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The player-coach style of leadership


In the latest article in this Challenging Coaching series, Ian Day describes the 'player-coach' approach to leadership which balances 'doing' with developing others and delegating. So, how can leaders apply a coaching approach in their day-to-day activities?

The art of leadership is a challenging task. There are many demands and time constraints on leaders that mean they don’t have one to two hours to dedicate to coaching like an external executive coach. Instead, the leader must catch 10 to 20 minute conversations with multiple direct reports to maximise the effectiveness of the individual, team, and organisation. A leader needs a strong basis for making decisions and a coaching approach provides this framework.

The player-coach challenge

Before going further there is an 'elephant in the room' which needs to be addressed. Many line managers are sceptical about coaching and objections that are typically voiced include:

  • 'I haven’t got the time.'
  • 'My bonus is not linked to developing people.'
  • 'Where would I start—my team, my boss, my clients?'
  • 'I don’t have a team.''
  • 'I haven’t got the confidence/skills to do this.'
  • 'It won’t work.'
  • 'Even if I believed in this, my company culture will not support it.'
  • 'How do I do this in an open-plan office, or remotely, or in 15 minutes on the phone?'

When digging underneath these objections, there is often a belief that 'my job is to deliver business results, not develop people.' Often leaders are recruited to drive performance through a business, to deliver financial results and maximise return on investment. Also consider a typical career progression - young people are initially appointed into a 'doing' role because of their strong technical ability, their success then leads to career progression into supervisory, managerial, and leadership roles. The technical expertise that originally attracted them into a profession is no longer so important; planning, strategy, and coordinating become more appropriate. The 'doers' become 'managers'. Holding on to the desire to 'do' precludes having the space and time to manage, plan for the future, and create strategies, all of which are essential for sustainable business growth.

Consider a player versus a coach on the sports field. A sporting coach is sat on the sidelines during the game, responsible for building the best team, developing the skills of individuals, and determining the strategy for each game. The player is on the field, in the game making a direct immediate contribution with the glory of scoring or setting up the goal.

"There are many benefits of moving more towards the coaching end of the scale: more time to plan, prepare, think ahead, and over time growing a sustainable resourceful self-sufficient team, all of which leads to greater individual and business performance."

So we have two roles, the player or the coach. But there is a third way; the player-coach. Moving away from the direct contact of the game to become a coach is often too much in one leap. In a similar way, when business professionals are promoted they sometimes struggle to know whether to stay as a “player” or become a “hands-off” manager. However the player-coach is an alternative. The player-coach is on the sports field interacting with the other players, is in direct contact with the opposition while still managing others. In this hybrid role, the player-coach is also planning the strategy for the game and developing the team.

Consider a continuum, with 100% player at one end and 100% coach at the other. As a leader think where you would place yourself on this spectrum? Is your role much more hands-on, servicing clients, managing transactions? If so, you may place yourself between 80% to 100% player. Alternatively, you could be balancing activities in which you are activity involved with delegated tasks and the management of teams and co-ordination of projects. If so you may place yourself around 50:50. Now you have a start point. Now consider what it would be like if you where 10% more towards the coach end of the continuum. This is not asking for a huge pendulum swing in style, but a slight adjustment. There are many benefits of moving more towards the coaching end of the scale: more time to plan, prepare, think ahead, and over time growing a sustainable resourceful self-sufficient team, all of which leads to greater individual and business performance. The downsides include the upfront investment of time to support the development of others, but the greatest barrier is often moving out of a comfort zone into something new and letting go of control.

This 10% move towards coaching involves small changes in behaviour. This could be using a 'coaching' approach to help a person solve a problem by asking, 'what could you do?' or 'what worked in the past?' The alternative is to take the problem off the person and solve it for them. The downside of this approach is that the individual will never learn how to solve the problem for themselves and will come back next time for a similar solution. If in doubt, don't tell, ask an open question out of curiosity to increase awareness. Increased awareness leads to increased resourcefulness and greater success.

As with the development of any new skill, this change of style requires practice. We are in the 'laboratory of learning' so let's experiment and observe the reaction. Small successes lead to increased confidence and willingness to do more. If there is a powerful vision of a successful future with a clear personal benefit, anything is possible.

The idea of the player-coach allows the leader to apply a coaching approach in 10 to 20-minute focused bursts as an integrated element of their day-to-day business activities. This approach may be more understandable and accessible for many business leaders.

Ian Day and John Blakey are authors of "Challenging Coaching: going beyond traditional coaching to face the FACTS” published in April 2012 by Nicholas Brealey publishing and available on Amazon. To download a free chapter please click here 

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