Why Great Managers are Coaches, not Star Players.

David Lazarenko

If you are like me, your professional career didn’t start in a management position. Like most managers, I started out as an everyday employee who was responsible for my own performance and not the performance of others. As I improved at what I did, I progressed into new and more challenging roles until eventually I was performing at such a level that someone, somewhere decided I was ready to be a manager. Unfortunately, looking back, a lot of what I learned as an everyday employee was either irrelevant or detrimental to my ability to be a great manager.

As a worker, I learned a lot about dedication, self-discipline, personal development and accountability. I learned about goal setting, pushing my limits, and achieving company success. Ultimately, I learned to do well, to impress and to be a star player for the company.

So, why were these learnings a bad thing? After all, every company needs and wants star players. They get things done, they move you forward, and for some organizations, they can truly be game changers.

The problem isn’t in having or creating star players, it’s in assuming that star players (being so good at what they do) will inherently be good managers.

Before I go any further, I’d like to first clarify Think Shift’s definition of a manager;

“A manager is someone who has been entrusted to steward (preserve, protect and enhance) the critical assets of your company (human, financial and physical).”

The reason I highlight this definition is mainly due to the stewardship responsibility. While many may view a manager as someone who supervises a team of individuals for the purpose of performing/completing a job, the stewardship obligation goes further. Not only does a manager have to get the job done, they also have to be a steward to the individuals they are managing. Even further, it’s not enough that they simply preserve and protect these individuals; they must also work to enhance their assigns along the way (leaving them better off than when they received them).

Let’s get back to the star players. Maybe I was the only one, but once I became a manager, I approached my new role in much the same manner as before. I worked hard, practiced self-discipline and sought personal development. I was accountable to my performance and set goals to push the limits of what the team could achieve. I loved my team and did everything to preserve and protect them. I jumped on grenades, put out fires, and took the blame for any poor performance. I even took on work when my team under delivered. I was ready to be a star player all over again, just this time in a manager role.

However, after about a year I noticed something. I was tired. I had worked more hours than ever before and pushed myself to unreasonable limits. I was doing everything I could to pull the team through, yet seemed to always be facing poor performance. The work I was taking on perpetually increased and I felt as far from a star player as I ever had.

What went wrong? One word: Co-accountability. As a star player I learned to be accountable but not co-accountable. I took responsibility for my performance but didn’t hold others responsible for theirs. For every grenade I jumped on and fire I put out, there was someone on my team responsible who missed the opportunity to own his or her mistake. Every time I took the blame for poor performance, I stole the experience of failure from my team. Every time I did the extra work to get things done, I robbed them of the opportunity to experience the realities of the workload. I was so focused on preserving and protecting that I forgot to enhance. I was so focused on continuing to be a star player, I didn’t realize my role was now to build star players.

Now think about an excellent coach. Are they trying to be the star player, or are they trying to build and enhance the star players? Are they taking all the blame for the losses, or are they shining light on the mistakes and holding the team accountable to fixing them? Are they jumping into the game to take the shot, make the pass, score the goal, or are they coaching their players to be better at doing all three? Are they solely accountable to their own performance, or are they being co-accountable to each and every player on their team and holding them accountable to their individual performance?

There are a lot of qualities that make a manager great, but perfecting the practice of co-accountability through coaching is one of the most critical. One way to help managers be great coaches to their employees is to build a company that embraces the values of teaching and learning. Check out how one of my fellow Think Shifter’s suggests approaching mentorship within your organization.

In his Working Wisdom series, David Lazarenko shares insights and inspiration gathered throughout his 15-year agency career. Through real-life examples and an analysis of industry trends, he offers up practical advice and actionable strategies for marketers.


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