From Player to Coach: Being a Boss isn’t So Easy

March 10, 2014


Here’s a fact for all you young and aspiring bosses out there - being the boss isn’t easy. The so-called promotion from player to coach is one of the toughest transitions you will make in your career. The reason I say “so-called” promotion is because the move to boss isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. It’s one thing to be great at doing what you do, it’s another thing entirely to be great at working through others to get the job done.

One of the greatest challenges new bosses face is the aura of their star power. Most promotion decisions rely solely on one criterion for advancement into management: being great at what you do. The problem with this practice is that being a star player doesn’t often translate into being a great coach. Consider the fact that it’s rare to find a great coach in American sports who was also a great player, or even a decent player for that matter. Keep in mind neither Pete Carroll, head coach of the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks nor Eric Spoelstra, head coach of the reigning NBA champion Miami Heat ever played professionally.

The tendency in the business world to promote star players can be quite a burden for both the new manager and their former colleagues who are now subordinates, because the expectations are often too high. Throughout my career I have spent a lot of time working with young managers on the transition from player to coach, so for those ready to make the leap, here are some of the lessons I’ve picked up along the way:

Take a Hard Look in the Mirror. All too often, I come across managers who haven’t fully dealt with past experiences and failures that left them scarred which have now become an integral part of how they view and manage others. Dealing with the past isn’t always easy, but it’s a critical life skill. The fact is, you have to know yourself before you can effectively manage others. The way you manage is a reflection of your personality, values, and upbringing. Take the time to think about how your life journey has shaped the way you manage and make decisions. The idea is to put your best foot forward and do it in a deliberate way.

Educate Yourself. Decades of surveys have found that most people leave their jobs because of bad managers. The unfortunate reality is most managers never receive any kind of meaningful management training. Managing people is both an art and a skill. There is no doubt some people are naturally more adept at leading others, but the basic skills for managing people are very trainable and it’s up to you to seek out that training. Start by inquiring about the training opportunities available in-house and then look to external programs and coaches to fill the gaps. At the outset, focus on communication, decision-making, and conflict management.

Lean Back. The word “delegation” has almost become synonymous with management and for good reason. When moving to the role of boss, your responsibility is no longer just to yourself, it’s to your team. Managing is not about doing the work, it’s about making sure the work gets done. A challenge I often come across with new managers is their temptation to fall back on doing the work themselves as opposed to developing their team members to do the work. Be proactive in stepping back and staying out of the trenches. If you spend too much time working alongside your team, your team members you will quickly lose sight of the bigger picture and you will also become less available to those team members who need your guidance.

Great coaches identify the strengths of their players, work to draw them out, and then position those players in a way that will leverage those strengths for the benefit of the team. They are chess players, focused on strategy and always looking to control the board. Great managers, just as great coaches, thrive on working through people to achieve outcomes. Their gratification comes from choreographing the successful performance of their stars, not being the star.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Kim Paulen