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The secret to a smooth transition from expert to leader

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Much has been said and written about “experts to leaders” over the years, but there is a tendency to view it as a modern version of alchemy: base materials are mysteriously (and not always successfully) transformed from base metals into pure gold. 

Leaving aside the concerns of chemists and their latter day HR-based equivalents, I’d beg to differ – not least to the implications that a) base metals must be utterly transformed to have any value, and b) this magical transfiguration takes place in a flash, as if the promotion fairy has waved her wand and everyone lives happily ever after.

To deal with the initial concern first, there is a tacit argument that experts are valued for their knowledge. This is true, of course, but it’s only part of the evaluation: experts are valuable also for their ability to understand how their knowledge can be applied effectively and their willingness to guide others in grasping, understanding and possibly even extending it. 

Expertise is like the seasoning that enables the full potential flavour to be realised: without application, it’s just something that is slowly losing its potency in a closed cupboard.

Part of ASK’s definition of leadership is “a relationship in which a person accepts responsibility for their own fate and for that of others in relation to achievement of the task.” Like the best leaders, the best experts are fundamentally team players: their value is not an attribute of the wisdom that they carry within themselves, but their ability and willingness to pass it on to others where it can be of greater benefit. 

Wherein lies the objection to the second concern. The change from expert to leader is less a leap across a gaping chasm and far more a journey across a bridge to a place with a different viewpoint that requires a different focus – or, as a friend succinctly summarised it recently, “You can’t ride two horses with one backside.”

The traveller does not leave the “land of the expert” as a caterpillar and arrive in the “uplands of leadership” as a butterfly; they will have changed in as much as they have grasped a new focus, purpose and set of working relationships, but they remain at least a version of the same person. Given that selection for leadership is based on assessments of personal potential, this should actually come as a relief.

Their new role may involve empowering others more often than being empowered, in providing rather than receiving encouragement, and in creating rather than demonstrating trust. But they remain the knowledgeable, skilled and experienced employee who took the first step on the far side of the bridge. 

Indeed, their expertise may be a strength in their leadership role rather than a no longer relevant aspect of a former identity; provided that their expertise has been formed and shaped by an awareness of the bigger organisational and operational picture and of the business’ needs. It may also help to instil the trust and respect of those that they will henceforth lead, rather than advise and work alongside. In as much as leadership must be inspirational, an established reputation for wisdom can provide a valuable head start.

If the expert is to make that journey successfully, however, those caveats need to be recognised. The organisation must be prepared to assist the expert in adapting to new roles and responsibilities. Although aspiration is not a pre-requisite for success, a retained sense of engagement is: in selecting candidates for the step up to leadership, organisations must be mindful that the source of satisfaction for some experts stems from their expertise itself – and that providing reward and recognition for the expert without leadership aspirations is important if their contribution is not to be lost. 

Expertise cannot be a substitute for leadership, but organisations can help to prepare experts for promotion by providing training or coaching in aspects such as awareness of personal impact, delegation skills and empowering others, building and maintaining relationships.

Providing opportunities for “safe practise” through stretching in-role projects before the transformation is complete, and supporting the new leader through executive coaching can also help to ensure that the move to leadership is sustained and successful.

Butterflies may be enchanting, but they are also very short-lived. Successful leadership comes in many varieties, but none of them are – or should be – quite so ephemeral or fleeting. The aim is to create longevity – of the healthy organisation, rather than specifically of the leader. Transitory fluttering – whether by an expert or a general – serves no lasting purpose.

Anton Franckeiss is the MD at training consultants ASK Europe.

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