Managing a Team of Experts
Getting the Best From Specialists
An intelligent man is one who knows how to be smart enough to hire people smarter than him. – John F. Kennedy
Denzel was delighted when his bosses chose him for the role of research chief. His hard work had paid off and he was leading a smart, talented team.
But, a few months down the line, two of his "experts" have already left, and there's dissent among those who remain. Team members say they feel stifled, are not given due respect, and that they lack support.
The situation that Denzel faces is not uncommon when managing specialists.
In this article we'll look at how to get the most from your experts without driving them away. We'll also explore a seven-step strategy for navigating the potentially tricky scenario of managing people who have specialized knowledge.
Today's workers are the most educated in history. Chances are you'll be managing people who are more knowledgeable than you at some point!
This might be because you've delegated areas of responsibility to individuals who then built specialized knowledge in those areas, or because you've been promoted from within a team of experts and you're leading older and more experienced people than yourself.
Maybe you've hired a social media whiz, an insurance actuary, or an inventory expert to plug knowledge gaps in your team, or yours is a cross-functional group that incorporates multiple areas of expertise.
Your experts can be extremely valuable, whichever route you've taken to reach this point. You can benefit from their knowledge, skills and experience, and they can raise your team's profile.
And yet, it's a potentially awkward task. Some experts have the reputation of focusing more on themselves than on their co-workers. They can be inflexible, overly independent, hard to motivate, and even rude, perhaps because they are aware of their value or because they can get so engrossed in their work.
So, leading them can be complicated, especially when multi-generational or cultural differences come into play, too. It's a challenge that some managers fall victim to. So, you'll need to tread carefully when managing experts, but it can be done.
Seven Strategies for Leading a Team of Experts
Experts have unique needs in the workplace, and leading a team of them requires an "expert approach."
1. Know Your Own Value
Managing experts whose knowledge exceeds yours can leave you feeling frustrated, disoriented, or "out of your depth." You may even start engaging in self-sabotaging behavior. Also, self-doubt can creep in when you lead experts, because it's hard to see what your contribution is, compared with theirs.
However, your role isn't to be the smartest person in the room. Your job is to see the big picture. You are the enabler.
You'll likely have knowledge that your experts will lack. Yours may relate to your organization or industry, rather than to their area of expertise, but it's just as important to the overall success of your organization.
Recognizing that your roles and specialisms are different should give you the strength to project executive presence, to inspire confidence, and to manage your experts without neglecting, competing or coming into conflict with them.
2. Facilitate Their Work
Experts often have particular needs – certain resources or time requirements, for example – and if these needs aren't met, they can find it hard to fulfill their responsibilities.
Part of your role is to meet their needs. This means facilitating their work, rather than playing an active part in getting it done, and dealing with senior management so that they don't have to.
It's up to you to provide the inspiration – that is, the vision, direction and strategy – for your experts, of course, but you can support them in more tangible ways, too.
Help them to sustain and develop their expertise, and to advance their careers. Experts are often driven by achievement, so they'll likely appreciate your help in identifying high-quality external seminars, courses and conferences where they can interact with other experts in the same field.
You could also round out their own skill sets by sharing your own knowledge of the areas where you have authority and legitimacy – in project management, time management and reporting, for example.
And build the right environment for your experts to be at their most creative and productive. If they have inadequate equipment, for example, you can lobby senior management to replace or renew it.
You can shield them from the demands of other teams and, if workloads increase, you might be able to hire some assistants.
3. Work as a Team
Experts often appreciate a manager who works "on the level" with them, rather than one who is autocratic. You can all help one another by working collaboratively with your team.
For example, experts often suffer from what business authors Chip and Dan Heath call "the curse of knowledge." This is where, once you know something, you find it difficult to remember what it was like to not know it. Experts "cursed" by their knowledge can struggle to share it with others.
Asking questions of your experts to extract the key insights from their work, and translating their technical jargon into everyday language, are ways in which you can share their knowledge with co-workers.
4. Set Challenges
Experts appreciate work that stretches them, and that allows them to develop and demonstrate their knowledge. So engage them in tasks that are worthy of their time and attention.
They'll likely become frustrated and demotivated if you don't "play to their strengths." So give them the opportunity to immerse themselves in their areas of expertise.
Have high expectations and set goals that stretch and encourage your team of experts to develop their knowledge. Keep them informed about corporate objectives, too, so that they can see how their knowledge could potentially make a difference to the organization.
5. Trust in Your Experts...
Experts thrive on autonomy, so avoid binding them with overly bureaucratic rules.
You'll have a loyal, engaged and trusting team of experts when you respect them for their knowledge and give them enough freedom to "get on with it." You may fuel resentment if you upset them with micromanagement, illogical decisions, erratic policies, or unnecessary work.
Being too accommodating or hands-off can lead to a lack of role awareness, commitment and responsibility in your team. Remember that you're the leader, and you are responsible for its performance. Value others' expertise, but don't shy away from asserting yourself.
6. ...But Monitor Performance
It can be a challenge to evaluate people's performance when they're more knowledgeable than you, and it can be tempting to rely on gut feeling. But you need to set objectives and goals to measure what your experts accomplish.
How you do this will depend on the nature of the work, the timetable, and whether your experts are internal or external. Define milestones and establish reporting checkpoints and performance metrics – in units that you understand – and provide meaningful feedback.
Be sure to give credit whenever milestones are reached. Experts, like all of us, enjoy recognition.
7. Keep Learning
You may never fully understand everything that your experts do or become a technical expert yourself. But, as a manager, you don't need to. If you try, you could end up getting in a real tangle.
What you can do, however, is to learn enough to have an overview of your experts' work, to know where problems might lie, and to support them when dealing with people who don't understand their work.
In doing so, you'll establish common ground and encourage their professional respect for you. You might even reach the point where you can start to offer useful advice.
You can make a start in two ways. First, you can tell your experts that you want to learn from them, and create opportunities to make that happen, such as getting "back to the shop floor" with them. Most experts will enjoy sharing their specialized knowledge with you and they will feel motivated by your interest.
Second, you can "put in the legwork" and educate yourself about what your experts do. Get curious, attend external training courses, research, and read up on the subject.
Experts matter. They are key players on any team, and they bring enormous value. Experts have the deep, specialized knowledge and the long experience that few others possess, and which can greatly impact the success of a team. However, leading them can be a delicate job.
Here are seven strategies to help:
- Know your own value.
- Facilitate experts' work.
- Function as a team.
- Set challenges.
- Trust in your experts.
- Monitor their performance.
- Keep learning.