Paul Brown was the cofounder and first head coach of the Cleveland Browns. He won 7 championships and is credited with many innovations, including the face mask and the use of game film to scout opponents.
But perhaps his biggest legacy was his team of assistants that he built into. They ended up becoming head coaches in their own right. Who had assistants of their own, who became head coaches. And so on.
Today, nearly every NFL coach can trace back to Paul Brown. His “coaching tree” is epic.
I believe we’d all collectively benefit by making the creation and cultivation of our own coaching trees a primary career goal.
Why you should build your own “coaching tree”.
Why do I believe building your coaching tree is a career ambition worthy of your time? Several reasons:
It redeems any job.
You might not be that passionate about the product or service your company provides. But if you have direct reports, you can find deep satisfaction in your work by focusing on helping them maximize their gifts.
There’s a reason many famous or successful people become writers or thought leaders in their domain. Passing down one’s experience and knowledge is one of the most gratifying things you can do.
You don’t have to wait to become famous to do this. The person who’s a couple years behind you will benefit from the lessons you’ve learned.
This makes any job a lot more fulfilling.
It improves your company.
It sounds obvious. But your job as a manager is to maximize the leverage you get through your people (and their people).
Making a conscious effort not just to manage their work but to help them level up (as individual contributors, as managers, as leaders) increases your leverage, which increases your impact.
It improves your long-term career prospects.
Fast forward 10 years. Think about what the person who currently works for you will become. It might not be with your firm - it likely won’t. But the associate will someday become a Managing Director. The Marketing Director will some day become a CMO.
Think about how you can help them get there faster. Think about the skills, relationships, and beliefs they need to make that happen. Help them start to develop those today.
Think about their own networks and how they’ll grow and expand over time. Think about the second degree connections that will become available to you over time.
Someday that direct report will be a peer. You’ll have opportunities to collaborate on projects, or become a client (or vendor), or invest in their company, or receive an investment from them.
It’s the closest you’ll get to building a “legacy.”
If we’re honest with ourselves, our companies are sandcastles. It’s highly unlikely your company will be remembered decades later.
Building sandcastles is fun. Even better if it’s with people we like.
But we too often mistake our sandcastles for pyramids.
I would argue the dent in the universe you’re seeking to make is right in front of you, in the form of the people you have influence over.
I still remember my 5th grade teacher telling me she thought I had a gift for writing. I remember my high school student government advisor telling me I have a gift for leadership. I remember Peter Kraft taking a chance on me, and John Mathew building into me. I remember Joe Dwyer telling me he thought I had what it took to become a CEO someday. You probably have folks who did the same for you.
You can be that person for your team. They will remember the conversations you had, the impact you made in their lives years later.
How to build your coaching tree
So how do you go about doing this?
Find out where your team wants to go.
Your company might have numerous layers in the organization. But if you’re at a smaller company with a flatter hierarchy there might not be many opportunities for career progression.
Sometimes managers are hesitant to have career goal conversations with their team because of this. They’re worried it will shine a spotlight on the fact that the things they want can’t be had if they stay.
Don’t put your head in the sand. Recognize this is the case. Realize they will probably be at your company for a few years, and will eventually go where that next opportunity for advancement does exist.
And then invest in helping them get ready for that eventuality. Help them think through the skills and relationships they’ll need in that next role, and help them begin acquiring them.
Master the art of the 1:1 meeting.
Your 1:1 meetings with your direct reports are one of the highest leverage activities you can engage in. Handling them well should become a key goal for your own development.
Become a student of them and how to do them well (I write about this in depth here, and include a list of questions you can ask to help them level up.)
Develop competency models for your team.
One great way to do this is to use a competency model or skill progression.
One example of this is Brian Balfour’s model of the “T Shaped Marketer”. It outlines the various skillsets needed for success in a marketing career in a startup. The idea was to develop some breadth of knowledge in most areas (going horizontal), and then cultivating deep expertise in one or two (going vertical.)
I used to use this model with members of my team. We’d assess current state (green/yellow/red), set goals to turn a red into a yellow or a yellow into a great over the coming quarter or two, develop a coaching plan, to get there, and then reassess.
Find a similar model for your discipline. Or make one. It doesn’t have to be in the shape of a T (although I have found value in making it visual and keeping it to a single page.)
Find opportunities for them to lead, speak, and sell.
In most careers, you get to a point where you must either lead, speak, or sell. The sooner your team can get reps in these areas, the better.
Look for opportunities to help them present in front of groups. Can start with your internal team, expanding to larger swaths of your organization over time. You can also help them brainstorm topics, apply to speak at networking events or conferences, help them prepare.
Consider letting people shadow you as you go on sales meetings, or prepare for all hands meetings, or put together your board decks.
Help them build their networks
Regardless of the job, the growth and maintenance of one’s network is a meta skill that will make them more successful in their careers.
Help them learn how to network. Find relevant industry events and gently nudge them to attend. Perhaps go yourself and have them tag along.
If your company has the budget for it, encourage them to attend industry conferences.
When relevant to one of your coaching plans, open up your own network to themProactively introduce them to other former team members.
Teach them how to maintain relationships. One example is here.
This probably sounds crazy, but when you jointly realize they have reached the apex of their growth at your company, start helping them proactively find their next role. (Obviously this requires having a plan for backfilling the role or promoting internally. But you should have this anyway 🙂.)
Keep in touch after they leave
Too many folks let their relationships shrivel once people leave their company. Don’t be that person.
Follow up with them 30 days into their new role and see how it’s going. Do the same at 90 days. Then every six months.
When you run into a resource that might be helpful for them, send it to them. When you meet someone where a relationships might be mutually beneficial, make the introduction.
Keep tabs on their own hiring needs. When you encounter people who might fill a need for them, send them along.
Make yourself available to their own direct reports. Offer to be a resource - get to know the second level of your tree.
Continue to cheer them on from afar.
Your coaching tree is your legacy.
The development of your team is one of the most fulfilling things you can do. It will improve your work in the present, create future business opportunities, and contribute to your funeral worthy relationships.
It’s the kind of work worthy of investing in your entire professional life.