How do you lead, manage, and coach others who are experts? If your team members are more knowledgeable than you in the field, how do you adjust your leadership style?
To start, let’s break down the role of a manager. A manager is responsible for handling the complex elements of day-to-day business: identifying the work that needs to be done, defining the objectives of that work, deciding who does what work in the context of a team, holding people accountable, etc. Managers also hold leadership responsibilities: inspiring and motivating people to become the best versions of themselves, strategizing on the future of an organization, how to handle change, and so forth.
Nowhere in the breakdown of a manager or organizational leader is the requirement to be a subject matter expert in the work being done. It helps, of course, and a manager needs to have a context of the work and a degree of experience, especially in knowledge-driven industries. But at some point in your career, whether joining a new company in a leadership role or getting a promotion to management, you will move into a job that includes responsibility for areas outside your specialty. Here are some things to think about when that happens.
Shift Your Mindset
If you find yourself in a position where your team members know more than you do, shift your mindset. This can be a good thing for a few reasons. First, having someone in an individual contributor or sales representative role who knows more about their domain than you do means you can take on the charge of a true leader, handle complexity and change, and lead your people based on unique strengths. It means you have more time to practice seeing the big picture rather than focusing on mastering the details.
Additionally, you won’t feel pressure to do your employees’ work yourself, which many struggle with when they land a management or leadership role for the first time. It’s not uncommon for a new manager to struggle with delegation, jump in too much, and try to do the work themselves. Shift your mindset and remind yourself that it is not your job to do the work. It is your job to define the work, decide where the team is going and set, communicate, and carry out the company’s vision.
You likely won’t fool anyone if you try to pretend that you’re the expert. Be upfront and forthright with your team members when they have more knowledge than you do. By doing so, you also acknowledge that your direct reports each have a unique and critical role on the team.
Amplify each team member’s expertise publicly, so others can feel confident looking to them for advice in a technical dilemma. This builds their confidence as well and helps you effectively leverage individual strengths.
Ask Questions and Embrace Learning Opportunities
Many of us have wrongly believe that when we come into a new management or leadership role, we need to have all the answers. Instead, we need to come in and recognize the power of asking questions. Ask your team how you can support them. Ask for feedback. Managing people with more skills or experience than you is an opportunity to deepen your knowledge, so let your team members take the lead with their subject-matter expertise.
Revisiting our original question: how do you lead, manage, and coach others who are more knowledgeable than you? There is no singular solution or “answer” here. To be successful in leading people who know more than you, avoid viewing it as a competition of who knows how much, but rather an ongoing way of working dynamically with others. Leading knowledgeable teams is a continual process of showing up in authentic, humble ways – and in ways that help your team members show up as their best selves, too.