Incubating Relationships



by Zach Johnson

Of all the various elements involved in the design and creation of a startup incubator program the one piece I failed to properly predict was how to handle interpersonal relationships across the cohort. I’ve been managing people for over 25 years, but the dynamics between staff and manager are very different to those between a single advisor and 9 individual companies. As a manager you have a duty-of-care for your staff and the authority to address personal development within the context of professional development. Incubators, on the other hand, (and coworking spaces) have a duty-of-care to provide a safe and welcoming work environment but not really the authority to highlight, initiate or mediate discussions amongst members and founders related to how they treat and interact with each other. This is certainly an interesting challenge and one that represents a learning opportunity for all involved.

We’ve recently had an ‘air-clearing’ session between some of our founders, the result of which will be determined by changes in behaviours over time. While we won’t know if this session achieved its desired outcome right away, the process of voicing delicate issues in a group setting is a valuable experience in itself. We are all adults and business leaders with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. We don’t all have to like each other. For that matter, founders in an incubator don’t necessarily have to even respect each other (we certainly can’t make them) but, for those of us who run these programs, we should absolutely expect and demand that they behave respectfully towards one another.

My biggest takeaway from this recent episode is that we need to do a better job of setting expectations around a code-of-conduct from the outset and provide opportunities for personal development as part of our program. We owe it to our coworking community to foster a positive energy in our space and we owe it to the entrepreneurial community to produce alumni who can not only navigate the considerable challenges of launching a startup but who can also navigate the sometimes more treacherous landscape of dealing with people.