Are You a Coach or a Referee?

By Michael Cochrum, CUBI.Pro

Recently, I was speaking with a good friend of mine who is a leader in his business.  He was telling me about a decision he was about to make to hire a new employee.  “This hire is critical”, he said, because the organization has had a series of bad separations which has left his team reeling by the disruption.  My advice to him was that he didn’t need to hire a ‘project’, because it was obvious, from recent history, that his organization didn’t do a real good job coaching its team members.  My friend bristled a bit at my comment and, in defense, responded, “I think I’ve been doing a good job helping my team get along with one another and settle disputes.”

“But, are you a coach or a referee?”, I challenged.  Both are essential to the game but allow me to explain the difference.

A referee’s role in a game is to, first and foremost, know the rules.  They also assume that everyone else knows the rules and, therefore, focuses on rule enforcement.  They penalize those who do not follow the rules.  Referees stand back and observe the game, providing critical feedback, but never getting directly involved.  You rarely see a referee encourage a player of the game.  That would be – against the rules.  Referees are also the time-keepers, ensuring that the pace of the game is maintained and that no one takes advantage of the clock.  Referees do not build meaningful relationships on the field of play.  Obviously, there is an assumed respect for the position of referee, because the referee can have an effect on the outcome of the game, and there is a familiarity that goes along with operating on the same field of play over multiple games, but the relationship is superficial, at best.  At the end of a player’s career, the player rarely looks back and credits a referee for their success.

A coach, on the other hand, becomes intimately involved in the life or their players.  A coach is focused on the success of their players as the player’s success translates into success for the team.  The coach helps a player elevate their play to the player’s highest potential, not simply exploiting the skills demonstrated today.  A coach pushes, encourages, corrects and praises with the best intentions for their player, not themselves.  A coach spends little time resolving petty conflicts because a coach creates an environment with a shared vision, mutual respect, and recognition for each player’s contribution to the team.  A coach doesn’t try and do their player’s job but trusts the player to do what they have been assigned to do.  A coach doesn’t try and treat players fairly but uses techniques to motivate each individual in a way that is meaningful to them.  At the end of a player’s career, a coach, more often than any other individual besides a player’s mother, is credited by the player for their success.

You have probably worked for a number of referees in your career because this is what we train entry level managers to do.  You know you are working for a referee when you are focused on what time you arrive to work and what time you leave at the end of the day.  You know you work for a referee when you spend a lot of time discussing policy.  Those who work for referees are led to focus on a process, even if the process doesn’t make a lot of sense.  You have likely been frustrated that the referee you work for treats everyone exactly the same and fails to recognize the unique talents you have contributed to the organization.  If you work for a referee, then you likely feel boxed in and feel as if you have no opportunity for growth in your organization.

Working for a coach is a blessing.  When you work for a coach, you are focused on the quality of work that you do, not so much on how long it takes you to do that work.  While your team respects policy, you look for opportunities to challenge current policies when they don’t support the success of your organization.  Teams that are coached do not focus so much on process as they do flow.  The team is constantly changing the process in reaction to emerging challenges, putting the team in the best position for success.  If you work for a coach, then there is one thing you know for sure, you will not work for them forever.  A coach is helping you grow to a point where you will eventually move on, with their blessing, and become a coach to others.  You know you have worked for a coach because when you leave the department or organization, you still have a friend and champion.

Be a coach, not a referee.

Contact Michael Cochrum at or at 972.814.1477


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