I recently conducted a survey where I asked start-up leaders to answer a series of questions, one of which was “what is challenging about being a leader at a start-up”. As the responses flooded in, there was one answer that came up again and again: “finding time to manage when I’m so busy executing.”
This theme was not a surprise. As a leadership coach working primarily with emerging leaders in the start-up space, this is a topic that occupies many of my coaching hours. To put it plainly, the challenge is this: “how can I be a player and also a coach?”
Before we dive into solutions let's look at why this is a problem in the first place and why it’s often (not always) unique to start-ups. The most obvious answer is that start-ups run lean. It is not uncommon to see employees tasked with performing many roles in one. While this can be problematic and lead to over-stressed, overworked, and often underpaid teams, it can also be a reason why people work for start-ups in the first place. Operating lean results in learning at a dramatically accelerated pace - you will often hear start-up vets say “I learned more at that start-up in 1 year than I learned in 5 years at the larger company I worked for” or “working at that start-up was better than any MBA money can buy.” That accelerated learning can be extremely valuable and extremely invigorating. While wearing multiple hats has its advantages, it can be detrimental to teams when the hats that are being juggled are player and coach, and the company and the leaders put more value on the player role than they do the coach role.
Make time for what you value
Before we can talk about practical ways to balance being a player and a coach we need to look at our values. My work with start-up leaders has shown me that if the leader and the company value both the role of the coach and the impact it can have, there will always be time for it. One of the primary reasons that this balancing act feels impossible is that it can often feel not important. To quote a leader that filled out the survey
“how can I manage when I’m too busy with the responsibilities of my job?”
This sentiment is common. Leaders in execution-heavy start-ups tend to view their management responsibilities as add-ons to their scope, not as fundamental to their scope.
So if we want to start making some moves to truly balance those player-coach responsibilities we first need to get anchored on why it matters. Let’s start by reflecting on the following questions (don’t be shy, dust off that journal and start writing)
Why does the role of “coach” matter?
What is the human and business impact of being a good coach to your team?
How does your company reward and recognize excellence in coaching/managing?
Be Intentional in your transition
You were promoted to a leadership role because you excelled as an individual contributor. You were good at your job and you were rewarded for it with a higher title and more pay. Congrats, you’ve earned it!
Now comes the hard part. Your new role as a people leader is in many ways the opposite of what made you successful in your IC role. To quote Lily Wilson, Director of Strategy Initiatives at Angi and start-up vet:
“The to-do list of a player is very tactical. Do the analysis, create the presentation, develop the agenda for the meeting, etc. They are easily written down, crossed off, and there is usually a feedback loop for how you did.
The responsibilities of a “coach” are way less tactical and hard to even verbalize. The responsibilities of a coach are to think about the short term and long term direction of the team, where individuals need more support, to think about what project will be next after this one is complete, to ask the right questions, to have the tough conversations, to set the vision. These responsibilities are not easily “checked off” of your to-do list. You never complete these tasks, they are ongoing. When you do make progress you do not receive a “good job” - you don’t get the gold star.”
What is further challenging is that oftentimes in high-growth companies, no one tells you about this shift. You receive the promotion and you’re thrown into the role without so much as a new job description. And because you’re likely suffering through the self-doubt and ambiguity that comes with this change, it feels natural to resort to executings, since it’s what you’re good at and you know you’ll be recognized for it.
But, your team deserves to be invested in, to have the learning opportunities you had, and to be elevated just as you were. It’s on you to define and get intentional about your own standards as a coach. This exercise is a good jumping off point:
Define what impact you want to have on the people who report to you
Write your new Job description and include your people responsibilities. Then, present it to your manager.
Identify what coaching commitments you want to make to your team.
Create micro-habits for coaching
Now that you’ve aligned to the value of being a coach and set some intentionality around your leadership role you still have the very real challenge of finding the time. In a start-up you have to wear all the hats. To highlight an example of what this looks like let’s take a look at Lily’s experience:
“At one point in my career I was the SVP of Strategy and I managed three departments (marketing, operations, and customer service). I had three department heads under me who I was supposed to help manage to do their job to the best of their ability, manage the teams under them, support them in their career growth, and work with the other leadership team members to develop the strategy of the business. Meanwhile, I was also writing SQL code to do my own analytics, developing materials for our board, writing marketing emails, and even working our customer service phones when we had a representative out.”
Context shifting in and out of multiple roles can be disorienting. I feel you. Instead of trying to do everything at once, think about your micro-habits. What are the small ways where you can show up for your team and their development? What are the commitments you want to make to yourself and to your team to allow for meaningful, quality interactions? Here are a few ideas from start-up leaders like you:
Make your 1:1’s really count: It can be tempting to use your 1:1 time simply for status updates. While that might be valuable for you - it does very little for the development of your team., Commit to being present in your 1:1’s: we’ve all fallen into the trap of answering slack messages or emails while in 1:1’s. This time should be sacred and you owe it to your team to be fully invested. Also, stop canceling those meetings. If you don’t have something to talk about and it makes you want to cancel, look at how you’re setting those meetings up and make them better;keep a list of discussion topics that you can constantly build upon so you will always have material
Create 15 minute buffers on meetings to allow for real-time coaching/feedback: If you are in meetings where someone on your team is going to do some driving (giving an internal presentation, speaking to clients, leading a team meeting, etc), pre-plan a debrief. It’s pretty easy to add 15 minutes to the end of the meeting to allow for a coaching opportunity.
Make personal check-ins part of your routine: make it a habit to Slack someone just to check-in on something personal. This is a great way to create trust and open the door for your team to tell you what they need.
Make career development a scheduled priority: dedicate one 1:1/month to career development conversations. Send some prompt questions in advance to spark meaningful reflection that will lead to an impactful conversation.
Cut yourself some slack
Know that even if you do all of this you’re still going to get it wrong sometimes. There will still be times in the business when your player responsibilities will occupy more of your time. The key is to be flexible with yourself and communicate with your team. The land of start-ups means never knowing what will be next, but if you commit to aligning to your values, getting intentional about how you show up, and do the small things for your people along the way, you’ve earned yourself a gold star that no one else is going to give you.
The role of a people leader is complex and nuanced and even more so in the ever-changing world of startups. It can also be the most impactful, rewarding role you take on in your career. Committing to the development and wellbeing of others is the type of role that connects us to a deeper, more meaningful purpose. It’s the type of work that will make you proud when you later reflect on the impact you had on those around you. And that type of impact is one that you make time for.