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January 12, 2016

Teammate or Coach?

Teammate or Coach?

I wasn’t born a basketball player, but it was definitely something I wanted to be. I chose to play hoops and I made myself the best I could be. I wasn’t born a writer – it was something I chose to be. I wrote regularly, I ended up at a great school, I became a better writer and it was something I signed up for. I wasn’t born an entrepreneur either. I wrote books, no one would publish them, so I did it myself.

Executive director? I didn’t plan on running a program that fields 30 teams and serves 650 kids annually. Some people see this as a huge success in a market as competitive as Manhattan. I am proud to say that I’m not from NYC. I did not hoop here. I had no name or reputation. I had no teammates. I had one friend – Denise Dibacco Cudden – when I moved here, and my sister who started her first job in corporate America.

What I did know – I could coach. I could get kids to want to play for me. I could get parents to trust me without even thinking about how important this piece was. I did it by being honest. And one thing I had to be honest about was that of all the things I did do well, I struggled a great deal with being the boss.

My problem was that I had it engrained in me that you always have to be a great teammate in everything you do. That’s what great athletes do, right? We give everything to our teammates. We make them better, they make us better, we tackle the task at hand, we do what our coach says and we never root against a teammate. We believe in them no matter what.

But here’s the rub: I’m the coach. I’m the manager. I’m the one who has to answer to our board of directors. I’m the one who has to answer to the parents of 650 kids. My oversight, vantage point, level of control and amount of pressure I put on myself is distinctly different than that of a player.

Ask any great coach and they’ll say…

It’s always my fault.

For the past five years, I’ve struggled with this whole dilemma – building up your staff, trying to find partners, wanting to help them, saying to them regularly, I want this to be a mutually beneficial situation and taking action that demonstrated I would reward them if they went above and beyond. But when evidence was lacking and they weren’t doing what I’d really really hoped they’d want to do (different page), as a teammate, I knew a good teammate and hopeful partner wouldn’t rat them out or turn against them. I waited and hoped and wished because it would be so great if everyone went into work wanting to gun for the national title or form the perfect partnership.

“The toughest part of any job is the management of human capital,” said Peter Borish, a friend and hedge fund rock star. “It’s by far the most challenging part of any management position.”

I recently discussed this with my good friend, Shimmy Gray Miller, who has been in the college working world for 20 years. Shimmy is one of the most dynamic, inspirational, entertaining and passionate people I know. I told her that I really was struggling with being the boss and I wasn’t sure what to do. In my head, the leader is a positive, fun, spirited way to say boss, the one that has to make the hard decisions. Shimmy assured me that she, too, made the same mistake when she was a head coach.

“We were taught to play basketball, to break a press, to train, to study film,” she said. “Nobody taught us how to run a staff or motivate or make HR decisions. We just want to coach. We just want the kids to show up, the staff to show up so we can do what we do.”

Shimmy, too, made the mistake of always seeing her staff, college and potential partners as her teammates. In theory that sounds great, but the truth is when the team is not performing, it’s the coach who always takes the hit.

Running a company, brand and league all at the same time is a place I never thought I’d be. There are lessons upon lessons I’ve learned and noted, and several people – my sister, her husband, my business coach, my board of directors, and advisors—have been consistently reminding me that it’s okay to think like a teammate, but don’t always act like one. It’s okay to recognize great teammates and team players, but at the end of the day, players can’t be the coach and coaches can’t play.

The solution in finding the right balance – in having the qualities of a great teammate but with some distance? I’ve been told that it is to recognize who is truly showing what it means to be a teammate – a player that is going above and beyond, taking accountability, thinking and driving outside the box and coming in every day to make the systems and controls easier on everyone so we can be put in lanes where we flourish. Find “the glue” player. Find your floor general. Find your scorer, your role player, your walk-on who is still a player you need around because of the spirit they bring to the office. Reward them, praise them, but also be honest with them. When things aren’t going well, they need to hear it as much as they do when the team knows and experiences what is working.

In the workplace, I do not act the way I do when I coach (a separate story). It’s because a) that would not work and b) I failed to even think like a coach in the office. But the truth is that end of the day, whether you’re a warm and fuzzy boss, a stern or demanding one, the pressure is on you. And a great coach always knows who the top players are in the current line-up and the ones that are all-time stand-outs, your Hall of Famers. Those are the ones that you either hope to get permanently on your team, and if not, you’re certainly rooting for them knowing that they are value-add everywhere they go.