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Lessons From Leaders Who Love Getting Their Hands Dirty

Mark Murphy | Forbes

Posted: 3/06/18

Lessons From Leaders Who Love Getting Their Hands Dirty

If you’re an individual contributor who also manages the work of other employees, you’re what is called a Player-Coach. It’s a very different kind of leadership model than what usually gets talked about, although ironically, Player-Coach is one of the most commonly employed leadership models.

Player-Coaches abound in large organizations as well as in very small teams that don’t warrant a full-time manager. Assigning the role of Player-Coach to high performers provides a taste of management and makes a worthy performance reward. The hybrid role of Player-Coach is also a smart approach to easing new managers into the job. But whatever the scenario, dividing your time between these two very different roles, each with a unique set of demanding responsibilities, and doing both jobs well, isn’t always easy.

If you’re a Player-Coach but you spend too much time helping and supervising your staff, you’re just a coach who can’t get your individual work done. You can be a coaching leader without any individual-contributor responsibilities, and that’s great, but that’s a very different kind of leadership model.

Alternatively, and this is where most Player-Coaches go wrong, if you spend too much time on your individual tasks, you can’t properly manage your team. You’re just an independent contributor. And while that’s great, it’s not fulfilling the "coach" part of the Player-Coach Model.

By the way, if you’re thinking that this means that you need to do a better job of tracking your time, you’re probably right. In the past few months, more than 7,000 people have taken the free online test “How Do Your Time Management Skills Stack Up?” And one of the 12 questions asks respondents to choose between the following options:

  • On most days, time flies by and I don’t track where I spend every minute or hour.
  • I regularly track my time (whether manually or with software) so I know exactly where my time goes throughout the day.

Unfortunately, only a small portion (31%) are actively tracking their time while more than two-thirds (69%) are not. And as you might imagine, if you’re not actually tracking where your time goes, you might be poorly balanced between "player" and "coach" activities (and not even know it).

Studying examples of successful Player-Coaches is helpful in understanding how much you should engage with employees, tapping into their great ideas, getting them emotionally attached to the work and inspiring them to produce great stuff and how much you should roll up your sleeves and produce great stuff yourself. Three exceptional examples are Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs. All three created sustainable enterprises while successfully balancing the role of Player-Coach.

Henry Ford is famous for giving the world urban mobility and for changing the world of work by revolutionizing the manufacturing process. He was a dynamic and important Player, but he didn’t achieve all that greatness alone. He had a team to help.

Richard Donkin, in his excellent book “The History of Work,” writes that Ford was “never happier than when he was in the workshop, tinkering alongside able assistants like the engineer, Harold Willis, who helped him develop the vertical cylinder engine. Ford saw himself as a worker-entrepreneur who had founded his business on his own abilities.”

Ford is a classic example of the Player-Coach. He was a brilliant talent and a leader who surrounded himself with like-minded people. The role of Player-Coach gave him a true sense of fulfillment.

Henry Ford idolized Thomas Edison, another Player-Coach. Edison reshaped the world with his inventions, but he wasn’t a ‘mad scientist’ working into the wee hours all alone in his lab. Edison also surrounded himself with bright people, creating a collaborative culture that allowed him to innovate at a far faster pace than he ever could have achieved alone.

Donkin writes “Edison’s collaborators were craftsmen and they called each other ‘muckers,’ reflecting the way they all “mucked in” or pitched in together. They worked long hours, late into the night, punctuated by sessions on the organ at one end of the laboratory and weekend drinking bouts. It was an informal, freethinking atmosphere, and Edison was one of the boys.”

Notwithstanding the music and drinking, an astonishing level of collaborative work came out of Edison’s Menlo Park lab. This was, in no small part, due to the informal, freethinking atmosphere that Edison created. For example, upon learning that Alexander Graham Bell was launching a phonograph that would render his technology outmoded, Edison gathered his team of brilliant minds for a marathon three-day work session. Together, and under Edison’s leadership, they created a technology that beat Bell to the market.

In his lifetime, Edison founded what would become General Electric and more than 200 domestic and international companies. He brought together investors, engineers, salespeople and collaborators with the singular goal of creating greatness.

Apple’s Steve Jobs is a modern-day example of the Player-Coach. Just imagine your day-to-day life if Jobs had forgone the Player part of his work (Smartphones, tablets, computers, digital music and apps are just a few of the innovations he gave us) and focused only on leading the organization.

Allaboutstevejobs.com tells us that product design was the favorite part of his job. But Jobs wasn’t all Player. “He famously often came down to the Industrial (i.e., hardware) Design lab to spend time with the designers team and give his opinion and guidance on their prototypes. This was also true of every software UI designer, who would quickly know what her uber-boss thought of her work. In fact, product review sessions took up most of Steve Job’s workday.”

Jobs is frequently remembered for his Player brilliance and, as a leader, for being rough on his people. But also outstanding was his ability to inspire as a leader. When asked about his tough reputation, Jobs replied “These are all smart people I work with, and any of them could get a top job at another place if they were truly feeling brutalized. But they don’t, and we got some amazing things done.” Jobs was a genius and a tough leader, but he was also a great coach who infused his people with a passion for greatness.

It’s nice to dream of merging your abilities and leadership to achieve success similar to that of Henry Ford or Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs. But it can’t happen until you find that perfect balance between Player and Coach; the sweet spot that allowed Ford, Edison and Jobs to live their passion as a star Player while transferring their brilliance to those around them as Coach.

 

 

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