Expert, Leader, or Somewhere In-Between: An Expert’s Journey

One of the frequent concerns voiced by experts is the tendency for organizations to label all non-leadership positions as “experts.” For companies, differentiating the roles for experts, leaders, and somewhere in-between can be puzzling. But understanding these distinctions is necessary to fully develop and best support your talent. To identify your experts—and clarify their roles—an important first step is to recognize the unique capabilities and foundational building blocks necessary for an expert career.

What distinguishes experts from other people:

Before we discuss the essential building blocks for an expert career, you may be wondering why it’s so important to make these distinctions and clearly identify your company’s experts. With their deep knowledge and experience, experts are value creators who can drive innovation, improve organizational efficiency, and increase profits. And by valuing them, you are able to create a more resilient and agile company. For example, an expert in Marketing can make the difference between success or failure in launching a new product.

Building blocks for an expert career

Based on our experience and research, here are some of the distinct capabilities and core building blocks that lay the foundation for an expert career:

Interest in area of expertise – An interest in their area of expertise, including monitoring the relevance of their professional knowledge and proactively addressing any knowledge gaps to remain effective

Apply their expertise – An ability to apply their expertise, demonstrating an in-depth knowledge in their field and sharing their expert knowledge

Experts in their field – An awareness of whom the experts and grandmasters are in their industry and where to find the latest professional research and findings

Networked learning – A desire to participate in networked learning, meaning the capacity to learn from those inside and outside of their area of expertise, as well as maintain professional connections to expand and deepen their knowledge

Coaching and Mentoring – An interest in coaching and mentoring others, including seeking out opportunities to share their knowledge and guide others’ professional and personal growth

Intuition – A reliance on their intuition, which involves considering their gut feelings in situations and drawing upon their deep knowledge and experience to make swift and impactful decisions

Iterative approach – An ability to take an iterative approach to finding business solutions, such as engaging in prototyping, trialing ideas, and modifying possible solutions as necessary

Experts in leadership roles

In some instances, an expert is motivated to become a leader, or a so-called functional leader, which is the most challenging leadership role of all. In this job, an expert is called upon to maintain mastery in their field while performing as an effective leader, including building successful teams by attracting and developing top talent.

To accomplish this, a functional leader needs to cultivate both the expert building blocks and the following additional capabilities:

• An ability to direct workflow and set the direction for a team, including delegating tasks and ensuring clarity around expectations and deliverables

• A capacity to connect the vision and purpose of the organization with the day-to-day work by painting a compelling picture of the company’s strategy to motivate others

• A talent for establishing, maintaining, and managing solid and productive working relationships with others

• An ability to define and create an inclusive team environment that motivates and enables others to do their best to support the organization

• A willingness to set the tone in the workplace by fostering a strong culture of cohesion and shared values among employees

Though not all experts will be motivated to become leaders, supporting those who choose this career path is crucial. To become a functional leader, an expert must develop and sustain a broader range of competencies to be successful in their role and make the greatest contribution to their company.

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