Moving from Expert to Executive: Changes Great Leaders Learn to Make

One of the great leadership challenges is making the transition from subject matter expert (SME) to leading teams of SMEs. From “hands-on” execution and metrics to “hands-off” strategic decisions and measures, here are 4 shifts to navigate.

Shift from “Me” to “We”

News Flash! You are no longer the smartest person in the room. So you’ll need a more collaborative style of leadership. This is where I do a lot of my coaching; helping leaders leverage the expertise and wisdom of others as they make the shift.

Instead of, ”Listen to me, I have the answer!,” your role shifts toward, “Let’s get our best people on the project. How do we want to attack this as a team?” Sure, there was a day it was all about “me” …you were the smartest gal or the best guy in the room. But now the question becomes, “As I mature in leadership, can I move from ME to WE?”

The ME model is less effective and it’s dangerous. Harvard’s Bill George says,

 “…if we believe that leadership is just about getting others to follow us and do our bidding as we climb the organization ladder, we risk being derailed.”

Focus On Giving Credit Versus Taking Credit

Even when a great leader deserves some credit, they immediately point to the contribution of others. I worked with a CEO who really gets this. In the 360-degree feedback survey for her and the team, it was clear she deflected praise to others. She was not a leader who needs all the praise, even when others do most of the real work. It’s so demotivating!

Try handwritten (yes!) notes, emails, and authentic public affirmations to give credit frequently, showing you do not have to be the center of the universe. Share success and rewards, remind others of their great contribution, and give reasonable control to others. These are marks of a great leader, and people will respect you for it.

Share the Load, Don’t Dump the Load

Some leaders empower new leaders by giving them a greater challenge. It’s a good approach if the emerging leader has the gifts, talents, and savvy to handle it alone. If not, it can be a disaster. I have seen this model abused. You dump an overwhelming challenge on someone, burying them under a pile of responsibility with a “Good luck…don’t screw up!”

This may work for a few, but too many never dig out. Clearly, we should not coddle leaders. But I’m saying let new leaders learn with you before you challenge them to grow without you. Rising leaders do NOT learn by failure, they learn by processing failure! They need someone with wisdom to give feedback before they take another shot at it. You want a climate of faith and hope, not fear, in leadership development.

Face the Facts – Whether Bad or Good

An organization had to lay off a third of its workers. For months senior leaders dismissed warning signs and data from employees about severe problems and had ignored market trends for years. As Jim Collins describes in How the Mighty Fall, hubris was at the core. There was an inability to see the truth because of self-obsession with past success and personal blind spots.

The Chairman and President left town while managers communicated the bad news. Upon their return, at the first gathering of the survivors, there was no processing of the layoffs. It was a major trust-buster, and the survivors lost motivation for the work. Obsessed with a focus on successful reports, these leaders avoided negative news and data. It could have been a much different story. Maybe still a hard one, but a better one.

As a strategic leader, you cannot operate in the smaller space that defined you as an expert. Now you have greater accountability and ownership. And it takes courage to show up, regardless of reality, to face the music and become the strong leader you are meant to be.

So ask yourself, “How can I shift from Subject Expert to Strategic Executive in my new leadership role?”

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