The invisible stress involved in leading teams of experts

Written by Alistair Gordon 16 Mar 2022

In the past 12 months, we’ve had the opportunity to ask leaders of experts what the special challenges of running such a team are first-hand. Their answers are very interesting and, if you are in a talent development role, worrying. But at the same time, they present an opportunity to add value.

So, what does make leading teams of experts more difficult, and indeed, stressful? The responses of over 50 leaders fall into four categories.

1. The Authority Gap

When those reporting to you have more technical know-how than you do, you can’t just tell them what to do. Because they’ll know better than you. This means the natural authority you might have when leading a team of generalists isn’t available to you. Leaders of experts tell us they don’t have the technical ability to challenge what their experts are doing. They worry they lack credibility.

2. The Relationship Gap.

The authority gap has a big negative impact on the relationship a leader has with their report. Coaching, advising, even directing is possible when leading generalists. When leading experts, the relationship is more partnership and collaboration, rather than “boss/report”. This is often exacerbated when the expert has dotted line reporting to a technical guru – someone who does know more about the stuff than the line manager, and often the expert. The leaders of experts we worked with told us that giving direction was far more difficult, and any suggestions had to be couched very delicately. It is, they reported, a very different type of relationship. When leading generalists, reports can be dependent on their leader. When leading experts, reports are often independent of their leader.

3. The Contribution Gap

Leaders are supposed to be ensuring their reports are building capability and experience. If the leader has been in the role of their report and successfully been promoted, then often this support is relatively easy to give – the manager has lived the experience of the report. But when leading experts, this is often not the case. The leader is often not aware of either the challenges the expert is facing in the role, or what the development solution might be. The same goes for the appraisal (or annual review). Leaders of experts we worked with reported that their experts often ask how can they, as leader, possibly know how good a technical job they are doing? Or even suggest relevant development options?

4. The Career Gap

Leaders of experts report that their ability to define and influence career progression for experts is very limited. Given technical experts often do not aspire to vertical progression (being promoted and becoming a people leader), and they are often mission-critical in their current role, career growth is a difficult conversation. Leaders of experts find these gaps difficult to overcome and, as a consequence, leading highly technical experts who know more than they do is quite stressful.

You can help, in many concrete ways

It will come as little surprise to many OD and L&D professionals that helping leaders of expert teams engage, motivate and generate greater performance from their technical experts comes down to two things:

• Structure – a capability framework (such as the Expertship Model that helps experts understand that, in order to be outstanding technical contributors to their organisation, they need to master enterprise skills to complement their technical skills. (And leaders of experts can definitely help with these enterprise skills).

• Skills – the key conversations a leader needs to have with any report – regarding performance, engagement, and development – require great coaching skills. When faced with technical experts, these coaching skills need to be deployed even more. The leaders may not know the answers to some of these issues, but the expert will, if asked properly about them.

We encourage OD and L&D professionals to offer “Leaders of Experts” programs that focus on the real challenges of leading experts, and how to overcome them. Helping them practise coaching skills via real plays that replicate the sorts of conversations leaders must have with their experts is a winning formula for creating engaged, high-performing “Master Experts”. We have run many such programs now, and will happily share our tricks of the trade.

We can offer two other assets that might help:

• We have published an Expertship Growth Guide, listing 102 development ideas for experts, which leaders on our programs tell us they have found invaluable. This book also includes the complete Expertship Model capability framework which leaders can leverage. At $US42, it’s a cost-effective way to help leaders support experts in designing actionable Personal Growth Plans (PGPs).

• If the leader really wants to help their experts achieve mastery, then acquiring and leveraging the content in Master Expert - our 700-page manual on how to be the best expert you can be - is essential. The book draws on 7 years’ experience developing 2000 experts across a wide range of domains and industries.

Finally, we have developed a resource centre for Leaders of Experts on our website, and the content there is all free, and includes the ability to download some chapters from the above books for free.

Summary

There is a real need to support leaders of experts with highly targeted support. They’ll thank you for making the effort, your experts will thank you for enabling them to be led more effectively, and the organisation will thank you because your technical stars will be more engaged and add more value. Win-wins don’t come along very often – this is one.

Below you can download the Leader of Experts Performance Conversation Guide. It discusses how to handle the five performance conversations with technical experts – high performer, performer, under-performer, significant under-performer, and deluded performer. Free to download.

Expertunity’s Resource Centre for Leader of Experts

Expertship Resource Centre

What business skills do technical experts and individual contributors need to be effective?

How to use Expertship self-assessment to coach your technical team to develop their business skills

How can technical teams quickly master organizational commercials and strategy?

How can technical specialists more effectively influence stakeholders?

How do you lead a team of developers, data scientists, actuaries, scientists, engineers or other technical roles when you’re not an expert yourself?

Download the Leader of Experts Performance Conversation Guide 2022