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Managing those with more expertise than you

(December 11, 2023 Newsletter)

"It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do." 一 Steve Jobs

This is a fabulous maxim, in theory. And yet many times, we find ourselves feeling insecure, mistrustful, or inadequate when the people we supervise know more about their jobs than we do.

Let’s break it down: 

  1. Insecure – you may feel insecure in your role or unsure what your value add is if the other person is the expert. Are they on their way to replacing you?

  2. Mistrustful – you may wonder whether you’re getting a full or accurate picture of their work if you don’t totally understand it yourself.

  3. Inadequate – you might find yourself asking whether you should understand their work in more depth. Is it part of your role? What happens if that person is offline for a few weeks? Or you get asked a question about their work in a leadership meeting?

Don’t beat yourself up too much… If any of the above resonate, there’s also a chance that you also “feel bad about feeling bad.”  

  • After all, on some intellectual level you know it’s better for the organization to have as many smart hands on deck – you don’t really want the success of the whole organization riding on your shoulders (even if you’re CEO).

  • In short, it’s normal… everyone feels this way at some point or another. Let it pass.

First, let’s resolve the thought and then make an action plan. 

Coaching questions to consider: 

  • If you’re feeling insecure: What expectation do you have for the value you’re supposed to bring as a manager (especially vis-a-vie subject matter expertise)? How else do you contribute to this individual’s, the team’s and the organization’s success even without this expertise? In what ways might it even be an advantage that you don’t have the expertise?

  • If you’re feeling mistrustful: What evidence do you have that you’re not getting the full picture? What would feel like a satisfactory level of understanding? What else can you ask to get that satisfactory picture? If the person is resisting answering more in-depth questions, how can you both make your expectations clear, probe as to the source of their resistance, and possibly offer reassurance that you’re not stepping on their toes?

  • If you’re feeling inadequate: If you’re concerned about having a responsible level of redundancy, who else can serve as such, aside from you? If you’re concerned about looking unprepared or stupid in higher level meetings, what kinds of responses can you have prepared for offering to come back with more information or connect the asker directly to the source?

Based on your answers, what can you do next?

  1. Consider having a conversation with the team member. In such a conversation, you could thank them for their contributions and find out how you can be more supportive. If you need to clarify roles and responsibilities, this is a good time to do so.

  2. Improve your question-asking skills. Take notes and, in subsequent meetings, refer back to things you’ve already learned.

  3. Lean into your own strengths and value-add as a manager. No one’s good at everything and plenty of managers are successful because of their orchestration skills. You can resolve the above dissonance by either changing your mindset or make concrete changes – either way, with time you can see an improvement in your relationship with the expert and how secure you feel in your role.

Pulling back the curtain before we wrap… 

Note that throughout this post I used the phrase “feeling insecure,” “feeling mistrustful,” and “feeling inadequate,” not that you ARE any of those things. Language is important.

  • Making the separation between a fleeting emotion and a permanent state of being can help the experience pass faster.

  • This is an important linguistic habit to get into, which is why I’m drawing your attention to it. Wishing you a week of fleeting emotions and a secure underlying sense of being.


The Coaching Corner

The Question Under the Question

Oftentimes team members come to you with tactical questions and we find ourselves brainstorming solutions with them, only for them to come back later with another tactical follow up or to move ahead with a solution that’s only addressing a symptom.

Here are three questions to help your team member go deeper, faster to solving for the root cause:

  • Why do you ask?

  • What’s really challenging you here?

  • What are you really trying to solve for?





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