Can Anyone Become a Manager?

Jul 14, 2020

The coaching carousel happens every winter after the records are in and the alumni are clattering for something new. I remember last year when Lincoln Riley was named head coach at Oklahoma and replaced the legendary Bob Stoops. One of the most powerful, most storied, and most profitable college football programs in the country turned the reins over to then 33-year-old Riley, who at that time was the youngest head coach in the country by two years.

The question on the lips of every commentator was, “Can he be a head coach?” Everyone knows he can coach—he can maximize talent, scheme against the defense, and make adjustments—but can he head coach? To be a head coach is a different animal altogether.

Here’s what I mean.

Any number of things can define and distinguish the contribution someone makes to an enterprise, but all contributors fall into two main types: performers and managers. Some structures are set up more for one than the other, but every industry faces this challenge and every client I have is dealing with it.

In becoming a head coach, Lincoln Riley is jumping fully into the manager category.

Performer vs. manager. Which one are you? And which one does your company need?


Performers are those who deliver their contribution individually—surgeons, artists, athletes, preachers, teachers, and many more, including all sole proprietors.

Put simply, performers deliver outputs and results through their own skill sets. Maybe like this guy.

Consider your dentist. His name is on the sign. He’s the one reading the X-ray, extracting the teeth, performing the root canal. The assistants do all the cleaning and adjusting so that the dentist can come over and make the final decisions. Everything is a hub and spoke system of management which is universally true for most performer contributors.

Let me be clear—this is not a bad thing, it’s just a wiring, structure, and enterprise- specific thing. Many people just contribute best as performers. And some are even super contributors—high achievers or high performers as I’ve called them elsewhere.

Want to know whether you’re a performer at heart? When a task comes up that is a bit ambiguous as to who owns it, do you think, How can I get this done? or do you think, How can we get this done?

Performers Aren’t Enough

An organization needs more than performers, though. Whenever your enterprise adds moving parts, a new contributor is needed—the manager. You need someone who can be a generalist and coordinate the efforts of all the performer contributors. And the more moving parts there are, the more those people are needed.

Paul Hawken said, “Good management is the art of making problems so interesting and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them.” As your problems and complexity increase, you need people like this.

Big companies and organizations that have levels upon levels of management know this intuitively. But in small- to mid-sized businesses, this is a huge leap. It’s the classic E-Myth dilemma, “If we’re great at baking cakes, how do we switch to running a bakery?”

You either have to find a new type of contributor or you have to transition some of your performer contributors into manager contributors. Both options are challenging—the first requires teaching and training in culture; the second requires asking someone to work against their natural wiring and everything they’ve done up to this point.

But someone’s got to be a manager.


If performers drive results and deliver outcomes through their own skill sets, managers do the same thing through the skill sets of others.

You can’t just put anyone in this role. Fifty years ago, Laurence Peter formulated the Peter Principle, which states that everyone will eventually rise to incompetence. If someone does well, they will continue to be promoted until they fail.

This concept is harder to spot today because people move around between companies rather than simply up in the same company ladder, but the challenge of turning a performer into a manager is still there. Managers have a unique wiring. Henry Ford put it this way, “The question ‘Who ought to be the boss?’ is like asking ‘Who ought to be the tenor in the quartet?’ Obviously, the man who can sing tenor.”

If you want an orchestra conductor, you don’t simply take the top violinist (concertmaster) and make them a conductor. You have to find someone with the wiring to be a conductor. It’s a unique skill, as conductor Itay Talgam has talked about. In this video, he’s drawing leadership lessons from his experience as a conductor.

Good managers don’t stand alone. They have people around them who can carry the water, and they have a system set up to guide and measure the work. They know how to coach the people around them to reach their maximum potential.

The thing is, you don’t have to tell managers to do these things. They just do them naturally.

Can Anyone Become a Manager?

This is the million-dollar question. If you’re a performer, could you ever become a manager? My answer is “kind of.”

First, let me say that it’s a common question. It’s the Lincoln Riley situation applied to all kind of industries. Can he manage assistants, the media, and being the public face of Oklahoma football? It’s the COO promoted to CEO, which means no longer getting stuff done but vision casting and often getting both the board and the staff to work. It’s the church planter who has to shift from preaching every week to equipping a team of young ministers and a staff of 10.

Again, people are wired certain ways, so if you just throw a performer into a manager role, they’ll probably feel a lot like this:

To help grow a manager you will need some training. Annie McKee wrote in Harvard Business Review that manager training needs to emphasize emotional intelligence and people skills, particularly when managers will be managing former peers. In addition, manager contributors must realize that as performers, they needed achievement, affirmation, and power, but they’ll get less of that as a manager.


These aren’t new ideas I’m offering, but it’s a situation that’s so common I want to provide clarity and terminology to help you think about it. So for the sake of clarity:

  • Performers drive results and outputs through their own skill sets
  • Managers drive results and outputs through the skill sets of others

Both are valuable and needed contributors to a team, but we’re generally wired to do one over the other.

Which one are you wired for?

And what may be the more important question is: “Which one does your company or organization need right now?”

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