Player-coach roles in design teams are getting more common again but come with tradeoffs for both design leaders and their teams. Leaders need to balance their attention with confidence to be successful in such roles.

A large fish giving a pep talk to a group of crabs in a surrealistic style with electric colors, generated with DiffusionBee
A large fish giving a pep talk to a group of crabs in a surrealistic style with electric colors, generated with DiffusionBee

☕ Player-coach leaders

As the product design discipline matures, the career tracks are more or less solidified to have separate paths for the manager and individual contributor tracks beyond the senior level. But there are a few things muddying these waters.

Small companies that are just getting started hiring designers might not have large enough teams to have full-time leaders. Also, there is a shift in what’s expected from design leaders, as highlighted in The State of UX in 2023. With leaner tech companies, managers are asked again to take on design and research projects. Thus, we again have front-line design managers getting more hands-on and taking on projects alongside their management tasks.

This arrangement is generally called a player-coach role. These leaders are asked to coach. That is, to act as the coach in their team, doing people management, getting into product strategy, and working on the team’s culture and practices. Also, they are asked to play, act as designers, and potentially go deep into details. This usually covers the full range of activities for designers from macro strategy to micro-interactions, from product to process and people.

For design leaders, there are a few advantages to these roles.

As they get into more senior roles, they can use the skills they’ve learned as individual contributors in their management game. Only they need to apply their knowledge to higher abstraction levels. For example, when I first became a manager, I used my user research skills to better understand expectations for my reports and drew journey maps to better describe plans.

Getting into a player-coach role refines experienced leaders’ skills, as they get better leaders by practicing their skills, and working alongside their teams. They will get also more empathic with their reports, directly learning about what it takes to design at their organization. Finally, leading by example is a good way to not sound overly theoretical when discussing approaches.

The disadvantage is that it’s even more difficult to balance tasks on the urgent-important scale. While team-related tasks will have a higher leverage, the inevitable pull of urgent project work makes spending enough time with the team challenging. This does a disservice to both the team members (they don’t get the support they need), and it also does a disservice to the design leader, especially first-time leaders. It’ll be always more comfortable to focus on design tasks instead of making sometimes difficult decisions or figuring out things like career progression. This also leads to less learning and improvement of management skills over time.

Player-coach roles won’t go away. For experienced leaders, it’s an opportunity to practice and hone both their design and management skills. For first-time leaders, it’s an opportunity to get into management by taking a lower risk. For either, the right balance is key - and building the confidence to seamlessly shift from player to coach, sometimes even within the same discussion.

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🍪 Things to snack on

Aly Blenking writes about how she became a better manager by learning how to be a better designer in Returning to craft. Even frontline managers can get detached from the daily realities of design, and need to emphasize better with their teams. It’s useful to think about the pendulum between management and practice, spending time in both strengthens both. The article highlights three ideas that leaders can learn when they get back to practice. First is how difficult it is to slow down and learn. Second how important it is to have an environment to challenge best practices. The third is the importance of listening first before sharing opinions as a manager.

Why the player/coach model fails by Mia Blume argues that people in a player-coach role are set up for failure in most organizations. The innate imbalance of needing to go both deep (into project details) and wide (managing team members) leaves managers under constant time pressure. The model might be appropriate for first-time leaders trying their hand at management and for small teams with limited scope.

Player-coach managers need to be very careful with their time and attention to not underserve their team. There is a continuum of tasks that change as the team gets bigger, as Jen Ottovegio writes in The Tipping Point: When “Player-Coach” Management No Longer Works. At a certain tipping point coach work needs to take priority - the article argues, this is at 4 direct reports.

For first-time design leaders, a player-coach role might be a common first step, which is filled with challenges as Andy Budd writes in Being a Player Coach: Is it the best or the worst of both worlds?. The one benefit is, that player-coach roles are easier to find for the first time manager, especially at companies who are uncertain about hiring their first leader. They get a player-coach on board who can also lead besides working as an individual contributor. This leads to three challenges. First, it’s essentially two jobs and inexperience makes it difficult to get better in either of them. Second as first leaders of design teams also need to create all the infrastructure for the team from hiring to progression framework that needs experience in management - something they lack. Third, the organization itself has too little understanding of what it takes to be a design leader and gives not enough support.