How to Be an Effective Player-Coach at Work

How to Be an Effective Player-Coach at Work
Facebook Twitter Email LinkedIn

What Exactly Is a Player-Coach at Work?

The origin of the term player-coach refers to a member of a sports team who simultaneously holds both playing and coaching duties. In fact, the first six Baseball World Series were won by a player-coach and Bill Russell won two NBA titles as a player-coach for the Boston Celtics.  Although the practice is mostly extinct in sports, many companies today expect their managers — especially their first-level managers — to be an effective player-coach at work.

The Pressure to Get Your Own Project Work Done While Ensuring that Your Team Delivers
While many pundits believe that people can’t perform both roles well, corporations continue to believe that high performing and high potential employees can, at the same time, operate as an effective individual producer and people leader simultaneously.  These hybrid player-coaches must straddle getting their own project work done while at the same time ensuring that their team performs at their peak.  Wearing both hats at work is not always easy.

The Top Challenge for People Managers
Over the decades, we have asked thousands of people managers n our new manager training programs to list their biggest challenges.  In the last thirty years, being a player-coach at work has been listed in the top five.

When we ask managers to describe what being a player-coach means to them, they talk about managing project teams while also accomplishing project tasks, managing sales teams while also having a personal sales quota, and stocking store shelves while also serving customers.  While the practice of assigning players as coaches can create great efficiencies, it also poses unique challenges.

You need to make sure that the player-coach model makes sense in your company and each individual situation.

What Organizations Expect from Managers
When we ask business leaders about management, they tell us that they expect managers to do three things well:

  1. Strategy
    Understand, clarify, and operationalize organizational strategies to deliver the desired results.
  2. Culture
    Assess your current organizational culture to see where you stand.  Then invest the time and effort to create a healthy corporate culture and high performing culture for people to perform at their peak over time.
  3. Talent
    Attract, develop, engage, and retain the top talent required execute against priorities in a way that makes sense to both the overall strategy and the desired corporate culture.

It can be challenging for player-coaches to excel at team strategies, culture, and talent responsibilities when they also have individual contributor assignments of their own. The reason that sports team have all but eliminated the dual role raises some concerns for player-coaches in business.  The NBA found that player-coaches couldn’t do their job adequately as coach.

When Being a Player-Coach at Work Can Make Sense
Done right, the idea of leaders acting as both an individual contributor and a manager can flatten organizational hierarchies, improve communications, speed up decision-making, and take advantage of technical and subject matter expertise. The player-coach role can make sense when:

  • Teams are Small and Aligned
    You have a small team of only two to four direct reports, and the team’s goals and roles are crystal clear, agreed upon, plans are explicitly aligned with overall company priorities, and the player–coach has deep expertise that is relevant to the success of the team.
  • People Must Step Up
    You undergo team restructurings or layoffs where people need to take on extra tasks to keep the wheels moving over a short period of time.
  • Teams are Self-Sufficient
    Your teams are highly self-directed and mostly autonomous and do not require much supervision.  The manager as a player-coach becomes unwieldy when managers must deliver work as a player over 50 percent of the time.  Managers must be able effectively lead, manage, and coach their teams before they are overwhelmed with personal deliverables.
  • Bench Strength is Strong
    You invest enough in the development of individual contributor bench strength so that managers can confidently delegate tasks to provide the time to be an effective coach.
  • Performance Management, Rewards, and Recognition Are Aligned
    You proportionately model, develop, measure, reward, and recognize the team performance associated with the “coach” side of the player-coach model. If you expect more from your player-coaches, treat and support them accordingly.

How to Set Up Your Player-Coaches for Success
Here are some aspects of the player-coach scenario to consider if you want to make sure your doer-managers are operating at an optimum level and guiding their team to ever higher levels of performance:

  • Strategy — Be Clear
    Our organizational alignment research found that strategic clarity accounts for 31% of the difference between high and low performing teams. If you want your player-coaches to succeed, be crystal clear about how they and their team contribute to the overall success of the organization, how their success and failure will be measured, and what priorities matter most.

    Recognize that something must give with player-coaches as they try to balance their own deliverables and the needs of their team.  Provide the context for them to prioritize strategic initiatives, make smart trade-offs, and make difficult decisions across teams, projects, and resources.

    Invest the time to put a process in place for teams to constantly review and re-prioritize projects, re-assess scope, quality, and timelines, and re-balance work among team members to play to strengths and capacity.

    Do not make the mistake of assuming that managers or their direct reports will ask for – or know – when they need help.  Check in regularly and create an environment where asking for help is easy, supported, and expected.

  • Culture — Get Aligned
    Culture, the way work gets done, accounts for a whopping 40% of the difference between high and low performance.  Once the strategic context is set, your next step is to ensure that:

    (1) your workplace culture is healthy enough in terms of leadership, trust, capability, and climate

    (2) performance-oriented enough in terms of performance expectations, rewards, and consequences

    (3) aligned enough in terms of the way that work gets done across ten dimensions of an aligned culture

  • Talent — Build Skills
    Don’t automatically reward high performing contributors with the title and role of manager unless you are certain they have the range of supervisory competencies, workload management expertise, relationship management acumen, and delegation skills needed to succeed.

    Not all individuals make good managers, much less good player-coaches.  As one client put it, “some people are just better at being player-players.”

    Whenever possible, measure and invest in employees’ potential for leadership roles to better predict and confirm readiness for key roles in a way that minimizes personal preferences and unconscious bias.

The Bottom Line
We know from people manager assessment center data that most managers struggle to find the right balance between managing and doing. Too much “managing” does not always produce visible results or leverage subject matter expertise, and too much “doing” does not always help to scale you or your team to the next level of performance. Are your player-coaches set up for success?

To learn more about being a better player-coach, download 3 Must-Have Ingredients of High Performing Teams for New Managers

Evaluate your Performance


Get key strategy, culture, and talent tools from industry experts that work


Health Checks

Assess how you stack up against leading organizations in areas matter most



Download published articles from experts to stay ahead of the competition



Review proven research-backed approaches to get aligned



Stay up to do date on the latest best practices that drive higher performance


Client Case Studies

Explore real world results for clients like you striving to create higher performance