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3 Stages of Leadership

Being CEO of a quickly growing company is hard, and each growth stage requires a different type of leadership.

To succeed, you will have to excel in the roles of:

Player

Player/Coach

Coach

Here’s what I have learned about high-growth organizational leadership.

Stage 1: Player

In the earliest days of any company, the founders are doing all of the work. There is no extra money to hire others, and you have to be ready to grind. Being a player means late nights, tactical tasks, often feeling overwhelmed, and lots of learning.

During this stage, you build high competency in execution and develop expertise in several core areas of the business. This period is exhausting because there is so much to do, and the pressure is 100% on your shoulders. It can feel like your work is all-consuming.

To use a football analogy:

During the “player” stage, you are like a running back. If you aren’t carrying the ball and scoring touchdowns, your team isn’t winning.

As the company succeeds, you have the resources to hire & the inability to get everything done.

Stage 2: Player/Coach

You won’t have the resources to hire someone for every aspect of execution in the company, but you start to fill significant positions of need. These new team members you are hiring need direction and coaching.

Ironically, adding people to the company only increases your workload short term. There is always a period (ranging from several weeks to months) where you devote significant time to coaching these new teammates. Still, they are only able to contribute a little execution-wise. As a result, you still have heavy execution and tactical responsibilities, but you are also responsible for coaching others.

You will commonly hear people in this phase say things like “I feel buried” or “I wish I could just get some time to think and prioritize.”

This stage is uniquely dangerous for leaders. Up until now, the company has succeeded because of your execution, and the new team members can’t execute at your level + require lots of coaching. The temptation is to give up trying to develop others and double down on your execution. Another danger during this stage is that you are so busy with coaching and executing that there is not much free time to focus on strategy.

During this stage, you learn to teach others and balance the disparate demands of the job.

Success at the player/coach stage requires a commitment to truly building a team.

During the “player/coach” phase, you are a quarterback. You are calling plays, organizing the team, correcting mistakes on the field, AND throwing touchdowns.

Stage 3: Coach

The company no longer relies on your ability to execute at this stage. The teammates you have been coaching can now perform at a high level and teach these skills to new hires. Your role is now focused on strategy, recruiting, and leading.

You’ve been looking forward to this stage for a long time, but something unexpected can happen. You suddenly feel unproductive.

For years, success was getting stuff done. Now your job isn’t a to-do list of things to knock out. Now your job is leading and developing others.

Success during the coach stage starts with understanding the enormous leverage you now possess. By coaching and leading others well, you can now accomplish 50x, 100x, or 1000x more than you could ever do alone. You can now multiply the time you invest in the company.

Each stage is fun and challenging in its unique way. The common thread is that healthy organizations are full of challenge, learning, growth, and mentorship.

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