Six Ways to Turn Subject Matter Experts into Leaders

Want to help your SMEs transition into leadership roles? Pass along this primer to get them into the right development mindset.

By Deb Hordon

Team of casual looking business people having business meeting at office.I recently coached a talented high-tech executive who received startling feedback that he was ineffective on the senior leadership team because he didn’t communicate well or influence his cross-functional peers. Yet he was very effective as a technologist — with strong emotional intelligence — leading the product organization and essentially creating the firm’s blue-ocean software.

How could he be so successful and so unsuccessful at the same time? It’s simple. Being a great subject matter expert doesn’t automatically translate into being a great leader. In fact, subject matter expertise can be a liability.

Subject matter experts singularly focus on their domain. They apply their technical acumen, analytical skills and ability to hyper-focus on solving complex issues within their expertise. They’re given the most difficult problems and achieve quick resolutions by dedicating their attention to their knowledge area. What they often neglect to do is develop relationships, understand organizational dynamics, other functional perspectives and needs, and broader business strategy. As a result, they don’t think multi-dimensionally, which is required for successful cross-functional collaboration and complex organizational problem solving.

In other words, subject matter experts’ tremendous value is also the source of their failure as leaders, unless they consciously change their mindset. Here’s how your direct report — or you — as a subject matter expert, can become a powerful cross-functional leader:

  1. Know the content or business issue at hand. In any meeting, the topic at hand requires your analytical attention. Expertise is useful here, but it isn’t enough. Cultivate a keen understanding of the issues facing the business and the other functions, and contribute probing questions and points of view.
  2. Facilitate the process. Observe the process the group uses to address issues. Is it well organized with an agenda? Are the steps clearly outlined? Is everyone agreeing about the problem, its priority, and how to solve it? How is progress tracked and achieved? To lead you must notice these things and communicate your observations about the process to help the team overcome obstacles and continue moving forward.
  3. Consider others’ psychologies. Whether meeting with one person or many people, noticing their personalities, emotions, needs and triggers is critical to influence them. What are your colleagues’ psychologies, and how does this knowledge inform how you work with them? Are they sensitive to direct statements, or is it okay to get right to the point? Adjust your approach accordingly.
  4. Understand other departments’ perspectives. Recognizing how other departments work and how other leaders think are both critical. What’s important to them? What do they need from you to be successful? Let this information inform your interactions with them.
  5. Surf group dynamics and politics. Observe how power moves through the group. What are the relationships between team members? What hierarchies exist? Actual power usually doesn’t honor the organizational chart. Use your observations to communicate strategically so the team digests your message.
  6. Practice self-awareness. It’s crucial to be aware of your state of mind. Are you confident and feeling included? Are you frustrated or angry? Are you triggered by someone else’s difficult behavior? Are you tired, energized, bored? Knowing how you behave in these different emotional states is essential; moderate your own behaviors accordingly to stay on your game.

A subject matter expert turned leader, thinking along these multiple tracks simultaneously — beyond their domain knowledge — is more likely to become a successful and impactful senior leader.

Deb Hordon is senior vice president of leadership strategy for Bullhorn, a cloud-based relationship management software company, and runs a private executive coaching practice.

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