The Manager vs The Coach

Photo credit: “Tokyo — Baseball on Television” by roger4336 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Growing up, I never understood why the person in charge of running a Major League Baseball team was called a “manager” instead of a “coach.” They seemed to do all the things a coach in any another sport would do . . . they would come up with the plan, inspire the team, push the team to correct mistakes when they messed up — all things that looked a lot like “coaching” to me.

I recently learned that in baseball, the title of manager came about because in the early days of the game, the manager was usually a player just handling the operational details of the game. Coaching wasn’t needed in the early days of baseball. You just needed someone on the team to make sure everyone was where they were supposed to be.

In this sense, managing can sound pretty unexciting. It doesn’t sound all that strategic, and it doesn’t scream impactful. No wonder titles like “manager” and “people manager” can get a bad rap.

For most of my product career, I thought I didn’t want to become a people manager. When asked if I aspired to people management, I’d have an almost allergic reaction — who the heck dreams of becoming a manager? Why would anyone want to be a paper shuffling bureaucrat?

I think like a lot of early career folks, I’d never really worked with a great manager (yet). I didn’t really understand what the job of a manager is or should be because I had no models to refer to. But really great people managers aren’t bureaucrats or paper shufflers.

Great people managers are people who coach others to greatness.

A great coach in the sports sense is someone who brings out the best in others — they come up with the strategy and plan for how the team can win and put the structures and supports in place to raise the performance of the people on the team. They inspire and motivate, push for more when they knew the players can do better, and look for ways to shore up weaknesses to improve performance.

Great people managers in a business context do much the same. Like a great coach, they’re focused on getting their team to achieve great heights from multiple angles — high level strategy on the one hand, focused encouragement and support down to the individual level on the other. Great people managers also know, either consciously or subconsciously, that their achievement and accomplishment as a manager only comes from how well they build up their team. And this is truly the difference between being an outstanding individual contributor and a great manager — the great manager achieves outstanding performance at scale through the work of many.

So if you’re wondering if you have what it takes to be a great manager, ask yourself instead — do I have what it takes to be a great coach? Am I willing to invest in making other people great?

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I'm a product innovator and mama to 2 awesome kids.

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