Why the player/coach model fails

Originally shared to the Design Dept. newsletter

Ah, the beloved “you can make and manage” model. As much as I want to believe in this as a sustainable approach (I love both too!), for most organizations, it is not. And the leaders who try to take it on, aren’t typically set up for success.

Where this model fails
The thing with the player/coach model is that it’s often the highest performing individual contributors who are asked to assume management responsibilities. The reasons behind this vary, but they’re rarely in the interest of the person assuming the additional responsibilities. In some organizations, they even justify it by saying that’s the only way you can build trust with your future reports. Yikes.

The thing is, most folks in this position end up trying to do it all and find themselves failing. Not because they’re bad at it, but because it’s a pretty impossible situation.

This role asks someone to go deep into their existing projects, which includes heads down time to make, lots of cross-functional conversations, relationship building across teams, and more. On top of that, they’re asked to take on career and performance management for several other individuals which also require one-on-one time, critiques, potentially more additional cross-functional meetings, roadmapping, and more.

You see the issue? While in theory one may have the skills to do both, we rarely have the time to do them well.

And trust me, I spend the majority of my conversations with leaders (of all levels) talking about prioritization and time management. It’s not a strength in most organizations.

When is this model appropriate?
I believe there are a few instances where this model can work.

  1. Trying on management. One of the best ways to decide which path you want to go down — individual contributor or manager — is to “try on” some new responsibilities. It’s easy to take on more maker responsibilities, but hard to do the management stuff without actually being someone’s manager. So, the player/coach model can be an interesting interim role (six month to one year) for someone to experiment with their career path. The way to succeed here is to get support in growing those management skills (hi), rigorous prioritization, and learning to effectively delegate.
  2. Small teams and scope. This can possibly work with a small team (less than 3 reports) working on the same area of focus with limited scope. It does require hyper awareness and really strategic planning, but it’s possible in a really focused scope. The challenge is that it’s really hard to move up the leadership ladder in this role because your scope of impact is inherently limited. So to move up, you may have to break out of this role.

What do I do if I’m in this model and want to get out?
Well the first step is knowing which branch you want to take — maker or manager. Both have really important roles, and need to exhibit great leadership skills. But the way you get there is different. So take stock for yourself:

  • Which activities and responsibilities give you the most energy?
  • What areas or growth interest you the most? (Because we’re more likely to stick to the hard path of learning if it actually interests us.)
  • Where do you see room for impact on the team? (The reality is, sometimes there isn’t a business need for certain roles. So notice where there’s opportunity.)
  • What would you be willing to let go of?

Once you have a better idea of how you’d like to progress in your career, it’s time to speak to your manager about a transition plan. Most managers should be excited to help you create even more impact over time, even if it means doing some organizational redesigning.

Mia Blume is the CEO of Design Dept., an organization that offers leadership development for designers, by designers. Join her and her team in real talk around the challenges we face as leaders today at upcoming workshops:

Design Leadership Coach + CEO at Design Dept. Founder of Within. Previous leader at Pinterest, Square and IDEO.