A player-coach approach to manager comms nurtures a healthy employee experience. Here’s how.

Former players make strong coaches when they invest in understanding and ask the right questions.

The 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer found that most people (74%)  trust peers and scientists to drive innovation over businesses, CEOs and government leaders. This creates a tremendous opportunity for managers who can build a player-coach relationship with their direct reports to also build trust and empower their teams to become high-performers in the process.

Ragan spoke with Gloria St. Martin-Lowry, president at HPWP Group about how managers can structure conversations to invest in understanding, ask the right questions and build collaborative relationships.

Here’s what we learned.

Why former players make strong coaches

St. Martin-Lowry explained that when good people, hard workers and experts in their field are promoted into leadership, there’s often little training on what it means to transition from a player to a coach.

“And for some strange reason, when people get promoted they fall into the habits of old,” she said. “You’re the one in charge who makes decisions, and somehow forget what it’s like to have been a player. If you’ve done the job in the past, you’ve been the player.”

Maintaining a mindset of understanding what it’s like to have done the work, to have been a player, ultimately makes you a stronger coach. And, let’s face it, employees can tell when a manager hasn’t done the work themselves.

Investing in understanding

Of course, leaders don’t always need to have done the job or be an expert to be effective. You just have to understand what it’s like for your direct reports in their position — including what’s required to deliver the outcomes that their report’s position is responsible for.

“One of the best pieces of advice I got when I went into a leadership position is, ‘Be willing to be on their team before you ask them to be on yours,’” St. Martin-Lowry said.

“That is to say, you’ve got to invest the time to understand the ins and outs of their job, the pain points, the obstacles. We have people who are capable of so much more doing those everyday things for us, and oftentimes we inadvertently put obstacles in the way, bureaucracy in the way. We don’t spend time with people to connect with them personally.”

Level-setting expectations for openness and collaborations

When a new person comes on your team, start them off with a conversation about expectations and how you will work together. While this will include metrics and responsibilities, beginning from a relationship-based perspective allows you to focus on what the company is like, what the team is like, and how workflows will feed into that.

“It’s talking about how we show up for each other alongside all those other tactical things,” St. Martin-Lowry said. Let them know what they can expect from you as a manager alongside what you expect from them.

“Team members aren’t used to receiving that,” she continued. “They’re used to being told how we operate and what it’s all about. But if you go in and say, ‘Here’s my style as a leader, here’s what you can expect out of me’ and have an openness, a vulnerability to ask what else they expect out of you, you’re in a better position.”

After sharing the expectations for how you will work together, support other team members and be direct with challenges or frustrations, your direction will be received as coming from someone willing to collaborate.

Helping reports trust you like a peer through active listening

Recalling why one of her favorite bosses of all time became a personal mentor, St-Martin-Lowry remembers feeling like her peer.

“She made me feel like I was side-by-side with her, and she did that by talking about expectations. She did that by talking about how we work together. Then, when I would bring stuff to her, she just asked a lot of questions.”

Through active listening,  St. Martin-Lowry’s leader facilitated her thinking things through.

“She took my ideas, listened to them and went with them. She would take that conversation, continuing to build stuff, and through it I got coaching on how to make things better. But she never told me, ‘Here’s what you do.’”

Asking the right questions

We’re so used to making decisions as leaders because it’s faster to just give someone the answer when they ask a question. But it’s often much more effective to pause for a couple of minutes and ask your report to tell you more.  St. Martin-Lowry offered some questions that can help managers get there, including:

  • What’s your initial thinking?
  • What do you think is the next step?
  • What do you anticipate to be the challenges?
  • What would you do if those challenges came through?

“When you can ask questions, that active listening helps people see a clearer path and vision,” she said. “Now, all of a sudden, they’re the one with the solution. They’re the one with the idea and they’ve got the support of their leader to follow through with it.”

Managing up means holding positive assumptions.

While these tips can help a manager adopt a successful player-coach leadership style, things get trickier when the manager’s leaders aren’t modeling the same behavior.

When this happens, St. Martin-Lowry recommends staying the course and focusing on making a positive impact on your people.

“You might not be able to do everything that you want to because the company or leadership isn’t as supportive, but how you treat the people on your team is completely within your control, including how you communicate with them, how value them, and how you get their feedback.”

Focusing on the people in your sphere of influence doesn’t mean you don’t give up on those above, but applying a sort of reverse-relationship-building with them.

“When you manage up you can talk about expectations just like you can with the people who are on your team,” St. Martin-Lowry said.

She recalls once having a frustrating boss who sometimes went around her and had been there long term. Frustrated, St. Martin-Lowry built up her comfort level to talk to her boss and challenge her assumptions about him.

“I challenged my assumptions to say, ‘I know he’s a good person. I know he cares. I know he was trying to do the right thing and trying to be helpful,’” she said. “Going in with a mindset like that made it easier for me to go and talk with him. I asked him if he had a few minutes and said something’s been bothering me, ‘I don’t feel like you value me, trust me or respect me.’”

“He said, ‘Wow, tell me why you feel that way.’ It was not his intention. Did he still do a bit of that stuff going forward? Yeah, he did. Habits are hard to change. But it felt so comfortable to go and have that conversation.”

This interaction taught St. Martin-Lowry what it means to have power over her circumstances and take accountability by taking charge of a disconnect.

“It can’t always change the situation,” she said,  “but you can very much decide how you respond to it.”

More than words on a wall

The continued need for leadership training is exacerbated by the fact that when most get into their first leadership position, they are not offered coaching or development training. But as the working world demographics change, what was effective 20-30 years ago no longer flies. Scaling leadership training to match what your organization’s culture values is huge.

“And then you discuss what behaviors reinforce those beliefs,” said St. Martin-Lowry.

“Mission, vision and values shouldn’t just be words on a wall. Because if you can connect people to beliefs and values, that’s a fun conversation — let’s talk about what that looks like when we’re living it.”


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