Player > Coach > Mngr > Exec < Operator

Consolidating roles. We hear about this all the time in so many facets of the business world. In some cases such as startups it totally makes sense. You have founders and no one else, so everyone scrubs the toilet, and does the marketing, and codes the app, and does the books. However, we have accepted certain levels of differentiation and segmentation as we scale any organization. We know we need an expert technologist. We know we need a true finance person. Maybe next we need a pro at marketing. Someone to own Human Resources, and product, and heck maybe eventually we hire designers, writers, and system administrators along the way, too.

Still there is resistance to segmentation. In my world of designers we talk about “unicorns” who can do everything any designer could possibly ever need or want to do in a single person: visual design, interaction design, information architecture, front-end programming, usability testing, generative research, etc. In this way, its a concerted effort to reduce headcount and economize.

Another version of this is hiring the “Player-Coach”. Someone whom we give the title of Manager to, but we still expect a high percentage of their work time to being a reliable and valuable member of the production team. At a previous job I had a VP who interviewed me for a Strategy Leadership position and said, “Well, I expect all my team to still code.” I should have taken that as a sign, but he wasn’t my direct supervisor. But my supervisor who was a veteran leader in his own right was playing almost as much as he was coaching or managing. He was great at both.

That said, it had its issues, too. The issue though isn’t whether someone can do both. Of course, I can be a great individual contributor AND a great manager/leader. The issue is in that it is incredibly difficult to do both at the same time in the limited bandwidth that is human capacity after eating, sleeping, and human contact is added to the equation (and even if they aren’t). First off, managing is not just coaching. It isn’t just mentoring. Managing is a lot more than that. And this brings me to the 3 layers of leadership in an organization:

When you are leading craft, you can play and coach at that level pretty easily, but managers have other responsibilities. They are responsible for more than just coaching. They are responsible for setting the stage and keeping that stage clean that allows individual contributors to have successful performances. This is a whole lot of time consuming tasks usually focused on peer relationships and with stakeholders. When someone is a player-coach what I have seen is that management is what falls through the cracks.

There are plenty of ppl who understand the issues surrounding the integrated player-coach. It is argued often. Less argued is when executive design leaders are also asked to manage the stage in front of their team when their focus should be on the statecraft as described above. In my example of my former supervisor above. He was actually a Director without any managers working for him. This means he was responsible for all 3 types of leadership. Honestly, as much as he was awesome, this is was too much.

A new type of role being concatenated is the Director/VP with a DesignOps professionals. An exec has a huge set of Statecraft and often Stagecraft issues, but ultimately they area also responsible for their team’s operations, too. This is a level of statecraft that few organizations design at least once o give their teams autonomy and a sense of self-ownership.

Today I had the pleasure of coaching a VP at an investment company. Their world sounds like it is crumbling and being built up at the same team. They feel overwhelmed and honestly negligent. Their organization has tasked them to lead the vision and strategy of the organization and make sure that her managers all have the operational machine that they can use to quickly set up and maintain the stages they need for their teams to be successful. They are finding that they are spread too thin and are letting their leadership team down again and again and nothing on the operational side is able to move towards completion.

Of course, this person is not allowed to get a new hire. It is expected that they have to be the leader for everything. I inquired whether she felt like anyone in her leadership team had the skills and interest in taking on “running and maintaining the machine” while they focused on “steering and investing/feeding the machine”. They said yes, and no. What they have noticed is that within their leadership team there are a few people who each are interested in different parts of the machine (so to speak). One person is interested in onboarding and has already been leading in the creation of onboarding documentation. Another person is interested in tools and workflow and has been leading in that area, too.

My response to their answer was “GREAT!” This is even better. Now you don’t have to give the burden of DesignOps onto a single “Chief of Staff” or “Dir of DesignOps”. Their entire leadership team can share the load of operations (for now).

Making this work longer term requires doing more. We also discussed that it isn’t just about getting the work done, but it is also about ritualizing the roles and the activities associated with the roles so all involved in her organization and who use her organization know the new system. This means having official communications pointing to leaders of their specific areas. It means calling out their topics and calling on them during all-hands meetings, so they get a spotlight on their leadership regularly. Other forms of events and comms can work together to make this real for all involved.

In the end, the point is that scaling roles and responsibilities is hard work. you need to move forward so that. you don’t abandon the needs of your team, but you need to do so in a way where concatenated roles doesn’t lead to diluted quality. The needs are real and they need real attention with different types of expertise.

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