Promoting successful subject matter experts into positions of leadership is a common and commonsense practice. However, once in place, these experts are often confronted with a dizzying series of scenarios, demands, and decisions that are far outside their area of expertise. While they struggle mightily to keep up and perform to the same high standard as in their previous role, they too often find themselves mired in struggles and conflict. The important question here is, “Why?”
One of the more difficult transitions leaders make is from being an expert to having expertise. Before you continue reading, take a moment and reflect on what the differences might be. If you are like most of my clients, you may not have thought about this distinction very much (if at all) and yet, from both developmental and practical perspectives, the difference is profound.
Experts tend to be exceedingly task-focused and highly logical (within the logic of their profession). Theirs is a world of data, problems, and problem-solving. They seek and value efficiency over effectiveness and can too often get stuck in both being right and finding the one right answer. They focus on asking, “Are we doing things right?” and are unable to ask the more important question, “Are we doing the right things?”. Experts thrive in complicated situations where technical solutions either exist or need to be created. But because they struggle to prioritize among many expert ideas and opinions, they also struggle to make decisions. They get caught in the weeds and can easily lose sight of the bigger picture. Feedback is not easily accepted and must come only from other recognized experts. Therefore, while experts are crucial as individual contributors, the drawbacks of being an expert for leaders are problematic.
I often see this problem emerge when highly trained and highly skilled professionals (e.g. lawyers, physicians, engineers) are put into new leadership roles. Without proper developmental challenge and support, they will tend to rely on that which is familiar: the extensive knowledge base and skillset that got them the promotion in the first place. However, while that expertise can be necessary and valuable to their and their team’s success, it is not sufficient to lead. Importantly, gaining more knowledge, skills, or competencies is also not sufficient. The ironic result of this is that the new leader will become less efficient and less effective, resulting in frustration, blaming, and overwhelm.
Developmental coaching can help this leader learn to let go of their smaller identity of being an expert and adopt a larger identity of a leader with expertise. Importantly, this letting go doesn’t mean they lose their expertise. Rather, in developmental terms, they transcend and include their expertise. As they transform their identity from expert to leader, they retain all their knowledge and skills, applying them in larger contexts and situations. They begin to recognize a significant shift in their role, not only in terms of volume of work but also in terms of scope. By seeing their expertise as useful tools for problem-solving and acknowledging it isn’t the only way to view all situations, they make space for other points of view and perspectives. They then orchestrate these diverse views into a larger, more comprehensive picture, uncovering and enabling possibilities and solutions previously unseen. In the process of growing a larger identity, they learn to embrace both efficiency and effectiveness, keeping their eyes on the bigger purpose that they serve.
One of the best ways to support your own developmental transition is to begin asking yourself powerful questions that provoke reflection and insight. For example, in addition to examining what you already know about something, ask yourself how you might be wrong in your thinking or what might you be missing. These types of questions are not about finding an answer. Rather, they are meant to help you learn to purposefully take a different perspective. This requires you to cultivate curiosity, humility, and vulnerability, all of which are characteristics of great leaders.