20 January 2023
tl;dr Many companies look to hire individuals who are both leader and individual contributor (IC) on the same team. These are often referred to as "Player/Coach" kinds of roles, and people in these roles often find a distinct lack of success over time.
The problem is that this role sets people up for failure:
- The role will inevitably gravitate (and spike) to one of either the leader role or the IC role. An Engineering Management Player/Coach, particularly if they are a new leader, will often index hard on their engineering skills, and spend too much time writing code (and "fixing" code written by others on the team, which undermines confidence and trust). A DevRel Player/Coach, particularly if they are a new leader, will index hard on giving presentations and doing webinars and writing blog posts and such. In both cases, the Player/Coach, being more recently a Player (and likely a successful one at that, hence the promotion), will neglect their Coaching duties in favor of "getting things done".
- The Coaching expectations then don't get met. The team finds that their leader has no time for 1:1s with them, and/or team members miss opportunities to engage in their own career growth because the Player/Coach is spending too much time Playing. In some cases, the hiring of the rest of team never happens, all because the Player/Coach doesn't have the time (because they're "too busy doing the IC work").
- Separations follow. Either the team members slowly drift away to other teams where they can get better support, or the Player/Coach gets frustrated that their performance reviews (and/or anonymous survey results from the team) are sub-par, or the Player/Coach's manager takes steps to "correct" the situation. In the worst of these cases, the whole plan for the team is abandoned.
You cannot have two Priority-One goals at the same time. If you are there to be an individual contributor, management tasks distract you from your purpose; likewise, if you are there to be a manager, IC tasks distract you. No role is ever 100% one and not the other, but there should never be ambiguity as to which is your primary focus.
Now, having said all this, it's still a common scenario for hiring managers to want to hire a "Player/Coach", particularly in the early stages of a team's formation. The idea, simply put, is that until the team is built, the Player/Coach will need to be "hands on" until the team's construction is complete and the Player/Coach can move to full-time coaching.
If that's the case (and this is speaking from having done this three or four times now), then here's the way to do it, assuming that no team actually exists at the time of the Player/Coach's hire:
- The first six months are spent being 100% IC. This gives the Player/Coach the chance to identify the goals for the team, spent a little "time in the trenches" to see what their team will need to be doing and how to do it, and get to know some of the other teams around them.
- The next six months are spent hiring. This means the principal focus is on staffing up the team, but since that likely won't take 100% of the Player/Coach's time, the remaining time is to continue the activities that were started in the prior six months. As each team member is hired, the Player/Coach will need to put more and more of their time into onboarding, mentoring, and managing, leading to the point where....
- The team is staffed, and now the entire focus is on management. Once the team is hired and in place, the Player/Coach needs to hand off all of their IC activities to members of the team (regardless of the Player/Coach's personal feelings about some of the activites--love them or hate them, they all need to be turned over), and from this point forward, focus exclusively on growing and improving the team.
I've done this several times now, and if I were to do it again, I would consider any of these to be "red flags":
- The timeframe for beginning the team hiring is beyond six months. Organizational inertia is a subtle and ugly thing. The Player/Coach is often very good as a Player, and the organization will often be very, very incentivized to keep them in a Player role. In which case, simply admit that you don't need the manager, hire a senior or Principal-level IC, and move on.
- The team size is not going to be larger than 2. Setting up a situation in which a manager is managing a single person is probably the most ridiculous thing any organization can do. It's often the result of poor planning and/or failure to secure a real commitment to the team's existence--"We want to see how this goes and grow incrementally" is often the explanation, and it's weak sauce. Either there is a need, and the team needs to be built to fill it, or there is no need. Companies that build a team of manager+1 are often feeling inconclusive about whether the need exists, don't have the insight into their own company to be able to validate whether the need exists, or don't have the budget to afford the team. All of these are red flags that the team likely won't be around a year from now.
- The company won't commit to headcount for the team until they've seen the Player/Coach in the role for a while. This is because the individual has zero credibility within the company, and it's a terrific way to set them up for failure. Without any sort of "executive support" to help them build their own cred, the Player/Coach will have to fall back to IC activities to build that cred, and doing so will only emphasize that "we never needed a team after all". It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It's tempting to look at the idea of the Player/Coach and believe that it's manageable, particularly in the early days of a team's formation, and conclude "We can make it work." I agree, but only when there's a clear transition plan in place (ideally enforced by paperwork, so the plan can't go awry when the situation changes even slightly). Anything else is likely to lead to a boulevard of broken dreams.
Last modified 20 January 2023