget (the largest single cost base at our company). Paying 3% more to optimize is a no-brainer. (We’d gladly pay that to make any of our other systems more efficient!). To be even more direct, I would confidently say this is one of the single best capital allocation decisions you can make as a founder.

In one example

Our coaches had been giving us very encouraging feedback about the high-trust environment we were cultivating at the company. Our team members, they said, were generally very happy, motivated, excited about their work, and had a lot of trust both in Maksim and I as well as the team–a good start, but our coaches shared an observation that we weren’t necessarily making full use of all that good will.

Through their conversations with team members, they spotted a pattern that individuals were optimizing for moving quickly, and hesitant to dissent or push back in specific situations for fear of delaying progress. 

This was both surprising and concerning. We’ve been very intentional about building a high-trust environment, but we weren’t cashing in on all that trust by creating space for dissent even if it meant moving slower or delaying progress by a few days. What was heartening, though, is that everyone was secretly on the same page about wanting to change this.

It wasn’t hard for me to relate to this scenario. Even in the most collaborative, highest-trust environments I’ve worked in, I’ve seen the tension between moving fast and pushing back. Unfortunately, the incentives just aren’t really in place for any single individual to raise these sorts of flags. It’s also exactly the kind of thing we want to avoid as we build our organization. We’re learning over and over again that reserving time and space for a perspective “unaffected by being in the game,” is the best way to help all of us stay on top of and ahead of these natural organizational dynamics. 

So along with our coaches, we had a broader conversation with the team and collectively came up with some approaches to help us all get better at this kind of unnatural, but ultimately very important thing together. We even added  a company operating principle (“honor tension”) so that we’d have a shared language to lean on when we needed to remind each other about it in the course of work. And, since this was a new norm that required a new skill for many, our coaches were able to help individual team members navigate and lean into it with confidence and tact.

I’ll also say that this wasn’t an org-on-fire-level problem–it was more of a “check engine light” situation. In moments like this, I’m particularly glad we can catch this stuff when it’s at a simmer so that small tweaks and not seismic shifts can keep our organizational health on track. This turned out to be a pretty meaningful unlock for us and our team (and indirectly, probably for our users because we’re able to build better stuff faster). And I know we would have had to endure much more collective pain for much longer without our coaches. 

Thank you to our coaches

Johnny, Andy, Blayne – we are so grateful for your work. On behalf of our entire team and community, thank you.

The work doesn’t end here

We want our people to be wildly proud of not only what they build at Primer, but also how they build it–we want their Primer teammates to be teammates for life. 

In fact, we talk openly with our team about wanting them to build companies of their own together when they leave Primer one day (though hopefully not too soon!). We hope they’ll want to do that with the teammates they meet at Primer, the skills they’ve learned, and the ambition and curiosity we’ve cultivated here (and let Maksim and I invest!).

If this sounds like something you want to be a part of, we’re hiring