You’re an expert in your field, well on your way to being at the top of your career game. Respected. Admired.
Then you get promoted.
Out of the gate, you hit a few speed bumps. But you’re confident. You’ve established a strong reputation in your organization — possibly even in your industry — so you chalk it up to beginner’s luck. Or to being misunderstood. Or to a bad day (or string of days).
The transition into a leadership role can present unprecedented challenges.
Those challenges can be magnified if you’ve risen to the top of your career through subject matter expertise in your given industry but haven’t had the chance to lead a larger team or meet business-wide goals.
“Experts often have a ‘specialist’ orientation,” according to Nancy Scheel, an executive coach who runs Jody Michael Associates’ Atlanta office.
While this narrow-but-deep focus allows you to excel in your field, it can limit your leadership effectiveness in a bigger-picture context.
And that can make for tricky terrain as a leader.
If You’re an Expert, Should You Become a Leader?
Tricky does not mean impossible.
It does mean that the decision to make the transition to a leadership role should be made with careful consideration — for anyone, but especially if you’re an expert with a specialist orientation.
“If you’re a specialist, your natural inclination is to focus on your own work,” Nancy says.
“To be clear, it doesn’t mean you’re selfish; rather, that you need a high level of autonomy and are likely to have unique perspectives. You find meaning in the details — and like it that way. It feels right to you.”
Your job title may include the word “generalist” or “specialist,” but that doesn’t guarantee an accurate reflection of your natural orientation.
[Note: The Highlands Ability Battery — an assessment that lends insight into not what you know, but rather, identifies your personal strengths, natural abilities and orientations — can help remove the guesswork.]
In a corporate setting, experts often wind up in leadership roles because organizations — or they, themselves — deem that to be a “logical” next step in their career ladder.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the right step for you.
Leadership requires a broader vantage point. And that shift can require reconciling a discrepancy between your natural orientation and the reality of the demands of your new role.
Nancy recommends thinking about whether you are willing to shift your expertise to a higher strategic level, and how you will feel when your time and focus are diverted from workplace responsibilities you typically enjoy — because those will now be delegated to others.
“Expert” Strategies for Effective Leadership
Because the promotion from expert to leader happens organically, people (and organizations) sometimes fail to recognize the profound differences between the demands of an operational position and a leadership position.
Even if they acknowledge that it’s a stretch, it is often accompanied by the assumption that “they’ll grow into” the job.
If you’re an expert aspiring to (or are thrust into) a leadership role, how can you position yourself for success?
Nancy recommends the following strategies:
Make an informed decision — Not sure what the role will entail? Ask. Make sure you’re clear about upper management’s expectations, including short- and long-term goals and the day-to-day activities that are involved in the position. Engage in thoughtful conversations with key stakeholders to avert misunderstandings or false assumptions. If you question whether or not the role is a good match for you, an executive coach can help you make the decision to pursue or accept the position, and ensure a smooth transition into your new role.
Hone your communication — When you move into a leadership role, you are not only responsible for communication with your direct reports, but also with upper management — often the C-suite. As a subject matter expert, you might delight in details, but others (above or below you on the corporate ladder) may not share your enthusiasm. As such, you’ll probably need to tighten up your written and verbal communication. Be thoughtful about the level of detail people on the receiving end need — or want — in order to stay up to date and make informed decisions.
Recognize the importance of “soft skills” — If you’re a specialist, learning to influence in ways that don’t rely on subject matter expertise could provide an opportunity for your own personal growth. Increasing your emotional intelligence — including cultivating greater self-awareness, learning to manage your mood states, developing an understanding of group dynamics, and becoming more attuned to the individuals on the team — will exponentially increase your effectiveness as a leader.
Being a subject matter expert and a leader are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a leadership role can be a great career pathing option. Whether that’s been your plan all along, or the shift catches you by surprise, our executive coaches can help ensure a smooth transition to — and success in — your new position.