From Individual Contributor to Coach: Lessons Learned in Management at High Growth Tech Startups

I’ve played sports my whole life. That means that I’ll never forget the big games lost, or the matchups I thought we could’ve won if a bounce or two went our way.

Now that I’ve been in management roles for the last few years, I take those thoughts and envision how my coach felt; doing everything he could to train, motivate, and help us rally around a common goal — together.

No matter the outcome, the coach does everything they can to set their team up for success. It becomes less about how many poI ints you score, and more about how well the team played together. Good losses you can learn from vs big wins you could brag about.

In the Startup world, this transition is the hardest — from individual contributor to coach (I think manager needs to be retired as a word).

Here are five things I struggled with over the last few years, that when I acknowledged, made me a better coach and leader.

Saying no more often

When you’re an individual contributor, most of your impact is measured by output. Someone needs help with something? You volunteer. Tight deadline? You can do it. As a coach, you’re defined by your ability to do two things well:

1) Work on projects and have goals that align with the company’s

2) Display tons of focus on what you and your team will and will not work on, and why

Saying no, and giving strong reasons why, will help you build respect from your team and broader organization.

Asking for help

This is more maturity and ego than anything else, and I’m fine owning this. Truth is, related to “Saying No”, is that you can’t do it all. And you don’t want to either. Between friends, family, quality of work relationships and your own health, focus (as noted in the previous point) is your number one asset.

Identify where you can run point on certain projects and where you need to be straight up and ask others to lead and you take on a more supporting role. Again, you can’t do it all — and the faster you can show others you know that, the better.

Protecting your team’s time

As a manager, you realize pretty quickly that everyone needs everything from your team. That’s particularly felt in a marketing team. From decks to one pagers, there’s no shortage of “we need this ASAP” in your company. What separates the best coaches from the rest, is their ability to protect their teams’ time.

You are the communicator between your team and those that need support. Dig deeper to learn what are must haves vs nice to haves. Learn why these are being asked. I spend a lot of time with our product team at Notarize to understand how they leverage an ICE framework (impact and effort) for evaluating asks, and have started to use that with our team as well.

Investing in your team’s development

Long gone are the days where rising talent spends more than a few years at your company. 43% of millennials plan to leave their current jobs in under 2 years according to the Independent. That’s why it’s super important to invest in your team like you would have wanted yourself. I personally have monthly, career conversations with my entire team. What’s most important here is that it’s dedicated time away from your weekly 1:1 so current projects don’t get blended with their aspirations. Second, is to constantly be asking what projects, teams and technologies interest them. No one knows where they want to be in 5 years. Most people know what work activities bring them joy or fulfillment. Double click on that.

Being honest with the team and strategizing together.

You’re not in an ivory castle.

  • Coaches shouldn’t have offices with doors.
  • Coaches should be as close to the pulse of the team as possible. Understand what’s important to each member and what motivates them.

One team. Shared goals. These two things working harmoniously together will drive massive results and motivate each other to bring their best selves to work each day.

This blog post is not at all a way of me saying I’ve figured it out. I’ve been super lucky to learn indirectly from Scott Galloway and Julie Zhuo, and a ton directly from Wayne Chang, Jessica Meher and others.

I’d love to hear what you’ve learned as a coach, and anything I can learn from you.

Product Marketing at LinkedIn. Ex Twitter, Notarize, Voysis (acquired by Apple), Boston Globe. Alum: HKS, NYU, UMass Lowell. Runs on ☕️ and Celtics 🏀

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