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Designing for player-coach leadership

Player-coach leadership often evolves organically as a business grows.

It can create a lot of pressure on your highest performing individuals. By instead designing for this you can set your people up for success and reap the rewards - getting the most out of your teams and your player-coach.

What is a player-coach?

Forbes describes a player-coach as “an individual contributor who also manages the work of other employees”. It is a balance between being a direct contributor and leading a team - for example you might develop new products while also managing the team. This is common in sales and development teams in early stage and start up businesses.

The player-coach leadership style has its origins in team sports. In the early days of organised sports teams the responsibility for guiding the team often fell on the most experienced and knowledgeable player. These players would participate in the game while providing instructions, strategy, and guidance to the team on field and during breaks or timeouts - assuming a dual role as both player and coach.

Why is player coach leadership particularly relevant to early stage businesses?

Typically in early stage businesses founders are excited and driving innovation but resources are limited, infrastructure is often unsophisticated and there is a ticking clock to achieve market validation. This presents unique challenges and the requirement for all team members to have an ‘all hands on deck’ mentality. At these early stages a player-coach brings significant value by combining their expertise as a hands-on participant and a strategic leader.

The benefits of a player-coach leadership style

  1. By leading by example it creates a strong foundation for others

  2. The player coach can fill critical skills gaps that the business is not in a position to hire

  3. Make informed strategic choices based on their experience and being actively involved in the implementation

  4. Communication flows easily

Four steps to designing for player-coach leadership

  1. Hire the right people - hire for the mindset required and for the experience. A player-coach needs to be motivated to grow others and get satisfaction from independent contribution - they need to love their craft. Be open about the need to ‘muck in’ in the interview process, encouraging those who don’t want to do this to self-select out.

  2. Structure - having good structures is crucial to enable the success of a player-coach, as the roles require different mindsets and priorities that can conflict with each other. Managers or coaches primarily focus on supporting the team and implementing strategic plans, while players concentrate on individual execution and tactical aspects of day-to-day work. Without clear and effective structures this juggle can quickly become unmanageable. Ensure you have structures around the core aspects of the role e.g., clear operating rhythms and documented ways of working to reduce the load on the leader.

  3. Clear expectations - create clarity of what it means to be a player-coach in your organisation. Be clear from the very start: how are you wording your job descriptions? Is the applicant clear on their role as a leader and as a doer? Are you clear on how success will be measured? Are your operating rhythms designed to support player-coach roles?

  4. Remuneration - incentives need to reward the behaviours you want to see for example; a reward structure for a sales leader based on the quota capacity of the sales team will not necessarily motivate the sales leader to act as a player. Conversely, a reward structure for a CTO that is based around code shipped will reward only the player behaviour and not the development of the team.

Are player-coach leaders the answer for scaling businesses?

Maybe. Effective player-coach leaders are invaluable in early stages but as the business gets bigger and the roles get more specialised the challenge then becomes the player-coach leader evolving to a ‘coach’ only role. The sport analogy helps us a lot here, you no longer can be on the field, you need to drive success through others and therefore you need to get paid for your strategic and tactical thinking and actions. This requires a different mindset. So it’s key to understand what stage your business is at and develop a hiring strategy to match.

Be deliberate and design for this role in your organisation.

Create clarity for the individual(s) that play in this role and be clear about when they need to ‘get off the field’. However, don’t isolate the individual. Good coaches are always surrounded by senior players, management, administration, mentors, captains and others to create sustainable long term success.

Written by Pip Spyksma
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