By Madeleine Niebauer, Founder & CEO of vChief, a virtual chief-of-staff service, helping executives stay focused on what matters most.
In today’s startup environment, there’s a high demand for talented team members who can play a unique role: the player-coach. Think of this person as a masterful blend of mentorship and action—someone who guides the journey of a business while also rolling up their sleeves to do the work.
Perhaps this person is a tech lead who can effortlessly code alongside a fresh graduate in one moment and then pivot to strategizing the company’s next big move with the CEO the next. Or maybe it’s a sales star who can think strategically about building a sales function but can also close that crucial sale.
The impact a player-coach can have on a growing startup is undeniable, but finding a candidate with the right skills can be a challenge, especially if you’re looking to fill a full-time role through traditional hiring channels.
Why The Player-Coach Role Is So Hard To Fill
The search for the perfect player-coach is hard due to a few compounding factors. First, we’re still in a candidate’s market. With the rise of remote work, top candidates no longer have to consider the logistics of a commute or the hassle of relocating, so they have more opportunities to choose from.
Moreover, the ideal player-coach is a rarity. I liken it to the kind of person who can walk into a building with a dozen little fires that could each grow large enough to burn down the building. Instead of tackling the smallest flame (or making a run for it), the player-coach can identify which flame is the biggest threat and immediately get to work putting it out.
The dual demands of such a role—balancing hands-on contributions with strategic foresight—also run the risk of quick burnout. The role’s ambiguous nature doesn’t do any favors in the hiring process either. Many talented candidates looking for their next role will steer clear of a vague job description. Additionally, given the extensive responsibilities, a full-time player-coach would naturally expect compensation that could strain a startup’s finances.
In light of these challenges, many startups are exploring alternative talent solutions, including hiring startup business consultants, outsourcing to agencies and hiring fractional executives.
Why A Fractional Executive Makes A Great Player-Coach
A fractional executive is a seasoned professional with at least eight years of management experience who is engaged on a part-time basis—sometimes as little as 20 hours a month. These individuals come armed with a rich tapestry of experiences from various organizations and industries, offering fresh perspectives and smart solutions. Working part-time, they strike a balance between affordability and expertise. And they’re not just adept at navigating ambiguity; they thrive in it, molding chaos into order.
For example, in 2020, we worked with a CEO who found himself bogged down by operational tasks after transitioning from the COO role at the beginning of that year. Across the business, teams were struggling with the growing pains of inefficient processes, a lack of organization and communication breakdowns. Once we brought in a fractional chief of staff (with 15 years of management experience), she quickly diagnosed the root of the company’s struggles with communication and organization and implemented three new software systems to streamline the organization’s work.
Why Player-Coaches Are Often Drawn To Fractional Roles
I’ve noticed that many talented people with the necessary skills to thrive in a player-coach role lean toward fractional engagements because they’re seeking a level of excitement and growth they wouldn’t be able to find in a full-time role. A variety of limited-term, fractional engagements offers the chance to continually evolve and apply their vast knowledge across different scenarios.
And for startups, the limited-term engagement is ideal because successful player-coaches tend to make themselves obsolete. By catalyzing growth, they often lead the organization to the point that they need separate individuals in the manager and individual contributor roles.
Best Practices For Hiring And Working With Fractional Executives
A key advantage of hiring a fractional executive is that the fractional executive requires minimal onboarding. They are skilled at embedding into your team, interfacing with internal and external partners and team members, and proactively seeking out information and resources needed to get the job done.
However, it’s still important to lay the groundwork for a fractional executive during the first two weeks of their engagement by introducing them to everyone on your team, giving them access to internal databases and documents and reserving time for at least two one-on-one meetings.
One of the biggest challenges many executives face is actually letting go of key responsibilities after they bring in capable help. Startup leaders are often so closely involved with every aspect of the business that they can feel disconnected from key parts of the business when they begin delegating.
To overcome this, it’s good to establish communication norms. Make sure the fractional executive is prepared to report on the status of each key area they’re working on during your check-in meetings so you don’t feel the need to monitor progress between meetings.
Additionally, it can be helpful to start small, giving up control of one key process at a time until you feel confident that your fractional executive won’t drop the ball.
A fractional executive might be the guiding force your startup needs in its nascent stages. They can come in, untangle the complexities, lay down a robust foundation and, once their job is done, gracefully exit, leaving behind an organization that’s stronger and ready for its next phase. As your startup grows and you find the right permanent leaders, they’ll benefit from the groundwork laid by your fractional executive, propelling your venture to new heights.