When reading job descriptions, I’m sure you’ve come across the term “player-coach” more than once. It’s a designation that employers use for positions that have management authority but are also expected to get their hands dirty on some day-to-day work. Seems reasonable, right? Especially when you’re talking about the junior-management levels where employees are in a team lead role, mentoring and managing others, but still doing the job themselves.
One thing that I find interesting about the term “player-coach” is that although it’s obviously based in sports it’s not something that I’ve EVER seen on an actual sports team. In sports, you’re either a player or a coach. Going back to my earliest sports memories - from toddler soccer leagues to little league baseball to high school football - we had players and we had coaches. But we never had a player-coach.
Businesses, however, have adopted a very different mentality. They have fully embraced the idea of a manager who isn’t too managerial to roll up his/her sleeves, and a front-line worker who is capable of thinking strategically. Two birds with one stone! Or more specifically, two jobs with one salary.
This hybrid role can be a great opportunity for employees and employers alike, but it’s not without its challenges. In its best format, it’s a way for star individual contributors to move into management without completely being removed from their comfort zones. It gives them a chance to lead by example, to grow into role models, and to develop their management style all while still getting to work in the area of their greatest strength. At the same time, the employer gets to bring a superstar into management ranks and mold him/her in the company’s image, while not overpaying for a more experienced manager if that’s not what they need. In this situation it’s a great arrangement for both the employee and the company, but lately I’m seeing more and more examples where the player-coach position is not being used quite as effectively.
As companies are bouncing back from recent recession woes, they are starting to hire and organize staff with the intention of doing more with less. Especially in small and mid-sized companies, executive level positions are being asked to pitch in at the line level, and junior and mid-level managers are being given increasing responsibility and autonomy - regardless of whether they’re ready for it. This can present problems for both parties – companies are having a harder time finding the right talent, and employees are having a harder time succeeding in these roles. It’s very tempting for employers to hire too senior or too junior for the role they need to fill, and both have serious risks. Going too senior, you risk making a hire that is not going to remain engaged and effective in the line-level work and will either leave for greener pastures or under-perform. If you hire too junior you run the risk of giving your new hire decision making authority and autonomy that s/he’s not ready for, which can lead to poor strategic decisions and a loss of morale – both of which can have serious negative effects on the overall organization.
So what’s a company to do? First and foremost, be honest and upfront. If you’re hiring for a player-coach role, emphasize and stress the nature of the role to your candidates. If someone seems too senior or managerial, dig deeply in your interviews to find out if they really are. Then go with your gut. Even though a candidate might seem perfect “if only there was less execution involved” then don’t make the hire. These roles should be a stretch for the person you’re hiring, but an achievable one. In today’s job market, lots of candidates are making compromises to find a solid job with a solid company. But these same employees will jump ship at the first opportunity for more of a “real” management job.
And if you’re a job seeker, how do you navigate this territory? First, be honest with yourself. If a job seems like a step down, or feels too junior for you, don’t take it just because it’s a job. There will be more. And wouldn’t you rather wait for the next one than spend the rest of your career explaining your bad choice? Conversely, if you’re more of a player than a coach, be realistic about how much of a stretch is appropriate for you. Never managed a budget before? Then that multi-million dollar one in the job description might not be for you.
For recruiters, hiring managers, and job seekers – ask questions. In the interview; after the interview; throughout the entire process. Make sure that you know what you’re getting into, and that it’s the right thing for you. Too many bad hires are made because of wishful thinking instead of thorough investigation.
The role of the player-coach might be right for you, but “might be” isn’t enough. Know for sure before making a decision you might regret.