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Leading when you are not the expert

20 Dec 2017

Welcome to the first in our series of leadership challenges that we have identified from our one-to-one coaching and leadership development practice, as being common to leaders regardless of the sector / industry in which they work.

Most leaders, at some point in their career, receive a promotion to a level where they are managing a team of people some, or all of whom, have technical expertise that the leader does not possess.  For some this is a new experience and causes varying degrees of discomfort and anxiety; many respond to the challenge by setting out to expand their technical knowledge by doing some ‘serious swatting’ on the expertise they do not possess.  Their previous identity as expert is under threat and they must do something to maintain it.  They struggle to trust their new direct reports before they have earned that trust and the result is often that the team loses direction and focus for a few months, while the new leader embeds themselves in.

How Can We Help?

As experienced coaches and leadership development specialists, we begin by exploring with the individual the degree of anxiety and its causes.  It is useful early on to challenge assumptions and false belief as many managers believe that a key aspect of their identity is to be the expert and have all the answers.  The aim of this conversation is to enable the individual to change their perspective in order to view the new situation as an interesting challenge – a chance to step up and demonstrate leadership.

Once we have moved the leader to this new mindset, we work with them to determine what leadership is in their current work context – clarifying the differences between what leaders and managers do can be very helpful.  We would then work with them to develop the various aspects of leadership, which may include:

  • Determining their vision and communicating it in a compelling way.

  • Getting to know their people and what motivates them.

  • Recruiting the right people and then creating a high performing team.

  • Fostering a team culture where performance is regularly reviewed at the level of the team.

  • Being clear about the sort of leader they want to be – what is their brand.

  • Delegating and empowering others and fostering the right environment for innovation.

  • Leading change.

  • Acting as a role model all the time.

  • Building and maintaining critical external relationships.

The Benefits Of Dealing With This Challenge Early

The benefits of adjusting the new leader’s mindset and then determining the aspects of leadership to work on are many.  This approach means that they can hit the ground running and take the team with them – so there is less time spent in ambiguous territory.  Regular review of team performance creates feedback loops that lead to greater effectiveness. Team members get to know early on what is important to their new leader and can adjust their work accordingly. Collective objectives are clear, especially during change and overall trust is built and as a result, team cohesion becomes stronger.

Leading when you are not the expert
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