Leading Expert to Expert Leader

Not every expert aspires to lead, but there can be enormous upside for those who do.

Developing leadership capability with technical experts invariably presents unique challenges. The deeper the specialisation, the more difficult it can be for experts to embrace developing their own leadership skills. 

The very nature of expertise demands a deep, narrow focus. This can come at the expense of broader skills necessary to successfully navigate workplace interpersonal and organisational dynamics, and effectively lead others. 

Unsurprisingly, technical experts are primarily motivated by the technical aspects of their work. Helping them transition into leadership roles requires an understanding of their unique motivation, career, and life aspirations.

Often, they are deeply invested in their expertise and may not see the immediate benefits of building leadership skills. Their sense of self is tightly entwined around their expert status and developing leadership capability can require an uncomfortable reversion from teacher to student. 

Overcoming resistance to change and helping them see the value of leadership development is not always easy. 

I recall coaching an extremely talented physician some years ago who was struggling to understand how developing her own leadership capability could help her achieve better medical outcomes. She viewed leadership and the administration of the hospital system she was part of, as peripheral to the real work of practicing medicine. Her scepticism only lifted when I pointed out that if she did not develop her leadership capability, others less suited than herself, must take on medical leadership roles within the system. If not her, then who? She rose to the challenge, went on to fill successive senior leadership roles and make widespread positive impacts on patient care, which would not have happened had she not embraced her own leadership development.

Immersion in a particular field of expertise may result in interpersonal, team or organisational challenges being viewed inappropriately through a subject matter expert lens. 

For example, auditors leaning further into auditing skills when attempting to solve inter-team problems, lawyers being overly legalistic when addressing interpersonal conflicts or doctors applying a variation of medical practice to try and resolve complex hospital administrative challenges. This potential for overreliance on specialist archetypes can be accentuated by expert beliefs in the superiority of their unique skill sets and a discounting of others, particularly where others are perceived as generalists. 

Technical experts are often promoted into leadership roles because of their exceptional technical skills with the misplaced assumption that, since they are achieving great things in their individual contributor role, they will achieve even more in a leadership role. However, the transition from a brilliant individual contributor to a leader requires a shift in mindset, from achieving through individual expertise to achieving through others, and a new skillset. High cognitive intelligence is no guarantee of emotional intelligence needed to work effectively with others. 

Without leadership development support, experts may struggle to delegate tasks, as they feel they can better complete the work themselves. Building rapport, dealing with conflict, inspiring and motivating others, are all skills that must be learned. Those who step up to leadership roles can sometimes face resistance and pushback from their ‘purist’ peers. 

To address these challenges effectively, it is essential to design leadership development programs and coaching support tailored specifically to technical experts’ needs. A blended approach that includes mentoring, coaching, experiential learning, and opportunities for practising leadership skills in real-world contextualised scenarios can be particularly beneficial. 

Technical experts can and do make the transition to exceptional leaders. But it can be a potholed road, which they are more likely to successfully navigate if the proper support is available. Those who combine expertise with enhanced leadership capability can go on to achieve extraordinary things not possible within the confines of their expert fields alone. 

At nXus People, we have provided effective leadership development support to lawyers, scientists, engineers, auditors, investigators, physicians and those in many other expert fields.

Call us if you need help with any of your leadership development needs or if you would like to explore our offerings further.