Can 'player / managers' be successful?

Having advised a range of clients offering Professional Services, Signium is well placed to comment on the trend towards appointing ‘Player / Manager(s)’, by which we mean employees that are asked to lead teams whilst still being expected to deliver similar results to those under their charge.

The hybrid Player/Manager model can be an attractive as it helps rationalise an organisation creating a flatter and often more dynamic structure, leading to quicker communication and decision-making. However, it does not come without risk.

Without careful implementation, Player/Managers often revert to playing their technical or functional strengths, taking on more responsibilities themselves instead of delegating to their teams. This, of course, also means they don’t have time for leading or developing others (or themselves!).

As a result they become no more than a point of escalation and a communication block up and down the organisation which hurts team performance due to unclear leadership, direction, cohesiveness and ultimately, motivation.

The impact upon those in Player / Manager roles is significant and often the often leads to several scenarios, none of which are constructive:

  1. The manager works much longer hours to keep up with the demands of both roles
  2. The manager focuses on one of the roles at the expense of the other
  3. The manager attempts both roles and falls short in both

Whilst occasionally some managers find success leading others whilst continuing as an ‘individual contributor’ the track record of failure in clients we have advised means the odds of success are high risk; making the model work is less about finding superhuman capability and more about how the organisation structures Player / Manager leadership.

Player / Manager Reward

A key issue worth addressing is anchored in reward. Typically the leadership element of the role is sold as a developmental opportunity which may be true, and can be effective as such, but it also usually means that managers are asked to take on the additional responsibility without changes to their compensation or the structure of it.

For leaders to lead effectively, they need the time and space to do so and this will inevitably impact on their ability to deliver personal (often financial) results which is how they are rewarded.

Therefore, personal behaviours and targets that produce rewards need to be adjusted so that they equally reward leadership responsibilities. Otherwise, managers are likely to neglect their leadership responsibilities to the detriment of their team, the organisation, and overall results.

Player / Manager Selection

The other critical issue with Player / Managers whilst familiar, is potentially as damaging . Often organisations promote their highest performing individual contributors into these roles, either as some form of reward (or development as detailed above), or because they naively believe that these individuals make the best leaders of teams.

As a result, we all too often end up with the ‘Peter Principle’, leading to the same failures seen when Player / Manager roles are structured and rewarded wrongly. The stand out story in this evidence is to have a clear view of what strong leadership looks like and select individuals into such roles that demonstrate these qualities or show the potential to do so; to promote for potential not just current performance.

hands with paint making a heart


What is the Solution?

 There are a several approaches to overcome the challenges highlighted:

  1. The positive impact of effective leadership in an organisation is much greater than that of individual contributors; understanding the value it creates needs to be understood and communicated. In many professional services firms, individuals gain credibility through their personal contribution to revenue, but arguably the impact a leader can have on others’ and overall revenue is much greater and this needs to be understood.
  2. To demonstrate the value of leadership to help prevent Player / Managers only focusing on their ‘day job’ they need to be rewarded as much (if not more) for the formal leadership element of their role.
  3. Personal objectives agreed with Player / Managers should be adjusted to create the time and space needed to focus on their leadership responsibilities. If we expect a leader to spend 50% of their time leading and developing others, their objectives and targets should be adjusted in line with this.
  4. The ‘right’ individuals need to be selected into Player / Manager roles. A great Salesperson or Consultant does not necessarily make for a great leader. Clearly defining the expectations and capabilities required for leadership should be defined, and then applied to identify, select and develop individuals into these roles.

Over the last 13 years as a Leadership Consultant I have advised a range of organisations and Leaders to assist them implementing Player / Manager roles successfully, and the significant positive impact of this building stronger teams that ultimately drive the organisations financial performance. If you are considering a move to this type of Player / Manager model, or have it already but not seeing success please get in touch for an informal discussion of other important points to consider. Similarly if you know someone this applies to, please share this article with them….