Many people are hired on the strength of technical expertise, only to find themselves promoted to a position of leadership. This is a time in your career when putting active thought into the way you influence others can have real value.
Shifting to a leadership role can cause all kinds of problems for the expert. The expertise that once formed the core of your duties may be wholly or partially sidelined by tasks such as determining/tracking budgets, running meetings, setting goals, performance reviews, managing relationships, and more.
The transition may be unsettling. Much of your confidence may stem from your own expertise. You may be used to being judged on your knowledge. It can be challenging to move beyond a specialism, to step outside your field, to a place where your performance will be judged by a new set of criteria. Not only that, but the technical knowledge you once held can wane as you spend more time away from the coal face.
Another issue is whether the expertise you hold is actually close to the core of the organisation. If your expertise is in finance, and that’s also the company’s core function, you are more naturally aligned with the organisation’s overall direction. Whereas an IT or systems expert, taking on leadership responsibility in the financial sector, isn’t such a comfortable fit.
There are of course significant advantages to leading a team when you have the knowledge to back it up. Professional management, without technical expertise, may have to fight to win credibility or the respect of those working under them. Whereas an expert leader is more likely to start with the respect of co-workers, and also to function as a role model – showing a career path to others.
Nevertheless, someone who is technically good at their job won’t always be a natural leader, at least to begin with.
Jonny Gifford, co-author of The Expert as Leader, conducted research in seven UK organisations with a strongly scientific/technical base to their core functions, surveying the experiences of technical experts who had taken on management responsibilities, and canvassing colleagues who worked with them.
One of the conclusions of his report was that any expert-leader should learn to be self-aware.
He said: “Self awareness is at the core of leadership, the core of working with other people. Only by being aware of your own self can you realise how you’re going to influence and impact on other people.”
It may be that a recently promoted leader, will need to work on their influence style flexibility. They may be used to interacting in a certain way. As an expert, they may have a strong reliance on facts/analytics when making decisions, and yet the role may require more strategic thought and decisions based on ‘gut’ feelings.
Gifford’s interviewees made comments like:
“It just takes twice as long to get anything done . . . They have to argue about everything. Well, of course they do, because that’s what they do, they test the hypotheses.”
“It’s mind rather than heart, so a lot of them will find it very difficult to come to the conclusion unless they’ve got enough data and enough hard analytics.”
There may be other areas of difficulty. At the risk of trotting out stereotypes, the nature of a specialism may mean a recently promoted expert is not used to working in large groups; they may not make natural coaches/mentors; they may find giving feedback difficult – either because they’re too timid or too robust.
To take a sporting analogy, legendary football manager Brian Clough was famously robust when delivering feedback. This was partly because during his injury-thwarted playing days he had been technically gifted, and later had no patience with footballers who couldn’t do exactly what he asked.
Effective and successful influencing requires a balanced use of the Push (Asserting, Persuading) and Pull (Bridging, Attracting) Styles. If you use Push Styles to influence someone, you are using your energy to ‘Move Against’ that person. You are attempting to get this person to change in some way, to start or stop doing something, to behave or think differently, or to perform according to certain standards. Pull Styles use ‘Moving With’ energy – promoting mutual exploration toward meeting an objective or solving a problem, or enthusing/inspiring others to work together to pursue a common goal.
As a recently promoted expert you’ll need new strategies to gain support/cooperation. Obviously every situation is different, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution, but you may decide that respectful use of ‘pull’ styles might be appropriate to your new position – inviting colleagues to advise you, actively listening, disclosing.
The goal is to avoid extremes: if you always Push, you may encounter power struggles, people ‘buckling under’, ‘giving in’, or leaving the situation entirely. If you always Pull, you may spend a lot of energy drawing others out, disclosing and sharing, and not getting much work done.
Skillful influence requires the flexibility to act according to the demands of the situation.
Whatever the situation, if you’ve recently taken on a leadership position, allocating time to self awareness, to thinking about how you influence others, can only help you develop.