Sales Strategy

The Most Dangerous Role in Sales

Asking our top performers to continue carrying a quota while managing a team of reps has dangerous consequences...

September 19, 2021

The Most Dangerous Role in Sales

By: Korrin Bishop

What do Buddy Jeannette and Bill Russell have in common? Well, out of the 40 National Basketball Association (NBA) players who have simultaneously served as coaches for their teams, Jeannette and Russell are the only two since the NBA’s founding in 1946 who have brought home a championship while doing so—Jeanette for the Baltimore Bullets in 1948 and Russell for the Boston Celtics in 1968 and 1969.

In the player-coach role, Jeannette and Russell had to balance their skills on the court with a larger vision for how each player’s skills could work together. It’s a tricky enough role to fill on the basketball court, but it can become even more dangerous on the sales floor.

In this article, we’ll caution you on why player-coach roles can be problematic for sales teams and offer some tips on approaching them with care if you must.

What Is the Player-Coach Role?

First, let’s define what the player-coach role looks like on sales teams. An individual on a sales team filling the player-coach role has the following responsibilities:

  • As a player, they are a sales rep with accounts and must hit an individual sales quota.
  • As a coach, they manage a group of other sales reps and provide the mentorship needed for their team members to succeed with their own sales quotas.

In short, a player-coach role is a combination of a sales rep and sales manager.

4 Ways Player-Coach Roles Are Dangerous

While Jeannette and Russell may have found some basketball success in the player-coach role, the concept can be dicey when applied to sales.

1. Player-coach roles require two distinct skill sets.

Being an effective sales rep requires a different skill set than that of being an effective manager.

Sales reps need skills in areas such as:

  • Prospecting
  • Pipeline management
  • Product knowledge
  • Sales presentations
  • Negotiation

Meanwhile, sales managers need skills related to:

  • Forecasting
  • Developing talent
  • Communication
  • Cross-functional collaboration
  • Hiring

“Promoting” a star sales rep into a player-coach role could backfire if they don’t already have the skills to be a successful manager.

2. Dual roles risk burning the candle at both ends.

Even if you can identify a sales rep with natural leadership skills, asking them to take on a management role on top of what they’re already doing as an individual sales rep is a recipe for burnout.

There are only so many hours in a day, and they get spread thin fast when trying to set aside enough time to both pitch and sell and also manage and mentor. Either you end up with a player-coach who is consistently burning the midnight oil to keep up or one who is cutting corners in either their playing or coaching responsibilities.

Additionally, research shows that humans aren’t all that great at multitasking. So, if you’re asking an individual to both manage and sell simultaneously, their brain is likely compensating by giving less detailed attention to either task.

3. Reward systems are tricky to navigate.

What motivates a sales rep versus what motivates a sales manager can be different.

A sales rep may thrive on meeting their individual sales targets and the accelerated earnings potential as an individual contributor. They want to see success for the hard work they put in, so meeting their personal goals serves as a motivating reward system.

Meanwhile, a sales manager may be more motivated by organizational goals. They want to see their teams happy and their company-wide goals met. A reward system based on the cohesiveness and growth of their team drives them.

With different needs for validation and rewards for a job well done, it may be hard to figure out how to motivate (and pay) a player-coach best. Either you’re feeding their intrinsic motivation for one side of their role or the other, but not often both.

4. The role’s conflict of interest can sow the seeds of animosity.

Asking a sales manager also to be a sales rep is a conflict of interest. Instead of creating an environment where the sales manager nurtures the growth of their team of sales reps, the player-coach role establishes a dynamic of competition.

Sales reps may assume the manager is taking the best leads and accounts, which can fuel resentment. Why should sales reps work so hard if their manager cherry-picks the best deals anyway?

3 Tips for a Successful Player-Coach Dynamic

While there’s certainly an argument to be made to avoid the player-coach dynamic outright, there are times when it makes sense for an organization. Influential player-coach roles can keep a company’s operations running lean while leading to higher overall revenue. But, you’ll need to proceed with caution.

1. Consider the current size and needs of your company.

If your company is large enough, you might need a designated leader to make the sales team feel more cohesive. However, you might also not be large enough to budget for an established leader’s salary.

In these cases, consider which you need more at the moment: leadership to improve the team or a power seller to generate revenue?

Based on your response, plan to have your player-coach lean in that direction. If you need more leadership, for example, limit managers to own fewer accounts as a sales rep so as not to pull away from your primary need for leadership.

On the other hand, if growing revenue is more important for your company, keep them as a sales rep, but encourage more informal mentoring between team members.

2. Look for team players.

It might be tempting to shift your all-star sales rep into the player-coach role, but they might not be the best fit. Earlier, we listed the necessary skill sets of sales reps and sales managers. These show that the most competitive person on your team may not be motivated to focus on the entire team’s success.

Elevating them into a player-coach role could ultimately lead to a player-player position where they view the promotion as more of a push to continue to shine on their own—at the expense of the team.

If you’re going to move a sales rep into a player-coach role, look for a true team player who already demonstrates the more communal characteristics of a good leader.

3. Focus on communication and balance.

To avoid burnout and tricky dynamics, put communication and balance as top priorities for any player-coach dynamic. Here's what that could look like:

  • Monthly check-ins with your player-coach give you a chance to see how they’re doing with the extra responsibility and how you can better support them. Ask them to be honest about any challenges they’re facing balancing the two.
  • When there’s a crunch for time or resources, make it the default to nurture the team over the individual. Letting your player-coach know they can step back from their individual sales goals for a bit to restore balance to the team fosters a positive culture that prevents burnout.
  • Ensure your player-coach regularly stays in touch with their team to identify day-to-day pain points and determine when and how to pivot. Getting too caught in the player role can disconnect a player-coach from seeing these daily challenges leading to more significant problems.

Thinking of Incorporating a Player-Coach Dynamic? Approach With Caution.

There are good reasons why the player-coach role is arguably the most dangerous in sales. In many cases, it’s best to avoid this dynamic. However, for situations where it makes sense or where your resources can’t yet support separating the roles, remember to follow the tips above to proceed with caution.


Korrin Bishop is a freelance writer and editor with publications in The Motley Fool, Sierra Magazine, Shelterforce Magazine, and Fodor's Travel, among others. You can learn more about her work and contact her at:


List of National Basketball Association player-coaches,” Wikipedia, Aug. 6, 2021

"Think You're Multitasking? Think Again," NPR, Oct. 2, 2008

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