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What to Do If Your Subject Matter Expert Isn’t a Leader

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What to Do If Your Subject Matter Expert Isn't a Leader

I have a client who is the business manager for a technology firm – a well-known company recognized for being cool and on the cutting edge of innovative thinking. The firm is filled with subject matter experts highly regarded in the industry. These experts speak at conferences. They are regularly published in multiple articles on a variety of topics. They are sought after for television interviews. From the outside – everything looks amazing. But what bothers my client – is that their teams accomplish hardly anything of significance.

It is an issue prevalent in the technology and digital spaces – but I see it often in various aspects of an organization, regardless of industry. Highly sought-after subject matter experts get paid many zeros to join a firm. They “think differently” and have these great and wonderful ideas, which gets them internal and external praise. However, at the end of the day – they are incapable of getting a team to execute on these ideas. The company then spends many more zeros on management and leadership training and coaching. Rinse. Repeat.

That’s not OK.

It should be so easy

It’s tempting to promote subject matter experts to leadership positions. Shouldn’t finding a leader be this easy? After all, they are the experts! They are highly visible and have great ideas! They have specialized skills! It’s important to note, however, that while SMEs are well-stacked in a particular technical skill set, leadership is not a technical skill. Don’t let the fact that a person is a strong SME hide the fact that they are a terrible leader. They will do more damage than good.

One of these things is not like the other …

Leader, manager and subject matter expert are not synonymous. They all have places in business, but by definition are very different things. First, there is a significant distinction between leaders and managers. Both are needed to be successful and both include teams, however as a matter of function they differ.

Outside of leadership and management comes the subject matter expert. If it isn’t evident already, being an expert in a particular field has absolutely nothing to do with the ability to effectively lead or manage a group of individuals. In fact, especially in digital and tech, the move from SME to management should be a conscious decision, as they are completely different skill sets.

You still need your expert

None of this is to deter you from hiring a subject matter expert. They are the idea generators. They have experience in the field. They certainly bring their value and they are needed.

However, like any good relationship, a dialogue needs to open between organization and expert. Why is the expert needed? Is the focus on accomplishing something new or educating and leading a team? Some experts have no desire to run a team. And that’s OK! The expert could be a leader AND an individual contributor. Properly laying the foundation for the relationship will save your organization significant money, time and investment in human capital.

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