In the good old days before ‘they’ turned every other FE college into a university, told everybody that tertiary education was de rigueur and then started charging through the nose for said benefit, it was possible for a relatively intelligent young man with the good fortune to fetch up at a halfway-decent grammar school and drift from his teens to his early twenties ensconced in the comfortable word of education, buoyed by free tuition and a generous local authority grant to spend on books, baked beans and beer. And so it was that your correspondent found himself three quarters of the way through a degree in English armed only with the vague notion that he would end up as a ‘manager’ of some sort and not really sure whether that could or would be in jam making (my alma mater was in Dundee), bean counting or the mystical world of marketing. To be fair, I was never going to do anything intrinsically useful.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude, therefore, to the drinking companion who steered me towards a one-year course at Loughborough in the new-fangled discipline of Recreation Management; another year sitting on my backside and a ready-made introduction to the brave new world of running local authority leisure centres. Since then it has always been my belief that good managers can manage in any context and, with Jennie Price heading up Sport England after a career spent debating arcane points of law and disposing of waste, I believe I have been vindicated. This supposes, of course, that she’s a success – and who’s to say she’ll fall on her face and be disposed of by New New Labour? Not me, my friends, not me.

Over the years I have managed people, been managed and seen many, many managers at work. Tyrants, tyros and two or three women; easy going, easily manipulated and even skilled and dedicated. All types, many approaches, many personalities but essentially all doing the same job: managing budgets, resources and people to achieve an agreed goal. And I have come to the realisation that, despite all the personalities and approaches, there are really only two kinds of manager: those who in real life – ie on the playing fields of Eton, Edinburgh or even Exeter – spend their time as referees and those who spend their time as coaches. Because, let’s face it, managers don’t actually do any doing, do they? They’re not on the production line in a factory, they don’t operate earth-moving machines and on a Saturday afternoon they don’t get their knees muddy or their noses bloody, They may work up a sweat, they may be as fit as a butcher’s dog but they are not participants. Like managers, we are led to believe we need coaches and referees (qv kibbutzes and Victorian football matches) but they are not the front-line troops.

However, the issue at hand is not whether we need referees and coaches but why some people naturally fall into one camp or another and what effect that has on their management style and so on their team.

We will start with the refereeing fraternity – and so very many of them are men. Their role in life is to make sure things are done properly, by the rules. They can stop the game at any point, they have ‘sanctions’ to dispense, they can send people out of the game, they have power and they like everyone to know this is the case. My favourite joke is one I used every week of the season with a rugby referee from my home club who was climbing the greasy pole towards ‘The Panel’. He would do whatever game he was allocated across the region and usually pop in for a pint at our clubhouse on his return. As he walked in the door my greeting never varied: “How are you, old son? Mine’s a bitter. Whose afternoon have you been ruining today then?”

As managers, such people are autocratic, fail to allow individuals or teams to breathe and tend towards micro-management. They may be smiley, they may tell staff that they want to facilitate their performance, they may say “pretend I’m not even here”. But put one foot out of line, busk it a little bit and they’ll be whistling you up, telling you where you went wrong and deploying a sanction of some sort. And they always have to be right.

Let’s look at an example. Alex F works in the marketing department of a multi-national brand. His role is to manage the team of jugglers, actors and models that make up the window-dressing at their head office, the Hypermarket of Dreams. Alex is a smiley man who revels in the skills of his charges and happily chews gum on the sideline as he watches them perform – just so long as things are going his way. However, just as soon as things go a little awry Alex gets agitated, shouts at his staff, his opponents, even the copy writers whose job it is to tell the market about his products. If I had read psychology instead of English I would no doubt have been able to point to Alex’s ‘tells’, those little tics and nuances of movement that give the game away. But even without a degree in body language I am prepared to guess that going red in the face, jumping to his feet, pointing repeatedly at his watch and swearing indicates that something is amiss. He’s a referee, a man who needs to be in control.

On the other side of the coin we have the coach, a man or woman whose mission in life is to bring the best performance possible out of the people in the team around them. They tend to be democratic, encourage people to express themselves and understand that individuals and teams need to learn in order to perform better and that the learning process sometimes involves making mistakes. And they recognise that the people at the sharp end know more about the customer, the product or the process than they do because that’s their job.

To be fair to both sides – and believe me, the coach/referee interface is a contest red in tooth and claw – I will select a manager from the same industry, although from a more modest operation, to compare with Alex. Steve C is an intelligent man and unlike many of his peers he went to university and seems to realise that there is a word beyond the walls of his current profession. His team are new to the big time where they “present an image of fair-minded, unpretentious decency” at odds with so many of their competitors. Despite moving into a new and highly competitive market, Steve C did not feel compelled to advertise for new staff at exorbitant salaries. Instead he kept faith with his existing people, offering this key insight: “I was intrigued to see what those boys could do… We were all in the same boat – and I'd put myself in that boat.” He didn’t have all the answers, he didn’t insist on telling everyone what to do and when to do it, and he had faith in his team to do their best, a best he suspected was good enough.

Two men, two very similar job descriptions. Both called ‘boss’ by their workmates and both called ‘manager’ by their organisations. Both with similar industry-based experience. But one is a ‘referee’ and the other a ‘coach’. The important questions now are: ‘which one would you want to work for?’ and ‘which one are you?’

Mick Owen is a coach, trainer and consultant.

Referee or coach: which do you want to be?

Referees and coaches are in the same game but have fundamentally different approaches to what happens on the pitch. Mick Owen suggests that deciding which you would rather be could say a lot about your management style

referee or coach
Referee or coach: you decide
"the issue at hand is not whether we need referees and coaches but why some people naturally fall into one camp or another and what effect that has on their management style and so on their team"

an independent view for the leisure industry








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