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The Evolving Leader, from Subject Matter Expert to Leader

Insight - David Sheldon

Recently I was working at a professional services firm with a team of senior managers, all of whom were responsible for more junior team members. I asked them if they regard themselves as leaders; less than 10 percent thought they were. The majority responded that they saw themselves as perhaps, at best, managers with leadership being the exclusive domain of the senior partners.

This made me reflect on my own journey through, in my case, the legal profession from university graduate to junior/mid-tier lawyer focusing exclusively on becoming an “expert” in corporate law. Over time this morphed into a role also managing more junior lawyers to then more formal roles of Partner and then, with a career change, to being a General Counsel in investment banking.

It struck me at no point was I “trained” in leadership. The word was never used during my studies nor in my formative years in the profession. Leadership (or perhaps more accurately, managing) was something you started doing after becoming a proven subject matter expert, almost as an afterthought and almost as a “reward”. I had to learn “leadership” on the job, real time, with no safety net. As with all high wire acts, it was exciting, daunting, rewarding but also with plenty of missteps which could have been in many cases avoided with structured preparation and insight.

So, what did I learn about the leadership of professionals along the way?

Lesson 1: Leading is an entirely different job

The adage “what got you here will not get you there” first popularised by Marshall Goldsmith is particularly true for professionals transitioning into leadership positions. My first observation is the requirement to fully appreciate this change in role and responsibility – being the subject matter expert is no longer enough, quite the contrary.

As a leader you will be viewed differently by your former peer group and importantly, they want and need you to lead. You must recognise this and let this sit comfortably on your shoulders. This requires a change in mindset and approach to your working life, what you do and how you go about it. Everyone is watching you constantly, your verbal and non-verbal messages, are analysed, and quite often misconstrued. It is important to be self-aware and to note what you are projecting to others.

Lesson 2: Leading is more about the people, less about the task

A typical trajectory for proven subject matter experts is to be asked to manage transactions and teams – hence the title “senior manager” or “director”. This can be a straightforward transition to make – administering the output of a team and keeping things on track. I suspect quite often the distinction between managing and leading is not appreciated let alone discussed.

The difference between the two is this: a manger supervises delivery and transactions. A leader needs to empower people to excel – to provide the framework and guidance for individual members and the team itself to reach and hopefully exceed their full potential. My second observation is that this requires much more than subject matter expertise. It requires the full suite of human skills such as empathy, listening, influencing, motivating and nurturing to be deployed.

Lesson 3: Leading is not having all the answers – life in the grey zone

In today’s environment of constant polycrisis it is unrealistic to expect one leader, particularly a newly appointed one, to have all the answers to the plethora of new challenges facing business.  As a subject matter expert, I was always seeking complete clarity of analysis and then definitive advice with someone else taking the decision.

Most leaders work in the grey zone of imperfect information, time constraints and sometimes having no good options – it is going with the least bad one. Ambiguity and uncertainty are now pretty much the business-as-usual operating model. Working, and taking decisions in this context is a long way from the comfort of facts, clarity and advice giving. My third observation – leaders must be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  This takes courage, humility, and some vulnerability. Leaders can only lead when they are relatable and human beings tend to trust people that they feel are empathetic and authentic.

Lesson 4: Leading is about asking and listening not telling

Command and control (other than perhaps in times of extreme crisis) is a wholly ineffective way of enabling people to become the best versions of themselves. Assisting people you lead to come up with their own solutions drives empowerment, ownership and satisfaction. Subject matter experts by nature like to have all the answers and to be able to tell their audience what to do.

Leadership is the opposite; it is about creating a dynamic where it is permissible (indeed it is encouraged) for team members to admit they don’t know all the answers but that they can discuss this openly and constructively to explore options and land on solutions. My fourth observation – leadership is creating a coaching style environment of engagement.

Lesson 5: One size does not fit all

Everyone on your team and the other stakeholders you engage with are all different – different skills, personalities, experiences, motivations, ambitions, fears, and personal agendas. My fifth observation – one style of leadership alone will not do the trick. The key is to unlock what really makes each person tick and finesse your leadership style to the individual context. This can be a very time-consuming exercise, but it will significantly increase the prospect of real connectivity and impactfullness.

Lesson 6: Relax, be yourself and trust your gut, listen

You were appointed as a leader because someone saw leadership traits within you. Trust your judgment and be yourself – be open to challenge and encourage different points of view. My sixth observation – find someone on your team confident enough to be your Devil’s advocate; to ask you “have you really had a chance to think this properly through” is priceless. But you as the leader must create the environment so teammates will speak up and challenge your thinking in a safe space without fear of prejudice.

Lesson 7: Back your team

My seventh observation, after a decision has been taken by you and your teammates, no matter what the consequences maybe, you always have to back your team – at the end of the day the buck stops with you as leader. When things don’t go to plan, which they have a habit of doing, you as the team leader take the hit – not the team. When things go well, the success is that of the teams’, not yours.

Lesson 8: You never stop getting better

Leadership is an art not a science. All leaders make mistakes; all leaders have good days and bad days. It comes with the job. My eighth observation – we learn by doing, so the more we do, the more we learn.

It is a privilege to lead people, no more so than highly dedicated, smart professionals. That privilege is matched by a responsibility to be the best leader you can be to enable your team mates to exceed the potential that lies within them. This requires much more than your own subject matter expertise. At its core, it requires a deep interest in helping people excel as professionals and people, a skill not taught to me at law school.