Swap Patel: Groom players to become coaches

Swap Patel: Groom players to become coaches

May 20, 2020

(McKinney Executive Director of Media Swap Patel shares his thinking on how constant communication and setting up people to lead early in their careers can lead teams to long-term success. This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.)

What kind of a documentary would Michael Tollin have produced if Michael Jordan was asked to coach the Bulls after a few seasons of dominating the NBA? Odd thought, no? Why would anyone on Earth ever do that? There are great players in every sport — Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tom Brady, Alex Morgan, to name just a few. The better they play, the more they’re asked to do for their team — usually with the ball in their hands or at their feet during crunch time. That’s both logical and commonplace. In stark comparison, if you’re a great “player” in the business world, your success is often rewarded with a coach’s clipboard. Less time on the field and more time leading from the proverbial sidelines as you’re asked to indirectly scale your skills. Let that sink in for a bit — it’s quite different.

In leading the Media department at McKinney, I’ve been giving this duality a great deal of thought. As part of that, I asked a range of co-workers — assistant media planners, media supervisors, account directors, associate creative directors, and our chief strategy officer — how they would classify themselves in their current role: As a player or a coach?

Their responses were telling:

• “Player.”

• “Coach…hmm, player…actually, quarterback.”

• “Coach…well, shit, I don’t know. Maybe both.”

• “I’m becoming much more of a coach.”

For those on either end of the spectrum — entry level and senior management — it’s clear: you’re either a player or a coach. But most others are conflicted. That’s because they’re caught between two worlds as player-coach hybrids with competing responsibilities. While this is often prevalent, my guess is that most people aren’t considering, planning for, or being adequately primed for the progression from player to coach until they find themselves in the throes of managing others.

Here are ways we can collectively cultivate better coaches:

1. Coach ‘em early, train ‘em right — Outline your expectations from the get-go and convey the inevitable (and expected) shift from player to coach. À la sports phrases like “Road to the Final Four,” you should define the pinnacle of success, visualize the path forward, and clarify everyone’s role along the way. As time consuming as it is, I meet with everyone on my team on a biweekly basis — not to have status-like meetings, but to talk about individual aspirations and challenges. This serves as an ongoing forum to set expectations, share feedback and optimize efforts in real time.

2. Give the system time to work — For starters, let’s acknowledge that coaching (overseeing the work) can be significantly more difficult than playing (getting things done well and expediently by yourself). As deliverables pile up and deadlines inch closer, it’s natural to think, “I can do this better, smarter, and faster, so I’ll just dive in and get it done.” Sure, every now and then, you’ll still need to do that but, broadly speaking, there’s greater long-term value in grooming better-equipped player-coaches. Even Michael Jordan was better off having given the triangle offense (and his teammates) a chance to work its magic.

3. Call more “timeouts” — In sports, timeouts are limited, so coaches tend to hoard them. But as managers in the business world, we’re able to debrief much more often, a luxury we should embrace. This is especially important early in our working relationship with each other (and during times like these when we’re all working remotely). Think of these timeouts as manufactured coaching opportunities: Time we can use to acknowledge the things that we’re doing well and highlight improvement areas. Time to prepare for presentations and time, afterwards, to ponder all the ways we can improve our efforts.

As I often tell my team, every interaction, be it hallway conversations, emails, phone calls, or presentations, can lead to one of these outcomes:      

• Makes a relationship better (we overdelivered on expectations)

• Maintains a neutral relationship (we met expectations)

• Worsens the relationship (we underdelivered on expectations)

This applies to things big and small. As simple as that sounds, successfully fostering and preserving healthy working relationships is contingent upon not only on keeping this in mind but using the unlimited timeouts at our disposal to ensure that our expectations are aligned and that we’re constantly calibrating our collective bar for success.

With constant communication and an eye on grooming people for success upfront, the players on your team can transition from simply running plays to drawing up game plans. In the process, you’ll create a higher level of play that positions you and your team for long-term success. Dynasty, anyone?