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Pick your captains 🏆

(April 22, 2024 Newsletter)

A client once expressed to me that she sees herself more as a team captain than the team’s coach. For her, using a captain metaphor felt more accurate and made the prospects of taking on greater leadership responsibilities more manageable. Plus, wasn’t her boss (or the CEO) The Coach?  

Since that conversation, I’ve thought a lot about the power of this metaphor for middle managers and those who supervise them.

  • How can a coach/captain metaphor help managers embrace their people leadership roles more fully? To see themselves not just as supervisors in the most traditional and technical sense, but also as agents of growth and development?

Why it matters

Not everyone to whom you’ll want to assign management responsibilities is interested or ready for it. In those cases, they’ll need practical and mindset support as they step up.

  • A metaphor can increase confidence, amazingly enough. If telling someone they’re expected to coach their team members feels like too far of a leap, inviting them to view themselves as a captain instead can help to close the gap.

  • Captains can still use coaching skills, but without the weight of the world on their shoulders.

What we mean by “captain”

This term is a more elegant name for “player-coaches,” as I’ve heard them called occasionally. They are people who:

  1. Are still responsible for their own deliverables in addition to supervising others.

  2. Are expected to display leadership qualities like setting a personal example, encouraging and supporting team members, and team building.

  3. Employ coaching skills at the tactical level but are not responsible for setting strategy.

  4. Understand your work well enough that they could fill in, when needed. They’ve shown good judgment and reasonable competence of your core functions.

Identifying and developing your captains

Whether you already have captains reporting into you, how can you spot and elevate them?

  • Pick captains: Look back at the above definition and think about your team. Who already exemplifies these traits? If you were in a pinch, who would you ask for help? To whom do other team members turn for help and support?

  • Uplevel your existing captains: Assuming you already have managers reporting into you, in what way do you see that they can keep embracing their roles? Should your emphasis go mostly to practical training or to character building? Depending on the qualities they demonstrate you’ll know where to focus your attention.

  • Clarify their ambitions: Some of them will love being a captain and have no desire to become a coach down the line. Others will want to take on more responsibility as quickly as possible (and hand off their own deliverables in the process). This should be a completely value neutral assessment which you can compare to your company's current or future needs. The simplest way to find out? Just ask them.

  • Define success together: Depending on their ambitions and your needs, come up with a list of responsibilities – what it means for them to fully be in captain mode. Don’t forget to add a timeline for any stretch goals.  

  • Give them resources: Some of the support can come directly from you, but let’s face it – you’re not great at everything either. For example, maybe you’re a strong communicator but not the most organized… and you’ve elevated someone who shares that same set of traits. You probably should set them up with a mentor who’s more organized than you to learn their ways.

Final thought: Hopefully this metaphor can serve as an on-ramp for members of your team who either want to take on more leadership responsibilities or are reluctant to do the same.

  • This post can also be a guide for your coworkers and you to open the conversation around building your leadership pipeline. Elevating captains can be a long-term strategy for succession planning, not just capacity building.


The Coaching Corner

Build in learning and compassion

If you are concerned that certain members of your team don’t fully understand the importance or mechanics of other team members’ roles, ask that they set up time to shadow each other for half a day or full day.

The purpose of this day is to learn as much as they can about how and why that person does their job – not to judge, poke holes, or suggest how to do it better. After they have shadowed one another, help them process:

  • What did they learn by shadowing their coworker?

  • What new appreciation do they have after being a fly on the wall?

  • What practices did they find intriguing and/or worth adopting?

  • What are they curious to learn more about?



Last week HBR published a new article called "Middle Managers Should Drive Your Business Transformation" and while the examples are from very large companies, the three main principles presented are relevant across the board.


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