What is at the very heart of a coaching relationship?

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What is at the very heart of a coaching relationship?

Author: Sophia Trang Chu, Principal, Mekong Capital
July 12th, 2023.

Sophia Trang Chu, Principal, Mekong Capital

At the start of 2023, when a new CEO was promoted in a company under my accountability, I immediately wondered how I could establish a trusted relationship with her in her new role. I knew that she had extensive experience in high-level positions and was straightforward, fast-moving, and results-oriented. When we introduced the Generating Breakthrough Technology – one element of our Vision Driven Investing (VDI) approach to the company’s leadership team, she even told me and the Mekong team that “I think we should not waste time discussing this topic. We need to focus on taking action because that is what the company needs right now.”

As we heard the new CEO’s blunt remarks, we couldn’t help feeling disappointed. But as I mulled over her words, I tried to put myself in her shoes. It became clear that she was grappling with urgent issues that demanded our attention, and we, at Mekong, needed to prioritize them. Despite my best efforts to relate to her, doubts nagged at me: “How could I possibly understand what she’s going through?” It was obvious that she saw me as an outsider from another boat, someone who couldn’t possibly grasp the nuances of her own boat’s situation.

As a Deal Leader, I knew I needed to find a way to build a relationship with her that would enable her to share her struggles. I decided that listening would be the cornerstone upon which I would build this relationship. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was essential for Mekong Capital to add value, and for me to contribute to the success of the company. I couldn’t do that until I truly heard her struggles, concerns, stresses, and issues. Like many other organizations, the company was seriously impacted after the Covid-19 pandemic; and if she failed as the CEO, there would be no way to turn the company around.

Boat at sea


During the next meeting with her, I began with a question: “What is the most burning topic you would like to discuss today?”

Initially hesitant, she gradually opened up and shared more about her struggles in her new role. I could sense her concerns and frustrations during the transition period, as she took on more and more new responsibilities.

Honestly, I spent most of my time listening to her – really listening to what she shared. I paid attention not only to the content of her words but also to her body language and the context behind each of her sharing. I discovered that she had been struggling with many unclear matters, confusion about her accountabilities, and frustration with others. I even heard her blaming others, the circumstances, and even herself.

After each meeting, numerous next actions were generated, and interestingly, many of them belonged to my accountability. As a Deal Leader, I wore multiple hats simultaneously. I was her coach in our VDI coaching conversations. I also served as Mekong Capital’s representative and a board member of the company. As the company’s board member, one of my responsibilities was ensuring that the CEO performs well in her role, which would enable her to lead the company effectively.

In this situation, what my CEO needed the most was clarity. She needed to create clarity for herself, and I promised I would do whatever I could to support her.

For the areas where I lacked experience, I reached out to other domain experts at Mekong and scheduled meetings for them to meet with her. I kept exactly my words in and for every action that I was accountable for after each meeting. Proactively, I communicated with her about the timeline for each response to her. I showed her that I kept my integrity in all my words and actions. When I reflected on this, it was the turning point in my relationship with the CEO. I led by example, then soon, she would reach out and take me on her boat.


Furthermore, I shared my authentic commitment to her success as the CEO, as well as the success of the company. I even explained why her success was important to both me and Mekong Capital. After gaining her permission, I promised to communicate openly and honestly if I noticed anything missing, sharing my thoughts and ideas freely.

Over time, I was able to build a relationship of trust with her. She began to see me as a reliable and trusted partner – as one of her own ship’s sailors and was more open about her struggles and challenges. She has opened up so much with me, even asking questions about what she didn’t know without being afraid of looking bad. I began to feel that she related to me as if we were on the same boat, that together we would find a way to steer the company’s boat and overcome many obstacles we faced, step by step getting closer to the company’s vision for 2025.

Looking back over the past 6 months, I see a different version of my partner, my CEO. The CEO I knew was assertive, fast-paced, and resulted oriented, and now she has a high sense of self-awareness and is willing to take a step back to move further if needed. She is fully committed to the success of the company as much as the Founder. I see less struggle, less stress, and less defensive posturing. Now I see a captain confident of her future, her crew, and her course. The company is thriving, with a strong culture of leadership and a high level of ownership. Our relationship continues to be one of trust and mutual respect.

Coaching, trust relationship

I have realized that coaching relationships work best when, as a Deal Leader, I listen openly and committedly to the challenges that my CEO is facing. I communicate my commitment not only through my words but also through my actions. I empower and respect her decisions fully. This approach, which we call Ontological, can open the Founders/CEOs’ hearts and help them see the possibility of leadership transformation for improved organizational performance.

I now see that coaching can only create value for the individual CEO and for the company when it is a partnership in which we are both trusted sailors on the same boat. The key I find to unlocking that kind of coaching partnership is not instructing, nudging, or showing.

It is simply…listening.

From that basis, we can create a coaching relationship that creates value, drives positive change, and achieves sustainable growth in any of our investee companies.

And that’s the way we run our boat.

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Mekong Capital makes investments in consumer-driven businesses and adds substantial value to those companies based on its proven framework called Vision Driven Investing. Our investee companies are typically among the fastest-growing companies in Vietnam’s consumer sectors.

In January 2022, Mekong Capital founder Chris Freund published Crab Hotpot, a story about a bunch of crabs who found themselves stuck in a boiling pot. The colorful cover of “Crab Hot Pot,” complete with expressive cartoon crustaceans, looks like a children’s tale at first glance. But as one continues reading, it becomes clear that the work has an important message about organizational transformation, leadership and focusing on a clear vision for the future.

The book is available on Tiki (Hard copy): bit.ly/38baF8a (Vietnamese) and Amazon: amzn.to/3yWunzG (English)

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