Leaders should decide if they want to be players or coaches 

Add value to your team, instead of destroying it!

When I had just been appointed in my first proper line management role, I decided to organize an offsite with my team. The purpose of this offsite was to finalize the development of a number of HR policies and processes. 

Around 11 o’clock in the first morning, in a characterless conference room in the basement of the conference center, we completed our first round of brainstorming. When the time came to write up the output of our first session in a flow chart format, I said I wanted to use a specific methodology I had used as a management consultant, and would be happy to do the write-up. 

One of my direct reports looked disappointed, because she wanted to create the flowcharts herself, but a colleague of hers consoled her, and said: ‘Sure, if Dirk knows how to do it and has a strong passion for it, why do we not let him do so?’ The others agreed, and they left the room to leave me to it. 

I spend the next 1.5 hours working on my own in the aforementioned characterless conference room in the basement. When I was ready I went upstairs to look for my team. I found them on the terrace, enjoying the sun, cappuccinos, orange juice, and each other’s company.

Fortunately enough they thought my work was ok… 

Do it yourself?

A lot of leaders frequently want to do the work of their direct reports. They have a variety of reasons for this, including

  • Output – They think they can do the work better or faster than their team. And the truth is that sometimes they can, especially if their content knowledge and experience was the reason why they were appointed in their position in the first place.
  • Passion – They like to do the work themselves. A couple of years ago I managed a HR function in which I was responsible for an IT project. For this project, I hired a team of consultants. My job was to manage the project from a content, progress and budget point of view. However, I can still remember how jealous I was of the consultants. They could do the interesting creative work; my role was ‘limited’ to manage their progress and budget.  
  • Importance – They consider the work mission-critical, and think their leaders hold them personally responsible for a successful outcome (in the German language this is called a ‘Chefsache’). 

However tempting, doing the work of your team is rarely a good idea, for the following reasons:

  • Team performance – One of the most powerful ways in which individuals develop themselves is by doing ‘stretch assignments’ – i.e. operating on the fringes of their know-how and abilities. Through these experiences they become more effective in their work. This increased effectiveness enhances not only their individual performance, but also the performance of the team they are a part of.
  • Motivation – Most people want to develop themselves in their work. By limiting the opportunity for them to do so, e.g. by undertaking these stretch assignments, their motivation is likely to suffer.
  • Efficiency – Leaders are appointed to lead – not to do the work of their staff. The time they spend doing the work of their staff, is time they cannot spend on leadership activities, such as setting the strategy for their team and stakeholders.

Soccer

Let me illustrate this with an analogy from the sports world.

In professional soccer you are either a coach, coaching your team from the side, or you are a player in the field. As a coach, you cannot occasionally enter the field during a match, start playing with your team, leave the field again, and, a little later, reenter the field to play again.

However, let’s do a thought experiment, and assume what would happen if a coach would actually do this.

The first thing that would happen is that the coach, due to his hierarchical position, would receive all the important balls from the team, and quickly would become physically exhausted. The second thing that would happen is that the players would become insecure and think the coach did not trust them. Therefore they would be likely to play even more balls to the coach for fear of making mistakes. 

The end result will be a physically extremely tired coach, who would also be likely to be frustrated by the lack of initiative of his players (‘Do I need to do everything here myself?’). 

At the same time his team would not feel ownership for the results anymore, instead they would (rightfully) blame their coach if they lost.

Add value to your team, instead of destroying it

The key role of leaders is to add value to their teams. From a practical perspective, this includes, amongst others, doing three things.

  • Infrastructure – Provide the team with the right resources to do their work (e.g IT tools and access to information), and enable people to get on with their work by removing unnecessary bureaucracy. Strange as it may sound, it is one of the things employees appreciate most in their leaders.
  • Motivation – Motivate the team by catching them when they are doing things right and express your belief in them.
  • Goals – Finally, and most importantly, articulate what you expect from them. Too many leaders might know what good looks like, but are completely incapable to communicate this to their teams. Instead, they can only critique the deliverables of their teams. ‘This is not what I am looking for’ is a clear statement, but not a very helpful one…  

Never say never

Of course, there are always situations when a leader should step in. For instance if the performance of a team or project is posing serious issues, if there are serious conflicts in the team or if a particular issue is truly a ‘Chefsache’. However, as the Dutch saying goes: ‘exceptions confirm the rule’.

“Only do what only you can do.”― Paul Sloane

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