Why the Best Players do not Necessarily make Great Managers

First appeared in ‘CIO’ (U.K.)

Look at the top sports managers. With a few exceptions they all have a similar profile. They weren’t the best players at their sports but they have performed at a high level and have a good understanding of the pressures involved.

If you consider the 1966 England World Cup winning team, only one player, Jack Charlton, has had any success as a manager. All of today’s top Premiership managers: Jose Murinho; Alex Ferguson; Arsene Wenger and Rafael Benitez were all – without being at all disrespectful – journeymen professionals. So was this year’s Italian World Cup winning team manager, Marcello Lippi.

This phenomenon isn’t confined to football. Tiger Woods’ golf coaches – Hank Haney and Butch Harmon – were professionals with no major wins. Tony Roche, Roger Federer’s coach, was a competent tennis pro but won just the one major title. What this seems to imply is that there is a huge difference between the skillset required to play a game and one needed to manage a team of players.

In sport this seems blatantly obvious yet this logic is frequently ignored, often with disastrous results. Look no further than Paul Gascoigne.

You would expect business to have more sense. However there seems to be a flawed logic that often forces this same, potentially dangerous, mistake.

Here’s how it goes. Someone performs particularly well in a specific job function and there’s no system for rewarding these outstanding individuals, so the only option to retain them seems to be to promote them.
As I was told by a leading civil service economist: “I added up some hard sums and got promoted. I added up even harder sums and got promoted. I added up some incredibly hard sums and they gave me 120 staff to manage.”

Holding on to the past

It’s hardly any wonder that new managers face a particularly difficult time at the beginning of their new role. Any new job is stressful. With this particular career move they have to ‘unlearn’ the old skills and start learning new skills – often with their old peers. The danger for many new managers is that they try to cling to the past – put in long hours and still get involved with the day-to-day, hands on work. After all, this is why they were promoted. This is their ‘comfort zone’. In footballing terms they become ‘player-managers’. They and their staff get confused as to their role and responsibilities. Are they the boss or still one of them?

However, there comes a time when they need to define their role. There just isn’t enough time to do everything and they need to get others to do the work for them. This can be incredibly difficult for managers to cope with. They know how they would do it so letting someone else do it differently can be incredibly frustrating.

Learning to adapt to this lack of ‘hands on’ involvement is very difficult, as managers have to learn to give up control and trust people. There aren’t enough hours in the day for you to do everything or check everything. The only option is to take a deep breath and let it go.

This doesn’t mean anarchy. Managers and staff need to have sensible discussion and agree outputs, time frames and parameters. Both parties should be absolutely clear about where the boundaries are and what support is available.

The lucky few

There are exceptions. The Franz Beckenbauers, Jack Charltons and Ruud Gullits who seem to have all the footballing skills, plus incredible interpersonal skills and ‘something special’. No doubt this also applies to some individuals in businesses.

But for the majority companies need to offer alternatives. For instance, give people the training and opportunity to look at management before they are thrown into it. Or even more radically – give them a three-month trial.

Frequently, programmers or economists don’t want promotion – just the recognition for doing a good job. It may be the case of just building in some financial rewards.

The alternative is being stuck in a cycle of: recruit and train specialist – specialist performs well – promote specialist to manager – specialist struggles as manager – specialist leaves the company. Recruit and train specialist… and so on…. and so on…

What this seems to imply is that there is a huge difference between the skillset required to play a game and one needed manage a team of players.