Quarterback to Coach
Updated: Feb 1, 2019
It’s about that time. On Sunday, we’ll celebrate America’s national pastime—watching body-wrecking feats of athletic prowess, otherwise known as the Super Bowl.
Each year, as I watch gifted athletes executing plays and as I read article after article about quarterback leadership, my interest tends to drift to the subtle dynamics taking place on the side of the field within the coaching staff. Transitioning “from quarterback to coach” is a common theme for business leaders. I’m not a huge fan of sporting metaphors in the workplace. The discrete world of success and failure in the athletic sphere doesn’t always translate well to the ongoing, continuous challenges of the business environment. However, this theme is an exception.
Executives in the early-stage of their careers are trained, incentivized, recognized and rewarded for the ability to execute plays on the field. Beat a deadline, make budget: get a first down. Crush the sales goal, deliver product by launch: get a touchdown. Beat the competition, innovate new products: win the game. It’s thrilling, driving a team to success; the rewards and accolades can be addictive.
By the mid-stage of career, however, the scope and scale of work becomes too big to run every play. Calling the audibles at the line of scrimmage, grabbing the ball or scrambling on third-down, is no longer possible. It’s tough to read the game while playing the game. Judging an opponent’s strengths, finding weaknesses in order to adjust to subtle shifts in momentum while engaged on the field—the singular perspective constrains and confines.
The leader’s role must evolve through time to develop a high-performing team and to create a system of success, rather than merely executing someone else’s pre-designed plays. To think strategically, a leader must stand outside the game without the immediacy of playing it. Working on the game not in the game, as the saying goes. Or, on the business not in the business. This means anticipating the future and developing the capacity to manage change. In other words, becoming the coach.
Unless executives are willing to make the transition from quarterback to coach, building a high-performing team that can operate without their direct and consistent input is highly unlikely. Many leaders, both male and female, are brought up on the highs of being in the game.
It’s difficult for them to step aside because:
It’s hard to trust that others will follow the plan
There’s a lack of confidence in the execution of the strategy
There’s no guarantee the players will adjust in the moment or rebound in tough times
They have a fear of losing
Becoming a coach takes work. It involves:
Building disciplines on the training ground that, in Bill Belichick’s words, leads to “a team that’s exhaustively prepared, but able to adjust in an instant.”
Creating a high-performing team that achieves success not just in one game, but over the course of a season
Looking at new technologies or models that can deliver sustainable world-class performance
It’s the kind of work that ultimately allows the scoreboard to take care of itself, according to former San Francisco 49ers coach, Bill Walsh, who led his team to four Super Bowl victories.
It’s the work of a leader.
So, as you watch the Super Bowl, take a good look at the coaches on the sidelines. Reflect and ask: Is it time for me to step off the playing field?
Your team’s success may depend on it.