Leading and coaching a creative team.

What should a coach do, when his trusted star player is having an off day? No one likes to be subbed off in the middle of an important match. Certainly not the likes of Ronaldo or Messi.

Football is played for over 90 minutes. Many hours of the coaching went into preparing for a match. Strategy and tactics are discussed. Each player is drilled endlessly on what to do in possession or without possession of the ball, in open plays and during set pieces. Beyond on-field preparations, various sports experts (trainers, therapists, sports science, sports psychologists etc) are brought in to coax the optimum performance out of the players for that 90-minute match.

But there’s no guarantee of success. Not even when you are the best coach in the business.

Truth is – every player is a human after all. Everyone may have an off day.

It may start with a small unfortunate incident, which leads to another mistake, and within a few minutes escalates into a loss of confidence. And somehow, the player just can’t score anymore. Or it may start with a few losing battles with an opponent (imagine a defender facing Messi for the first time), and in little time, the player loses the plot. Instead of sticking to the coach’s plan, the player starts making his own plans hoping to fix the problem he is facing. But his individual decision is now affecting the positional play of the whole team – after all, football is a team sport – it isn’t a one vs one game.

What does the coach do?

Start by yelling instructions from the sidelines. If the player can’t get back into the game, decisive coaches will make the ultimate decision of substituting the player with another.

That’s football.

Isn’t it similar to creative projects?

We’ve been there. We take on projects and make the best possible plans, divide tasks and assign entrusted people to execute them.

How quickly things can spiral out of control.

One of the team members lost his grandmother. The mourning took over, and somehow, the speed of working becomes seriously affected. The other member faces an unexpected Messi-like quantum of incoming feedback/comments from clients and starts making new plans to alleviate the pain he’s getting. Unknowingly his actions are now hampering the project’s timelines, and complicating the workflow of other team members.

What should the leader do?

My take: Have a clear distinction separating leading and coaching. In the middle of a project, it is all about leading and there’s no time for coaching. The focus should be on delivering according to the timelines – either yell corrective instructions from the sidelines or sub-off the player and bring in reinforcements. Coaching can only happen before, or after the project.

I admit — instructing, replacing and coaching are tricky. Anything that deals with human emotions will always be tricky.

Instructing: When there’s a fire and time is running out – firm and decisive instructions are critical to the project. However, it is important to clarify that the actions are taken in the interest of timing.

Replacing: This is the hardest. When a team member is not performing, sometimes a tough call has to be made. Immediately reassign the task to someone else, whether internally or freelancers.

Then consider the human emotions: No one likes being instructed/overruled without being given a reason. Or in the case of being replaced – it is natural to feel hurt and disappointed. After the fire is over, it is important to have a discussion as soon as possible on why certain decisions were made. Clarify that actions were taken in the interest of timing, and decisions were not based on personal sentiments. It’s not personal – it’s simply not “I don’t like you”.

Ultimately the leader’s role is to ensure the team delivers, and the entire team enjoys success. In both scenarios, in the midst of active projects, the leader should avoid going into lengthy justifications about their decisions and actions. Feelings may be hurt, egos may be bruised. Confidence and self-worth will take a hit. But addressing the individual is coaching, and that comes after the match and before the next game.

You can’t let Ronaldo’s ego bring down the hope of one nation.

Which leads us to coaching.

Leaders manage. Leaders command and control. Coaches teach and help people grow. It’s a major shift from “tell and get things done” to “listen and help”.

Coaching is exhausting. It starts with being attentive, and empathetic. The coach has to assess the member’s strengths and weaknesses before setting (or resetting) goals and expectations.

We want the team member to improve, unlock and maximize their potential. We want to motivate the team member after setbacks (of being overruled or replaced).

There’s a time to lead, and a time to coach. The difference between fire fighting, and fighting the next fire.

There’s also the question of what if someone is simply uncoachable?

Should the leader still invest time in coaching? I will leave this for another time.

As usual, the “subscribe me” plug.

Subscribe to my list. I am an individual – I don’t have marketing offers or discount codes to spam you. That, you can be assured.