In the sporting world the separation of duties between the coach and the players on the team is pretty clear. The players play, the coaches coach the players. For professional sports there is also the general manager who handles the business end of things for the team, neither playing nor coaching. We have adopted the metaphor, language and some habits of sports coaching into the non-sporting business world. The coach role within management is gaining popularity. This is because organizations are increasingly realizing that developing people, helping groups work in teams and giving regular in-game rather than only end-of-game feedback, are all winning business practices.
However many team leaders, supervisors and managers who put on the coach hat find it is not immediately a great fit. There are some differences between sports teams and business teams to consider if we want our managers to be successful coaches. Here are three such differences.
1. Coach as player. The sports team coach does not play in the game. The manager-as-coach often does. In a game of competitive sports, the referee would immediately stop the game if the coach were to run out onto the field and join the match. This is not allowed, or is it within the role of the coach. While coaches may have been athletes in the past, their place as coach during a game is on the sidelines. But what about the manager or team leader as coach? More often than not, they are part of the working team with day-to-day projects, tasks and responsibilities that are substantially similar to, if not overlapping with, those of their team. In some cases they may need to cover for an employee or team member who is absent, stepping onto the field of play, so-to-speak. This is a major difference from sports that should be considered when modeling the manager’s coaching. Specifically, when does a manager-as-coach “score a goal” by directly solving a problem, making a decision or performing a task, rather than giving guidance and leaving it the team to figure out? The answer is, “It depends.”
2. Visibility of team in action. Sports team coaches can easily observe players in action, both during practice and play. The business team coach can only do this easily if the team works on a physical process within the same space, free of walls and view blockers. This sounds a lot like a production line or perhaps a call center. Any type of creative or knowledge work, service jobs that require independent work or travel to job sites, are nearly impossible for coaches to observe teams in action. What this means is that unlike the sports team that practices and plays together in open spaces and gives coaches frequent and visible indications of performance and development, the business team coach has to work extra hard to find coachable moments. Any method or practice that makes the status and progress of work, short of video surveillance, is welcome. Much of lean management focuses on setting up and using effective visuals, for this reason.
3. Will and desire. Sports team coaches enjoy coaching and are almost never drafted into it reluctantly. Business team coaches may enjoy coaching, but are more likely to be managers who never signed up to be coaches and found themselves in that role as a result of some newfangled business excellence program. Coaching requires a set of skills that may be different than the one that got the manger to the position they enjoy today. At first, being a coach can be an awkward and uncomfortable experience for both sides, like a coach who runs onto the field and kicks the goal, or the manager who forces herself to answer the team member’s every question with, “Well, what do you think?” If the will and desire to lead as a coach through people development and team empowerment is not there, it can be worse than awkward. Coaching can be great fun but the will and desire must be there.
How can business team coaches succeed in their role? The first step is to get a coach or role model. It often helps to reflect on the best coaching, advice or mentoring experiences one has received from a boss or teacher or coach. What did they do or say? How did it affect me positively? Why? How can I give my team members similar positive interactions? The sports coach is not a perfect metaphor for business leadership, as illustrated by the three gaps above. But it is worth studying the best and worst habits of top coaches. The key is not to be too stuck on the term “coach” but rather to think about the outcome desired from that role, within the constraints and realities of the business team and work environment.