(June 2003) The position of player-coach is an exalted one in sports. Bill Russell, Pete Rose, Lou Boudreau and Doug Harvey are some of the big names from the past who at one point simultaneously played for and coached their teams. Lenny Wilkins, familiar to us from his years behind the Toronto Raptors bench, started his coaching career while still playing for the Seattle SuperSonics from 1969 to 1972.
The player-coaches were all gifted athletes, but they also had something extra — leadership ability and an understanding of the game that allowed them to mentor, coach and direct their colleagues. In the heat of competition, they could play intently, focusing on what it took to excel, yet also calculate strategy and figure out how to fine-tune their lineup to pull out a victory. They could win with their athletic skills. They could win with their brains.
It’s an appropriate model for advisors, because so many are player-coaches. The best advisors do and coach at the same time. They carry their own client load, giving investment advice, building relationships and gaining referrals that help them to build their book. And they inspire and coach their staff, be it associates, assistants or fellow advisors.
They are part of the gang, yet they are apart from the gang, which is probably the first delicate issue for any player-coach to grapple. They have to know how to balance the twin elements of colleague and boss implicit in the dual role.
They have to learn to lead not from the top but from beside. That can be difficult, since it requires a more muted leadership style. But it can also be highly effective, because the staff can see the capabilities of the advisor-coach and know they are working just as hard.
In The Southwest Airlines Way (McGraw-Hill), Brandeis University professor Jody Hoffer Gittell lauds the airline’s supervisors, whom she calls player-coaches since they have management authority but also perform the work of frontline employees in a company that succeeds through an enviable degree of teamwork. “Working side by side with frontline employees is conducive to building shared goals with them, and to developing the credibility and knowledge needed for effective coaching,” she notes.
In The Cycle of Leadership (Harper Collins), Noel Tichy, a professor at the University of Michigan Business School, makes the point that leaders must be teachers. But he emphasizes a special kind of teaching — two-way or interactive, in which the teacher is also learning from the student. Again, that is more likely to happen from the player-coach model, because it’s a more informal, connected style of leadership where sharing is more natural.
So if you are an advisor-coach, ask yourself what you have taught in the last few months, and what you have learned. Has there been significant learning on both sides of that equation? What will you be trying to teach in the next three months — and to whom? How can you open yourself up better to being taught by your colleagues?
Tichy says all leaders need a “teachable point of view” — a cohesive set of ideas and concepts they are able to articulate clearly to others. To develop that point of view, you must dig deep and sort through your tacit knowledge — the knowledge that you don’t really know you know — to understand what principles guide you. Then you must craft those into explicit teaching concepts that can be conveyed through stories and other teaching methods. “Developing a teachable point of view is an iterative process of wallowing in reality, self-reflection, writing things down and testing them out,” Tichy says.
A player-coach can win the game by scoring him- or herself, figuring out a clever move or by helping somebody else to make the big play. Similarly, smart advisor-coaches can leverage their talents by understanding their unique role and delivering on it.