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The Player Coach Dilemma

Most managers today have two major roles: player and coach. As players, you have to deliver results, attend meetings, and much more. As coaches, you have to develop employees, coach, and up skill your teams in order to increase team performance. This is the player coach dilemma. Where should managers focus when it feels like there's not enough hours in the day?

This reminds me of the challenges we face with the gym (except for people like the Rock who wake up at 4am to eat 3,452 egg whites and pump iron). However, the Rock is not human so no point comparing yourself to him. With the gym many of us struggle. On the one hand we need to go the gym, but we are tired, exhausted, and feel like we don’t have the time. On the other hand, the gym is good for us. It gives us energy, helps us sleep, helps us eat better, and helps us focus. The same problem exists with coaching! We think, "I don’t have time for coaching", but what does coaching do for you? It makes your team more independent, self sufficient, more confident, and more capable which frees you up as a manager to do more.

Why do we get stuck in this trap known as the player coach dilemma? Because we have a hard time balancing short term and long term priorities. Short term is what I need to get done as a player and long term focus is investing in your team so they can do more. It’s easy for me to sit from afar and say focus on the long term. When in reality you are likely focusing on the short term to fight fires and survive. However, the cost of short term focus is we never get out of the vicious cycle and we feel stuck. The only way out is to find time for long term focus. This is not easy to do but it is possible!

In my experience coaching professionals I’ve seen a few extremes. On the one hand there is the extreme player who is the type of manager that thinks I am so good at my job, I am going to focus on that, I am not going to focus on coaching. If my team needs something they will come to me. On the other hand, we have the extreme coach who thinks, "I love coaching, I want to help people so much", and the problem with this group is these coaches can verge on micro management.

What is the secret to coaching and getting out of the player coach dilemma? Coaching is not about quantity, it is about quality. What is the ideal time you should be spending as a player versus coach? There was a HBR survey that found coaches realistically coach only about 9%-10% of the time. The mix of 10% coach and 90% player is a great balance to aim for. But the key is the 10% time you spend as a coach must be high quality time. In the HBR article, Jaime Roca a representative from Gartner said, “there is very little correlation between time spent coaching and employee performance. It’s less about quantity and more about quality.”

Let’s cover four core tips for how you can make your coaching time higher quality time.

1. Listen and Pay Attention. Have you ever been around someone who is constantly distracted by their phone, texting and getting notifications? You may think- "they don’t care about me, I don’t really matter." If you are coaching someone and you are constantly distracted then you are giving them a message- "this doesn’t matter! I don’t care about what you are saying." A small adjustment can go a long way. Eliminate any distractions so you can give the other person your undivided attention. A simple solution is leaving your phone at your desk. It’s scary but you will survive and maybe even thrive without it.

2. Set a Reasonable Amount of Time to Coach and Stick to It. Whether you schedule a 15 minute or 30 minute 1:1 coaching session, stick to it! Make sure you stick to the agreed upon time. Don’t reschedule it or keep pushing it out! If you keep rescheduling your coaching session, you are communicating to your coachee, "this meeting doesn’t matter. You’re not important and I have plenty of other things to do that are way more important." The solution is to stop scheduling regular catch ups if you can’t keep to the appropriate time. You’re better off having random catch ups than constantly re-scheduling. One time change is fine but more than that is a problem.

3. Prepare for at Least Five Minutes. If you go in to your coaching session discombobulated where you feel like you are not sure what you are going to ask, not sure what you are going to discuss then it will come across . Again when you are unprepared and careless it communicates that your coachee does not matter. If you don’t have time to prepare then build the prep into the meeting time. For example, if you have a one hour session scheduled then consider starting the meeting 15 minutes into your scheduled time. Therefore, a 2:00 - 3:00 coaching session will start at 2:15 and you will have from 2:00-2:15 to prepare and 2:15-3:00 to coach. No excuses! Build the prep time into your timeframe if you don’t have time to prepare.

4. Remove interference. One of the best things coaches can do is help remove interference. First, help uncover whatever the interference might be such as bureaucracy, fear, lack of skills, or anything else. Once you figured out the interference then work together to eliminate the interference which is a high quality use of time for both of you.

Again, the key is to focus on quality over quantity when coaching. This will help with the player coach dilemma. I encourage you to find 10% of your time next week and dedicate it toward quality coaching. Pick one or two things you will do to consciously make your coaching sessions more impactful. I would even recommend writing on your to-do list the one or two conscious changes that you will make so there is a higher probability of you following through. Small changes can result in big impacts.

Reference: "Managers Can’t Be Great Coaches All by Themselves" from the May–June 2018 issue (pp.22–24) of Harvard Business Review.

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