From Scott Rasking, CEO of Mindjet
For entrepreneurs, navigating a career through the Valley can be a lot like competitive sports. Similarities include locker room leadership, a shifting playbook and ongoing onslaughts from opponents. What is perhaps the most important likeness to highlight, however, is the requisite sense of what your place is in the game.
Know Your Role: Player, Player-Coach or Coach
The differences between each role in a company and team are substantial, and shifting between them requires a lot of adjustment, sacrifice, and changing skill sets. Players focus on their own performance while coaches manage for peak performance of the team as a whole, and player-coaches do a little of both. I’ll give you a personal example: I initially found my place as a player on a Sales team. I moved into pure coach mode when I was promoted to VP of Sales, and then split my time between coach and player when I transitioned into an entrepreneurial startup. When I became the CEO of a later-stage tech company, it was back to coach mode.
As a Salesperson it was completely hands-on — I worked out my own methods for how to win at my position. As an entrepreneur, I had to find a balance between that approach and providing the guidance, leadership and direction for others to hone their preferred techniques. As a VP and today, a CEO, my vantage point is at its widest, making my primary responsibility to recognize and provide for the needs of my team. This includes strategy, training, the right tools, and ensuring that each individual knows their position, and how it fits into the bigger picture.
Know When (and When Not) to Change Positions
The player-coach position — a.k.a. the entrepreneur, in this case — is the easiest place to get stuck in this process because you get the best of both worlds. You get to be a part of the game and you get to exercise some control over it. While this method usually works great for startups, scaling a business requires more definitive responsibilities — ones that require skill sets that often don’t translate from one position to the other.
A common mistake I’ve seen during my time in the workplace, for instance, is when a top performing sales person moves into management expecting to experience the same degree of success. But just because someone is a great individual contributor on the field doesn’t automatically mean that they’ll make a great coach, and it works the same way in the office. Each position requires different skills, a different mindset, and a different disposition. Even with experience in the trenches, the transition takes significant adjustments. Don’t do yourself a disservice by trading in a great player for a subpar coach.
Coaching a Good Game
It took a lot of time for me to recognize that if I wanted to be a good leader, I was going to have to give up employing a lot of the skills that got me to that point. Letting go of that hands-on mindset is something that a lot of entrepreneurs struggle with, and that struggle can often lead to retaining counterproductive practices in a new position. After all, nobody wants a boss who’s constantly stepping in and doing their job for them because they think they can do it better. And no boss can truly bring scalable leverage to their business if they’re too distracted with completing tasks that aren’t even theirs.
Selflessness is required to be an effective leader. Instead of being the best, you have to bring out the best. When you’re the boss, the greatest scenario is to look around and see your team functioning efficiently not because of your personal skills, but as a result of your guidance, leadership, motivation and support.
Case in point: Tony Hsieh. After a player role at Oracle and a player coach role at LinkExchange, he took that experience into the CEO seat at Zappos and shaped an entire business around the values and vision he’d developed along the way. The company was pulling in $1.2 billion when it was sold to Amazon in 2009, and is still consistently recognized for the success of its culture-driven strategy.
If a truly high-performing team is what you’re after, acknowledge the changes that have to be made along the way and, in the end, play the game as a coach would: Motivate and support each personality, accept the challenge that is helping people do more than they believed possible, support risk, and remember to have fun. This will instill confidence in your employees and help them get into peak condition for optimal performance. That’s the trick — to have the patience and foresight to bring out the best in people. With that in play, you can build a scalable organization and the sky’s the limit.