|Published: July 21, 2015
Jennifer Selby Long, Selby Group
How to Lead People Who Know More Than You
These words all describe what happens when you manage people who know more about their profession than you do. This happens because most managers try to lead experts the same way they manage people who are more junior.
Let’s face it – every leader who climbs above a first-line manager role will be in this situation. Whether you’re leading seasoned experts in your own field or broadening your scope to include functions in which you’ve never worked, you suddenly have to figure out how to lead people – a lot of people – to whom you seemingly have no value whatsoever to add.
And trust me, because they tell me openly, that is their assumption upon learning someone with less experience or from a different professional background is the new boss. Until you prove otherwise, they’ll just quietly hope you get promoted again or moved to another function, so you’ll soon be out of their way.
So what’s a leader to do when those you manage know more than you? Start with these three guidelines to become the best boss they’ve ever had:
If the employees are in a different profession, learn the basics of their profession and business situation well enough to understand each team member's needs and concerns -- but never, ever kid yourself about your true level of knowledge.
Do your research. It's your job to understand the gist of what they do so you can understand what they need to produce superior results. Don’t show up for your first round of 1:1’s entirely clueless. You will gain their respect (at least a little) by showing up for these discussions prepared with basic knowledge and lots of good questions.
However, don't try to show off the fact that you did some homework by making bold statements. You’ll kill your credibility. Your knowledge is the tip of the iceberg compared to theirs.
Share what you understand to be the basics of their situation, goals, and challenges they face, and ask for their feedback, corrections, and additions. Be honest that you understand you’re of little use in personally developing their expertise, but that you are committed to advocating for the resources they need to do their jobs well and to develop their careers with the company.
The greatest general managers recognize that it’s not their job to know everything. It’s their job to set direction, mobilize resources to get results, build the strongest and most productive teams they possibly can, and build a resilient organization for the future. They recognize that they can’t be good at all of these things while also developing deep expertise in every part of the business, and their people respect them for that.
Don’t actively manage anyone over 25 years of age unless there’s evidence they can’t self-manage.
More often than not, the employee who knows more than you also has several more years of professional experience than you, and certainly more years handling the workload unique to his or her job.
The exception to this can be employees who are in their first or second job. You will likely need to be more actively involved in managing their work not only to hit goals and deadlines in high-stakes, complex, and ambiguous situations, but also to help them develop their professional skills in self-management and collaboration. It’s a lot different from school, and they don’t have a great deal of experience, yet.
Granted, the exact age of 25 is a bit arbitrary, since for some highly specialized professions, a 25-year-old still has 3 - 5 more years of education to complete, and for go-getters who are already working in their teens, the age of 25 feels more like 30. Use your best judgment here. Just don’t leave inexperienced employees feeling lost, even if they are super-smart in their areas of expertise.
Assume mid-career professionals are self-managing, unless you see evidence otherwise.
At this stage, they don’t need a boss to personally direct and develop them. What they need is an effective advocate in the organization: someone who builds bridges where needed, sets boundaries where needed, and secures resources needed to get the job done well. Find out what they want to accomplish and the barriers they see in the way, and then double down your efforts to remove the barriers.
Also assume that all late-stage and second-career employees are self-managing. Invest the time to learn their interests and motivations for working in this profession at this stage in their careers and lives. What you learn may surprise you.
Fill the mentor gap by someone better qualified.
Warning! You may have to shove your ego aside to do this. I certainly know I do in these situations, and it’s not always easy.
Find at least one top performer in their profession, inside the company or out, who knows even more than they do. If you share the same profession, but simply have fewer years of experience, the same advice applies. Connect the team with this person as a resource, for those who would like to take advantage of it.
Even if team members don't want to talk with a mentor for some reason, you will benefit from getting the mentor's advice, and you’ll gain priceless perspective on the profession or industry.
In short, the biggest complaint I hear from people who work for bosses who know less than they do is that the boss tries too hard to be a boss, and not hard enough to be a leader. If you focus on these three tips, they will be eager to keep you around, instead of quietly cheering when you move on.
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