Best player isn't always best manager

THE RISE OF THE PLAYER MANAGER. By Philip Augar and Joy Palmer. Penguin Books. pound;12.99.

In the Fifties, and probably beyond, many big industrial concerns recruited trainee managers in their early twenties. Invariably male and public school-educated, they had usually done national service as commissioned officers.

Instantly recognisable by accent and insouciance, and destined for rapid promotion to junior management, they spent a little time in each department of a factory - an exercise that seemed to pay little more than lip service to the notion of on-the-job training. However you choose to describe them, these young men decidedly were not player managers - defined by Augar and Palmer as "someone who combines the roles of producing and managing". Examples they give include senior nurses, hospital consultants and department heads in schools. These people, they suggest, face particular challenges which are rarely, if ever, covered by those who train managers or write about them.

In an early chapter, the authors describe the way that management has been in many fields supplanted by "player management". They point to the Fifties as "The Golden Age of Management" - when management was seen as a profession in itself, separate from production. This concept was reinforced by recent military experience, which seemed to suggest that hierarchy and unquestioned authority were the keys to success. The management trainee system described earlier strikingly illustrates this belief.

They cite a number of causes for the breakdown of this assumption, with a shift of managerial responsibility to "player managers" - those who had been trained as producers and were still working in that role. Partly it was due to economics, and the ruthless cost-cutting cull of middle managers across business and industry over the past 20 years.

Then there's been the growing emphasis on team building and collective responsibility for quality. Related to this has been the increased reliance on "knowledge workers". As the authors write: "If Microsoft's growth relied on coders rather than on professional managers, then management as a full-time discipline seemed somewhat less essential."

On the face of it, all this seems good for workers - more responsibility, less need to defer to managers who have never done the job. But there are problems, say the authors: "Empowered player managers are being overloaded with production responsibilities and managerial duties. They have received little or no training in how to manage others, and yet they are accountable for their results."

One effect, we're told, is that some player managers revert to the familiar role of producer.

Teachers fit into this picture extremely well. Our Golden Age of Management came a little later - during the Eighties, perhaps, when management training for heads was largely driven by the arrival of local management of schools. Ironically, LMS then encouraged our own middle management cull as schools reduced the number of deputy heads by a half or two-thirds, and shuffled departments together as faculties.

The notion of the overloaded player manager is instantly recognisable to our profession. The job of special needs co-ordinator, for example - expert teacher with a responsible management task - is almost impossible to do properly. We, too, have seen these overloaded player managers - as well as Sencos there are heads of department, phase leaders, co-ordinators, even heads - wanting to return to the relatively uncomplicated task of classroom teaching, the job they were always best at.

What is to be done? The broad answer is to recognise that player managers need particular qualities largely built around balancing leadership against excellent personal performance. A lengthy middle section of the book examines various real-life player managers, defines the way they work, sets out the challenges facing each of them, and looks at a way forward.

The classic example from sport is Kenny Dalglish, the star Liverpool player who also assumed the role of manager in 1985 and saw the club through the Hillsborough disaster four years later.

One problem, we're told, is that not all player managers know they need help: "Some player managers are so wrapped up in the stardom of their playing or in hiding their managerial incompetence behind it, that they haven't really grasped that they are now in charge of the performance of a team."

The book is well founded on direct experience, consultancy and research, and it's also a good read. Everything in it will ring bells with those working in schools. If there's a disappointment, it's that so little of it is drawn from schools which, above all, is where you will find player managers.

We're not just talking about department heads, here - a reception teacher adds to her direct full-time teaching responsibilities the management of classroom and special needs assistants, the deployment of resources, and, often, the running of a section of the budget. It's a shame that the authors have missed the opportunity of using such a rich example of player management in action.

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