The Tipping Point: When “Player-Coach” Management No Longer Works

There are a number of different management styles. One that I’ve often heard recently is the “Player-Coach” style. In other words, think of a pro basketball player (like Lebron) that plays on the team and also coaches at the same time. A manager that is also responsible for similar targets as their employees.

Image Credit: Maxim

I can see the benefits to the “Player-Coach” model…

  • It’s less expensive than hiring 1 manager (“coach”) and 1 doer (“player”). 2 for the price of 1!
  • There’s a clear career trajectory from Individual Contributor to Manager.
  • Managers are always close enough to the actual work to be able to do the work of the direct report, in case it’s needed.
  • When lots of management isn’t needed, they can turn on their “player hat” to pick up the slack of the team, or support the workload of the other “players”.

That actually all sounds great, in theory, and you can see where that might make sense:

  • Where there is simply too much work for the direct reports to handle.
  • When you have a small team. Say 2–4 people total.
  • When there are inexperienced managers that haven’t yet developed great coaching skills.

I believe there is a time and a place for Player-Coach management. I have been that kind of manager. I used to brag about being that kind of manager. I felt it made me feel more connected to the team. More relevant.

But recently, my thoughts have changed.

The Employee Perspective

Lightbulb Moment: When you know what you want

I was recently interviewing for a job, talking with the hiring manager. I asked her to describe her management style. She said she was a “Player-Coach”.

On the surface, that sounded really nice. Someone that would be willing to dive in and help me out. But I didn’t leave feeling inspired, or with confidence in strong leadership.

Now I know that sounds weird. Who doesn’t want a boss that can do what you do?

A Better Alternative to Player-Coach

Let me clarify. I don’t want managers that do nothing. I want them to be busy working smartly. I want them to enable me do my job better by setting the vision, helping me prioritize. Giving me feedback and insight that I may not have seen. Doing things that I have not ever done. Or things I just frankly cannot do.

Boston Consulting Group published a piece called “The Fallacy of the Player-Coach Model” and made some interesting points:

“Each decision to create a player-coach may seem to make sense individually: player-coaches are often high-performing contributors who are asked to assume managerial responsibilities as a reward, during layoffs, or because a unit does not involve full-time supervision. But within an organization as a whole, player-coaches contribute to corporate bloat and inefficiency.”

To summarize: I do want a manager that has experience doing what I’m doing. But I don’t need a manager that still does all that I’m doing.

Lightbulb Moment: When you know it’s time for a shift

A few years ago I watched my manager speak on stage at a small conference, where there were maybe 20 people in the crowd. He had traveled a long way to get there. Meanwhile, there was so much going on at the office — we were preparing for a big launch and trying to close a big hire. All of those important things he was not doing while he was on stage.

I knew two things to be true at that moment:

  1. This was not the most valuable place for him to be. There were other more important things he could have done, that would have had a larger impact.
  2. There are other people in the organization that could do what he is currently doing, with comparable success. In fact, I knew that I could give that presentation, and do it well. (I had made the slides and delivered the speech a few weeks prior at another event).

When I knew those two things to be true — that’s when I realized it was time for him to move towards “Coach” and leave some of the game to the other players. I respect that he can (and does) play, but it shouldn’t be an expectation.

The Manager Perspective

What Changes?

I’m not suggesting leaders completely remove themselves from the business. Or that they are “above” such tasks as paying bills and spell-checking blog posts. But as teams grow, some things shift. It is a shift in perspective and effort — from being measured on your own personal output, to being measured on the output of your team.

Moving from “Player-Coach” to full “Coach”

There is a tipping point. BCG claims that 8 direct reports is the perfect number for being in a full “Coaching” role.

For me, I felt like my tipping point was at 4 direct reports. I had 60 minute 1:1 meetings per person, every week. I averaged 30 minutes to prep and 30 minutes to do followups. That’s 8 hours each week already dedicated to 1:1s. A whole day helping other people achieve their goals — which was awesome. It just made it harder for me to hit my own performance goals. I was trying to 5 days worth of work in 4 days.

My “Time Allocation” chart looked something like this as an Individual Contributor:

And it morphed into something like this after I had 4 people on my team:

This illustrates an average week, but there were also some non-average weeks. What about every 6–12 months during performance review time? Or when you are developing a business case for promotions or raises for your team? Or when someone’s feelings are hurt and you are in crisis people management? It takes time and attention.

What happens to all the stuff you used to do?

There are a few ways to think about the components of the “player” role:

  1. You hold on to the original IC responsibilities and just increase your average hours per week. (But it’s not sustainable.)
  2. Some of the stuff is distributed between teammates.
  3. You cut some of it entirely because it wasn’t that important anyways.
  4. You hire someone and delegate some of those responsibilities.

Or any combination of these things.

The point is, you have to give something up in order to stay sane and be an effective leader. You have to spend time on “Management Stuff” if you want to be a good manager.

The Player-Coach Continuum

You’ll notice in the time breakdown that I didn’t cut out all of my previous responsibilities entirely (kept 2% of time in some of the channels). While I was no longer playing an active “Player” role in those channels, I was still close to it. Close enough to make an impact and keep a finger on the pulse, but far enough away to empower the new lead to be accountable.

In other words, it’s a continuum and you will slide back and forth on the continuum, as needs change.

The “Player-Coach” Continuum

What happens when your manager moves towards “Coach”?

You step up your game. You grow. You are probably less micro-managed.

You might also have more work, more responsibility. You may have to reprioritize, delegate, or cut things. You have to cover the holes that were left open. You struggle to keep the bar high. It’s hard, but fun. You will likely be more successful.

What you gain is a coach that is (hopefully) communicating goals, managing expectations, and keeping the team moving in the same direction.

Moving towards “Coach”

What happens when you (the manager) moves towards “Coach”?

Everyone on your team grows. You grow into your next role as coach. Your direct reports grow into your role. You see your successor rise up.

You might gain a few pounds (from lack of exercise, if we are keeping with the basketball analogy), but you have 20/20 vision for the first time, and a whole new set of muscles to exercise.

You see things that you didn’t see before — your mind is focused on the health and success of the team, rather than your own score in the game.

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