We spend most of our lives working to become a subject matter expert in our careers. Once we reach that sought-after industry expert status, we thrive. We are in demand for our opinion, expertise, attention to detail, process/procedure development, mentorship and problem-solving abilities. Usually at some point, we get promoted to a leadership role. And that’s when the problems can start. Here’s how to recognize and avoid the pitfalls of being a subject matter expert:
Always Being Right
While no single professional knows everything there is to know about any given topic, many people come from a mindset of always being right. On some level, that could be true. You may have the solution to a problem because you know the situation better than anyone else, but if you don’t know how to present it and gain followership as a leader, you likely won’t get the results you want.
I’ve worked with executives who are the very best at their jobs within their companies and perhaps even in the entire country. Because of that, they often think they already know the answer and forget when to be a leader.
When To Be A Leader
When you stay in the role of a subject matter expert, you simply express your directives whereas a cross-functional leader listens first and acts second. They see the end goal in the company’s big picture, and they know how to work collaboratively with others to get there in a positive way. They are results driven, but they also display emotional intelligence.
The Cost Of Change
One of my executive coaching clients recently implemented a company-wide change. The change itself isn’t important, but it was clearly the right answer to move the company in a positive direction. The decision was a no brainer, but the way she went about the implementation of her idea was all wrong.
Although she had the solution in sight, she didn’t consider how much work it was going to take to implement the change. She could list the benefits of the change and assumed the organization had an ample number of resources to implement it, but she didn’t do a comprehensive analysis of costs and pitfalls. She didn’t consider what resources would have to be taken away from other projects to make this change. She looked at the situation from the lens of a subject matter expert rather than a leader.
She failed in active listening, getting people onboard with her idea and educating them about why it was right. She issued a directive without investing in the work to make sure everyone understood why the change was necessary.
As a result, it caused significant damage to her brand. Her colleagues lost trust in her leadership skills and her reputation took a hit because of her aggressiveness, righteousness and methodology. If she would have looked at the situation from a leader’s wider lens and focused on all of the people involved instead of just driving the result, it likely would have been a very different outcome.
A Leader’s Framework For Decisions
When faced with decisions, leaders should consider these questions:
• Am I really right? Or perhaps missing a key new perspective?
• Is this decision important enough to go to battle for?
• Is it the right setting, or would it be better tackled behind the scenes?
• Is this the right time?
Leaders need to be curious at all times. If there is pushback to your idea, investigate why. Why doesn’t the marketing team approve? Are they just resistant to change? Or are you not thinking of some way that your idea could jeopardize the organization? Apply an enterprise cap and think about the effects of this change across the entire organization. It’s likely going to affect every single division and the community of the company in some way.
Just as important as curiosity is timing. A leader needs to know when to go to battle for something and when to delay it for another time. Is this the time to bring up the conversation, further the conversation or challenge the conversation? Or would it be better to present it at a different time? It could be smart to regroup strategically to integrate what you’ve learned, reposition it and bring it back in another time frame. Even though what you want to do may be the right move, it needs to happen at the right time organizationally. A good leader has their pulse on the cadence of the organization and adjusts accordingly.
Promotion Before Development
Subject matter experts are very good at what they do, which is why they are often promoted. I’ve seen people move all the way up to the C-suite when they are really lacking critical foundational leadership skills. Suddenly they are at the top, and they are not as effective because they haven’t learned to lead cross-functionally.
Those leadership skills need to be developed so that you drive results without doing so in an ineffective way. That movement from an individual contributor to a leader often happens without any strategy. Emotional intelligence needs to be developed so that leaders are able to read nuances and know when people are upset. Reading the room can be a blind spot because subject matter experts are used to putting their head down and driving results, not gauging others’ reactions. But this lack of emotional intelligence can trip you up. You might be missing an outlier perspective that’s very valuable.
One way to build your emotional intelligence as well as your leadership is to always put people first and your subject matter expertise second, rather than the other way around. You can do this by building a greater understanding of what your colleagues and direct reports need in your organization. Learn about their challenges and what matters to them. This will not only build your internal knowledge but will also increase other functional knowledge that will be important to you as you continue to grow in the organization.
If you need help transitioning to a leadership role, executive coaching should be your next step. You’ll develop your emotional intelligence to help you move up the ladder effectively.