Why Manage, When You Can Coach?

This year I will complete my RFU Level 3 coaching badge. Look out Eddie Jones. I’ve been a rugby coach for 15 years and it’s only now that I’ve begun to see how my coaching life informs my business life, and where ‘coaching’ might be more effective than ‘managing’.

Photo of ndrew Barrington rugby coach

Coaching is a craft that you hone every day

The course involved a mix of classroom learning and practical, mentored training sessions. Among the many things I have learned and taken away with me are:

  • Coaching is a craft, like pottery, or brewing beer. With experiment and experience you continually hone that craft, to become a more effective, more useful coach.
  • It helps to know what you are coaching, and you can learn how to deliver a coaching session, but to develop as a coach it really helps to understand why you are coaching. What are you motivated by, what is your coaching philosophy?
  • You can’t divide who you are as a coach, from who you are as a person. What brought you to that place, your upbringing, your life experiences, will affect the kind of coach you are. Being aware of this can make you more aware your craft and the likely effect on the people you’re coaching.

Applying coaching in sport to managing in business

What’s interesting is when you take this learning from my sporting life and apply it to my business life.  I’ve spent 30-odd years in account leadership and management positions; in that time I’ve heard creative people refer to their ‘craft’, but never management. In managing we ‘hold a position’, we have different styles, but essentially we are expected to have reached a certain level, with a requisite amount of expertise. However, if we treat managing as a craft, we can be more open about being a work in progress. We can recognise the things we do brilliantly (our superpowers) and the things we need to hone (our work-ons). I worked mostly in offices where it wasn’t wise to admit weaknesses, and I wish I’d had the courage to be more open and honest.

In the communications industry we spend a lot of time identifying what makes a brand tick – why it was put on this earth and what makes it more distinctive, more relevant and more desirable than the competition.  The word ‘purpose’ is earning a poor reputation, but I think it’s a good idea for brands to think about why they exist, how they make the world a better place, and why their staff should turn up for work every day. (See Are Today’s Brands More Truthful? for more on brand purpose.) Conversely, I never really spent much time reflecting on my own motivation – my own ‘why?’ Over the years I have developed a blurry set of principles which guide my behaviour, and I believe I would have had a more rewarding, more successful career in managing if I’d listened more closely to the ‘why are you doing this?’ question at the back of my mind. Developing your own philosophy helps you decide what you will always do, and what you will never do.

Throughout my career I have played the role I imagined others expected of me. It has been tiring, stressful and not very effective. My happiest and most effective periods have been in teams where I’ve relaxed into just being me. This has nothing to do with how senior you are – in fact the more senior I became, the more I thought I needed to play a part. Now, I have an image in my head from the coaching course I took; what others see and hear is the tip of an iceberg. Below that, is the life that made me; it is unchangeable. How I craft the visible ‘me’ depends on how I mine the unseen ‘me’ – right or wrong, good or bad, it is a product of the authentic me. I know this makes me a more effective rugby coach; I also believe it makes me a more effective business person – and a happier one.

Playing games is the best way to learn

The final area I would like to translate from my coaching life into my business life is around the use of games.

When I learned to play rugby, we queued up for our turn to run a drill, which was then pronounced by the coach as a good, or a bad execution. A series of poor repetitions resulted in a ‘punishment’ like 20 press-ups. So, the drill became a boring ordeal where the outcome could be humiliation and the lesson learned that press-ups are a punishment, not a privilege.

Playing games enables players to experiment and take risks in a safe environment. They are more realistic to the actual sport; they give the coach flexibility to introduce different conditions or rules, to vary the levels of chaos, and to challenge individual players on different elements of their performance. Moreover, games are both competitive, and fun. By playing games we identify players’ superpowers, and their work-ons, and we can then isolate those work-ons in a more focused ‘skill zone’ – to the benefit of the individual and to the team.

For the majority of my career, ‘training’ was something you did outside of the everyday activity of the office. It was often on ‘receive’ at the foot of a dull powerpoint presentation, given by an outside training ‘expert’. Team games were known as ‘team bonding’ and didn’t have much to do with the job we did day-to-day.

Image of teacher and pupils for Breakfast Town blog about management

I have never reacted well to ‘being trained’

I think it would benefit all businesses if they played more games. If I were managing an office now I would build in time to play games and encourage my managers to develop their coaching craft – setting up situations with clear objectives and clear conditions, in which the players can develop their skills and hone their craft. In games, players solve their own problems and don’t just look to the coach for the answer (and, crucially, the coach can be honest about not always having an answer). No need to leave the workplace, no need to pay for external trainers.

What I’ve learned, I’ve learned by doing

In fact, the closest I ever came to experiencing this was at Saatchi & Saatchi, where training was highly valued and run by a coaching guru called Paul Burns (find him at The Burns Unit). The principle was that ‘What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing’ – a quote from Aristotle which, when I mentioned this on the RFU Level 3 course, I was roundly mocked for.

There is a hell of a lot that I’ve learned in business and called upon in my coaching (next blog?), but there is also so much that we can learn from sports coaching that can make us more effective in business. In truth, what is business but one huge sport, with players, competitions, winners and losers? For me, I just think it needs more coaches.

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