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How to Go From Your Company's Star Player to Its Head Coach

You'll make your biggest plays once you start sitting on the sidelines. Just ask Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

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Earlier this year, the Golden State Warriors cruised to their third NBA championship in four seasons, solidly establishing themselves as a dynasty. They owe their success to their exceptional three-point shooting; and in fact, they have one of the NBA’s all-time greatest three-point shooters on their team: Steve Kerr.

Andrew D. Bernstein | NBAE | Getty Images

But here's the thing: This past season, Kerr didn’t take a single shot.

Basketball fans know why: Kerr is Golden State’s coach, and he retired from playing in 2003. At 52, he’s likely to do more harm than good for his team on the court, but the guidance he gives Golden State’s superstars from the bench is invaluable.

For entrepreneurs, the transition from player to coach isn’t as clear-cut. After all, unlike the physical demands of competitive sports, product development and the building of client relationships aren’t skills that devolve with age.

Yet, even so, at a certain stage in his company’s life cycle, a founder can lead the team better as a coach designing the game strategy than as a player on the court.

Retiring your jersey

Academics and researchers have long studied the distinct differences between entrepreneurs and managers, but if you're one of the latter, in the very beginning of that business -- when it's just you and a few others -- you likely function as both.

Then, as you grow, it’s critical that you hand off your managerial responsibilities so you can focus more on leading the company.

Related: All the Common Excuses for Not Delegating Boil Down to Lack of Confidence

Refusing to do so can have massive repercussions. For one thing, it can lead to talent loss. If Kerr had benched Steph Curry in order to play, himself, for example, it’s safe to assume Curry would have started shopping for a new gig. In the same way, your employees won’t stick around for long if you don’t give them the chance to develop new skills and exercise their strengths.

In the end, refusing to delegate causes both you and your company to stagnate. If you’re at the stage where you’re thinking about delegating tasks, you’ve probably already mastered the skills that got you to that point. The only way to grow is to lift yourself to a higher level. When you expand your scope, you’ll notice other ways to keep your company growing as well.

Here are three skills you’ll need to practice as you transition from star player to wise coach:

1. Build upon your teammates’ unique strengths.

Great coaches know their players. In a 1993 Harvard Business Review interview, legendary football coach Bill Walsh discussed working with two great quarterbacks: Joe Montana and Steve Young. He said he treated the two differently.

Montana seemed to doubt his natural instincts, instead choosing to rely on perfect execution of the playbook, Walsh pointed out. He said Montana needed to trust himself more; so as coach, Walsh encouraged him to do so; and when Montana took risks and made mistakes, Walsh stifled his urge to criticize.

Young was a different breed, Walsh said. At first, the player relied almost exclusively on his instinctive athleticism. He made some spectacular plays but also got himself into trouble. So, Walsh said, he nurtured Young by reining him in and encouraging him to stay within the team boundaries.

As the coach of your business, you, similarly, need to understand what type of people you’re working with. Some might need more guidance to boost their performance, while others might thrive with a greater degree of freedom.

2. Kick teammates out of the nest.

2017 National Bureau of Economic Research study comparing leaders’ behavior and their companies’ performance underscored what many of us already know: High-level leadership is more effective than micromanagement. Leaders, not managers, drive companies to bigger profits and success. 

If you look over an employee’s shoulder all the time, two people end up doing the same task, often at a slower pace. Meanwhile, bigger goals are ignored. Instead, determine which projects and responsibilities need to be delegated, then choose the right person for each job. Assign the roles, then let your team members do what they’ve been hired to do.

Related: How to Succeed as an Entrepreneur Without Sabotaging Your Personal Relationships

You shouldn’t completely disappear, though. Provide helpful feedback and make yourself available for questions. When employees have big wins, celebrate their accomplishments with the rest of the team.

3. Give yourself a new job.

There’s a reason why Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are two of the richest people in the world: Both started as brilliant young men who turned their big ideas into reality. But more importantly, they transitioned seamlessly into leadership roles.

To make the transition from player to coach, you need new objectives. Instead of focusing on day-to-day tasks that power your company, take the opportunity to transition into thinking about the big picture. You can have a far greater impact on your business by spending time on developing long-term growth strategies, innovating new services, expanding into new markets or evaluating merger and acquisition opportunities.

Then, like a coach, you can design an approach not just for the current play but for the entire game.

Related: 5 Ways to Think Long-Term in a Short-Term Market

Every dynasty is composed of more than just a few star players -- it also needs a great head coach. Businesses are no different. A single all-star or even an entire team of them might be able to achieve small wins, but it takes real leadership to achieve greatness.

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