At some point you hopefully outgrow your detail expertise. The first several steps in most careers are based on being knowledgeable in your area. Whether it’s finance, operations, marketing, or technology … you often know the details of what you are asking others to do.
What if you are no longer the expert? Even worse, what if you think you are an expert and it’s not true? It happens if you 1) move up in the organization; 2) move to another area, or 3) move to another company. “Leading People When They Know More than You Do” is an HBR article by Wanda T. Wallace and David Creelman that recommends the four areas of focus listed below.
My personal experience with this transition was a good example of what they point out. I started my career as an IBM Systems Engineer when large companies ran on computers that had a small fraction of the computing power in the iWatch. When I moved from Systems Engineer (technical) into Marketing (sales), it was assumed I did not know how to sell. Once I had become one of the top sales people at IBM over multiple years, I took over the computer systems and programming group in a high-pressure environment. The new company had a crisis and needed a total replacement of all their computer systems.
The technologists saw me as a “salesman”, which is not a compliment coming from technologists. A couple of my new direct reports thought they should have had my job and the company was crazy to hire someone who did not have a solid programming background. They were vocal about it to their peers.
1) Focus on relationships, not facts.
“A specialist manager knows what to do; the generalist manager knows who to call. The specialist leader tells her staff the answer, the generalist brings them together to collectively find the answer.”
It was clear to the team that my role was not to be the technical programming expert. My job was to quadruple the budget in order to accomplish what the company needed done in the next three years. I hired some people who had to take a demotion to work for us because I needed their expertise. I focused on making sure the pay was equitable, job roles were clear, and that we had business relationships with the rest of the organization rather than just “technologists”.
2) Add value by enabling things to happen, not by doing the work.
“A big part of enabling things to happen when you are not the expert involves knowing when to leave things alone and when to intervene.”
My role was to manage senior executive expectations; obtain buy-in from all areas of the business; build a highly talented group of technologists; get them going in the same direction; focus on meeting dates; and then get out of their way. I knew enough about technology to know what was important and not be snowed by the jargon.
3) Practice seeing the bigger picture, not mastering the details.
” Think of the specialist leader as head-down, deep in concentration, plotting a detailed course on a map, while the generalist is head-up, looking around and noticing what is going on.”
I was far from competent at doing what they needed to do to get the projects done well and on time. In fact my boss wanted more detail about each project than I was willing to compile. I needed my direct reports to manage the details and report them to my boss. The team owned the projects and worked tirelessly and long to meet the business objectives.
Before I arrived, the group was known to never make their due dates on projects. I learned that they tried too hard to satisfy the “users” by doing special requests or changing priorities at the whim of an executive. The bigger picture was that important things that needed to be done were being trumped by the urgent. My role … handling the bigger picture was to have a single number one project and to tell my programmers that doing unauthorized work was equivalent to taking money from the cash-register … and they would be fired. It did not make me popular, but it gave the programmers a way to say over lunch, “I would love to do that little project again this year, but if I do Tom will fire me.” The drain on resources stopped and the projects stayed on time.
4) Rely on “executive presence” to project confidence, not on having all the facts or answers.
“When you make a presentation in your area of expertise you are confident in the facts and the facts speak for themselves. As a generalist you must draw on that elusive quality of ‘executive presence’ to inspire confidence in others.”
I did not have all the detail facts. I was able to simplify for the leadership team. The CEO had led several companies. He said it was the first time he knew what he had committed to for the technology group. He understood the big picture and had confidence in the decisions being made. I had the confidence we were doing the right things. The team completed an enormous transformation in record time. I wouldn’t say that I had all the elements of executive presence as I would define it today, but I know that it was enough.
In coaching clients, I have seen that the transition to general manager from the role of specialist manager is a leap of faith. The later in one’s career the transition is made … the more challenging the jump.
- The general manager often has to not answer questions when they know the answer.
- The specialist manager feels bad if they don’t have the answer.
Many very talented senior leaders know much more than they let others know. There are many good reasons to not be an “expert” at the top … but that’s for another blog.