Subject Matter Expert or Super Leader: Can You Be Both?

Most people will be familiar with the scenario where someone who’s really good at what they do technically in their specialist area is promoted into leadership or management. But that technical expertise doesn’t necessarily equate to effective leadership, which involves taking charge, making decisions, setting direction, and fostering collaboration within a team or organisation. Effective leaders critically need strong interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and the ability to communicate and motivate others. Suddenly that high-flying subject matter expert (SME) is struggling to succeed in a role that actually requires quite a distinct skill set. And the importance of the dynamic that’s created by good leadership and the cohesiveness of a team is often underestimated.

So why does this keep happening?

Recognising the challenges – out of the comfort zone

Highly proficient in their respective domains, SMEs possess deep knowledge, expertise, and skills in a specific field or area, making them an invaluable asset. They often serve as go-to resources for guidance, problem-solving, and mentorship within their organisations, and their expertise and experience contribute significantly to the success of projects and initiatives related to their area of specialisation.

Particularly in technical skills-based organisations, a person may have been recruited for those skills, and then progressed up the ranks towards seniority based on that technical proficiency. They then find themselves managing people, which requires a very different set of skills. Sometimes, this can mean that team members end up with two managers—a technical manager and a people manager—which can create a tricky dynamic in itself.

Recognising the challenges – letting go

Another consideration is that it can be difficult for an SME to step away from the feeling that they have to be THE authority on their specialism. Having been accustomed to focusing primarily on their area of expertise, delving into technical details and problem-solving, they now find themselves needing to balance their technical knowledge with broader organisational perspectives. It can be challenging to shift their mindset from being hands-on experts to guiding and supporting a team.

Letting go of control and trusting others can also be challenging. SMEs often excel precisely because of their deep understanding of their field and so prefer to take ownership of tasks. They are also accustomed to sharing their expertise with others who possess a similar technical background. However, to be successful leaders, SMEs must also learn to delegate responsibilities and empower team members to contribute their own expertise and perspectives as well. They must communicate effectively with diverse stakeholders, including team members, executives, clients, and other departments. Influencing skills become essential in gaining support, driving change, and building relationships.

Clearly, some SMEs, even without training, are just naturally good leaders. They are more outwardly-focussed, and have the ability to guide, inspire, and influence others to achieve common goals.

However, what often happens is that somebody goes on management training course, but there’s little follow-up in terms of whether they’re implementing their new management skills, and doing so effectively.  Like learning any new skill, it develops over time. There needs to be some method of measuring growth and progress, through active demonstration of the skills, and feedback from others about the impact. The fact that there is some good work being done around measuring development, and yet many organisations haven’t embraced it, speaks volumes about how important it is seen to be. Which is strange when you think we measure most other aspects of a business, spend a substantial budget on training, and yet don’t apply the same ROI lens to evaluate it.

Another consideration is whether people are being provided with leadership and people management skills early enough in their careers, even before they’re ready to be a leader. Clearly, there is an investment cost in providing CPD, but many of the rapport-building and communication skills necessary for leadership are also pretty useful for employees at a much earlier stage.

Defining a Leader

A leader, on the other hand, is more outwardly-focussed, and has the ability to guide, inspire, and influence others to achieve common goals. Leadership involves taking charge, making decisions, setting direction, and fostering collaboration within a team or organisation. Effective leaders may also possess technical skills, but critically they need strong interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and the ability to communicate and motivate others.

Three Differences between SME and Leader

  1. Focus:

An SME primarily focuses on their area of expertise, working to deepen their knowledge and contribute specialised insights. Their attention revolves around technical aspects, problem-solving, and maintaining a high level of expertise in their field.

In contrast, a leader focuses on the bigger picture, aligning team members toward a common goal, and coordinating efforts to achieve organisational objectives. Leaders prioritise building effective teams, developing talent, and creating a positive work culture and environment.

  1. Skill Set:

SMEs excel in their technical skills, possessing a deep understanding of their domain. They become experts through years of experience, continuous learning, and honing their craft. However, technical skills alone are not necessarily sufficient for leadership success.

Leaders require a broader skill set, encompassing communication, strategic thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. They must inspire and motivate their team members, manage conflicts, delegate tasks effectively, and foster collaboration.

  1. Perspective:

The perspective of SMEs tends to be biased towards their area of expertise. Whilst they excel in their technical knowledge, they may lack a holistic understanding of the organisation or industry.

Leaders, on the other hand, possess a broader perspective by necessity. They understand the interdependencies among different functions, teams, and stakeholders. Leaders consider long-term goals, market trends, and organisational dynamics while making strategic decisions.

The challenges when SMEs transition into leadership roles

Promoting SMEs into leadership positions can present challenges. While their technical skills are highly valuable, the transition to leadership usually requires additional development. Leadership requires a distinct skill set that goes beyond technical expertise. Effective leaders possess strong interpersonal and communication skills, emotional intelligence, strategic thinking, decision-making abilities, and the capacity to motivate and inspire others. SMEs may need to invest time and effort in developing these leadership competencies.

Limited exposure to the broader organisational or industry landscape because of a specialist technical focus can also be problematic. Leaders need to understand the interdependencies among different functions, teams, and stakeholders, and, for SMEs, adapting to a more comprehensive perspective can be a significant adjustment.

In addition, they may have limited experience in leading and managing teams, which requires resolving conflicts, providing feedback, and fostering a positive work environment. Developing people management skills is crucial for successful leadership.

Navigating the Expert-Leader paradox

Recognising that different skills are required is the first step in overcoming these challenges. Leadership is a continuous learning process and embracing growth and development is also a key leadership competency. Organisations that provide opportunities for professional development, such as leadership programmes, coaching, and mentorship—and have prospective leaders with the awareness to seek these out—are likely to benefit from the best of both worlds.