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Coach or Manager: You Make the Call

Have you ever wondered why the head of a baseball team is called the manager and the head of a basketball team is called the coach? (These are the kinds of things I sometimes ponder on long airplane rides.)

The answer has to do not just with the obvious differences between the two sports, but also with how the players are coached and managed during the games. Just as baseball and basketball are two very different sports, coaching and managing are two very different activities. One has to do with directing, the other has to do with teaching.

Managing is all about telling, directing, authority, immediate needs, and a specific outcome. Coaching involves exploring, facilitating, partnership, long-term improvement, and many possible outcomes.

During a baseball game, the manager focuses primarily on strategy and managing the flow of the game. He decides who pitches and when. He positions the players in the field based on the tendencies of the batter. And he relays commands to coaches, who then tell players when to swing, when to take a pitch, and how to run the bases.

In basketball, the coach has the same authority as a baseball manager, but he gets more involved with the action on the court. He calls out plays and defensive schemes to the players, but they are then free to implement those plays (using their skills and knowledge of the game) as they see fit. During time-outs, the coach draws up plays on the clipboard. He offers encouragement, support, and suggestions. And he instructs players on how to react to many possible outcomes depending on what the other team does.

Obviously, the roles and responsibilities of a baseball manager and basketball coach overlap. But while the baseball manager focuses on authority and directing, the basketball coach works in more of a teaching/facilitating capacity.

What does all this have to do with business leadership? More than you might think.

In business, we have to be both coaches and managers. To lead effectively, we need to know when to wear which hat.

Managing involves a more directive, task-oriented style that should only be used under certain conditions. It usually produces the best results in a crisis situation, when someone has never done the task before, or when they have little or no confidence in their ability to get it done.

Coaching works best for developmental purposes, especially when you have a team of competent professionals already performing at a reasonably high level. Once you define winning for your organization, team members may need your guidance and support. But in most cases they shouldn’t need direction.

Knowing when to direct, delegate or develop is critical to managerial effectiveness. Determine which style is appropriate based on the task at hand rather than the individual. Often, people will need a combination of styles depending on the complexity of the task assigned, their experience with the task, and the competency levels required to complete it with excellence.

Direct when the employee has low to moderate competence with the skills and abilities needed to complete the task. Be sure to define excellence (what, how and when), and provide specifics (templates, examples, etc.) so the person can achieve the desired outcome. Direct when a person:

  • Is new in a role
  • Is new to the company
  • Is new to the client/customer
  • Has new job responsibilities or tasks
  • Has new ways of working

Delegate when the employee has moderate to high competence. Again, define excellence so both sides have clarity around the goal. Then let the employee determine the approach they will take and keep you informed as to their progress. Ask questions and provide direction and specific support when necessary. Delegate when a person has:

  • Some experience in the role
  • A track record or competence
  • A sensitive task or client
  • Confidence in their abilities
  • Similar ways of working

Develop when the employee has high competence and high commitment to the task. Then define excellence and get out of the way! Give plenty of recognition for successful completion of the task. Then determine the person’s next challenge. Develop when the person:

  • Has extensive experience
  • Has demonstrated evidence of competency
  • Has experienced similar clients or task sensitivities
  • Is growing new competences
  • Is trying new approaches

Sometimes we have to coach and sometimes we have to manage. But the more time we can spend delegating and developing, the more effective we’ll be.

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