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How to support player-coach managers
Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Writer, Culture Amp

The term “player-coach” originated in the sports world. As the name implies, it refers to a coach who also serves as a player on the team – or the other way around. This arrangement has a long history in sports, and it can be quite effective. Bill Russell, as just one example, led the Boston Celtics to two NBA titles as a player-coach.

In a business environment, a player-coach management style is one where the leader of a team is also a direct contributor themselves – they might work on the development of new software while also managing the rest of the team. In many ways, it’s similar to the expert-generalist concept, where one person handles multiple responsibilities in the organization. The main difference is that those roles may not be handled at the same time.

Player-coach managers enable you to operate with fewer overall employees, but this management style does have its challenges. Let’s explore some potential roadblocks and how to overcome them.

The challenges of the player/coach manager

While it’s true that experience with each of these roles (the player and the coach) is helpful with the other, juggling them at the same time can be tough.

The player usually requires a very different mindset from the coach to perform optimally, and their priorities are often in conflict. Managers, or coaches, are focused on supporting their team and looking at bigger-picture strategies, while players are more focused on individual execution and the tactical aspects of the day-to-day workload.

Balancing one’s individual contributions with managing the work of other employees is a tall task, and it takes practice. Many of us have worked with brilliant employees who struggled when promoted into management roles.

On the flip side, some of the most effective leaders have little (if any) experience or knowledge of what it takes to play the game. However, they can rally their teams and enable top performers to do what they do best.

The realities of the workplace in 2022 (particularly with the “Great Resignation” looming large) mean that many leaders are finding that they have to step in and play a more active role as a member of the team to get the job done, whether it was on their original career path or not. With that in mind, let’s discuss how you can support these managers who are both leading and working.

4 tips to help support your player/coach managers

From an organizational standpoint, the big advantage of a player-coach management style is needing to hire fewer employees – in theory, anyway. The player-coach effectively fills two roles at once, so in an ideal world, you wouldn’t need to hire a separate person to lead the team or to fill that last individual contributor position.

Of course, the real world is more complex, and the nature of this management style means that it can be challenging and stressful to balance and navigate this combined role. Here are some tips that can help employees in this role overcome the challenges.

1. Minimize distractions

Because of the nature of a player-coach role – constantly switching back and forth between two competing mindsets – it’s critical that distractions are kept to a minimum. In this context, “distractions” refers to any non-essential activity that takes someone away from their core duties.

Some of the most common and disruptive workplace distractions include:

  • Smartphones and social media
  • Random visits from coworkers
  • Excessive email
  • Unnecessary meetings

Obviously, some of these can’t be eliminated entirely. There are always going to be meetings to attend and emails to answer. Unfortunately, it takes an average of over 23 minutes to recover your focus after one of these distractions.

So, what can be done? For starters, if someone doesn’t truly need to be at a meeting, don’t invite them. If someone doesn’t need to be copied on that email, don’t copy them. Finally, encourage staff to keep casual interactions to designated times or channels to limit interruptions.

2. Ensure processes are well-defined

The day-to-day of a player-coach can be hectic. They have to juggle their own projects while also keeping an eye on their direct report’s projects, providing guidance and support, motivating their team, and more. Without clean, easy-to-follow processes, this can quickly become overwhelming.

Encourage player-coach managers to create a well-defined process for each task or activity their team has to get done. To help them out, establish clear processes for the following activities:

  • Requesting time off
  • Scheduling meetings
  • Lodging a complaint
  • Submitting work for review
  • Performance evaluations and disciplinary actions

Standardizing the way these routine processes are handled reduces the amount of time and mental effort expended on them, freeing up the manager to focus on more important tasks.

3. Keep expectations clear

There are two types of player-coach managers: those that prefer to get their hands dirty and those that don’t have a choice. The former might be outstanding at balancing the two roles, but the latter may struggle to prioritize their own tasks versus the needs of the team.

For that reason, it’s important to ensure that there are crystal clear expectations of the manager’s primary responsibilities. When push comes to shove, should they set aside their individual responsibilities in order to provide coaching and leadership for their team? Or should they double-down on their own tasks and refer their employees to the next rung on the leadership ladder?

There’s no right or wrong answer to these questions – the best choice will depend on the organization’s needs at that moment in time. However, it’s crucial to clarify expectations and priorities ahead of time so that difficult decisions don’t have to be made in high-stress moments.

4. Put the right person in the role

Not every manager makes an effective individual contributor, and not every employee makes a strong leader. Unless you’re in an emergency situation and need to fill a spot right now, take time to evaluate your prospects.

It can be tempting to offer your highest-performing employees promotions into leadership roles, but that’s not always the smartest move. It’s important to consider the person’s leadership skills, such as:

The single most important leadership quality, though, is empathy. Your leaders must be able to put themselves in their team members’ shoes and understand problems from their perspective. This is key to fostering the loyalty needed to make the team effective.

Help your team (and your managers) knock it out of the park

There are some real benefits to the player-coach management style, including a simpler organizational structure and fewer overall employees. However, there are also some real challenges to it, particularly the need to juggle roles typically held by two separate people.

Whether your managers prefer a player-coach style or the company is experimenting with it out of necessity, the tips above will help you give these managers the support they need.

When in doubt, remember these words of wisdom from Mr. Ted Lasso himself: "Taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn't it? If you're comfortable while you're doing it, you're probably doing it wrong."

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