Give subject matter experts their place
Idea 1: Don’t make them leaders. Value them as SMEs.
Many businesses still run talent management on the assumption that senior leadership roles are the inevitable destination for people who perform well at lower organisational levels, even though performance as a subject matter expert is not an indicator of potential as a senior leader. Even seasoned HR professionals can still be tantalised by the notion that excellence in one field can be converted, through development, into excellence in another.
In our experience, it is better to be absolutely clear about the strategic future value the business hopes to get from its senior SME roles and to manage the best SMEs in ways that reinforce their significance to the firm. This is particularly true of expertise – existing and prospective – that is expected to yield the innovations on which future success will be built.
In short, don’t undermine the value of SMEs by trying to increase the leadership dimension of their roles to the point where their ability to create the future is compromised.
Idea 2: Differentiate SMEs who can lead from those who can’t – and those who want to from those who don’t.
The first part of this is pretty obvious. There are plenty of ways to assess leadership capability and potential, whether to identify those who will never make it or to define what needs to be done by those who might.
But, of those SMEs with potential, some will feel under pressure to ‘be up for’ leadership roles to which they really do not aspire. They may feel their status is tied to their knowledge and fear a role that requires them to succeed on a different basis. Or they may underestimate their own potential to lead. It can be well worth convincing these individuals – through development or coaching – of the attractions of leadership and their own ability to rise to its challenges.
However, there are people who choose to pursue their entire careers as SMEs and, for them and for the business, it is important that this choice be endorsed. Acknowledge and reward the SME contribution. Being a senior SME must not be seen as failing to become a leader.
Idea 3: Ensure that SMEs deliver value and share knowledge.
If you’ve worked out the value SME roles represent, it makes sense to help them deliver it. That’s partly a question of performance management, and of development. But it also means maintaining a clear view of the areas of expertise a business needs, how they are evolving and whether new areas – or reconfigurations of existing ones – should be brought into being.
Another priority must be to facilitate the sharing of knowledge, whether directly through training and mentoring or indirectly by encouraging a culture of collaboration. Some SMEs, left to their own devices, can embody the idea that knowledge is power, locking away expertise others need.
Idea 4: Widen the view of how SMEs can play a leadership role.
Many SMEs will become leaders of teams even if they don’t take on positions that lead the organisation as a whole. More will have the opportunity to exert leadership as individual contributors. So, don’t exclude them from your definition of those who can energise the organisation, signal its direction and priorities, or role-model desired values, behaviour and standards. And, in businesses where specific expertise is at the core of the offer – think Sir Jonathan Ive, Chief Design Officer at Apple – the SME can be the person others want to follow.
Idea 5: Don’t allow SMEs to hide in plain sight or duck their responsibilities.
Finally, whilst it’s important to focus on what SMEs really deliver, are and want, it is also important to discourage SMEs from becoming prima donnas. They cannot be left to immerse themselves in their personal enthusiasms while others are grappling with stressful business challenges. Nor can they be exempted from the realities of organisational change or the obligations of simply being senior people in an environment where less experience people look to them for guidance. And, at the limit, anyone may find themselves leading a project or being asked to combine some leadership responsibilities with time spent on subject matter.
In reality, leading within a specialist function – as opposed to ‘general management’ of a firm – may be the destiny for many SMEs and they need to be ready to do it. Indeed, their pre-eminence in their subject may give them the credibility they need to fulfil that role.
What can be done about this?
Our view is that your talent thinking should first aim to maximise the value to the business of its specialist talent and the value to that talent of a career as an SME.
As a second step, look at how SMEs can exercise leadership within their function, whether as team leaders, function heads, project managers or individual contributors.
Finally, having worked through the logic of the first two steps, be clear about which SMEs have both the desire and the capability to lead at a more senior and general level, and treat them as part of your leadership pipeline.
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