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Leadership Perils for Subject Matter Experts

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the director of research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and writes frequently about leadership and resilience.

 

It was a warm, sunny day in southern Louisiana as my colleague and I walked among bustling groups of people. Mobile command trailers were clustered around a central compound. My colleague and I were there to observe the leadership challenges of responding to an oil spill. Our guide, someone with decades of experience with such incidents, authoritatively explained the operations underway. Then I asked him about his greatest challenge.

“People just need to leave us alone to get the job done,” he replied, not so subtly implying that the presence of more senior members of his own and other agencies, elected officials, and the entourages that accompanied each only created confusion and distraction. “We deal with oil spills every day. We know what we’re doing.”

But this was not an everyday oil spill. This was the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, a disaster in which 11 people died, and oil spewed uncontrolled from 5,000 feet below the water’s surface for more than 70 days. Thousands of people from local communities all along the Gulf Coast, state agencies from Florida to Texas, and more than 30 federal agencies were involved in the response. Resources from across the industry were deployed to assist, and global media covered the incident 24/7.

That evening, I reflected to my colleague that despite our guide’s experience, his confidence in his abilities and those of his team, and his relatively senior rank, he had fallen into one of the three common traps facing subject matter experts thrust into an opportunity to lead: getting stuck in a technical comfort zone. The result would be that his expertise would likely go underutilized and he would have less impact than he imagined.

My colleagues and I work with subject matter experts, or SMEs, through the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard. In our research and executive education programs, we encounter engineers, physicians, law enforcement officers, firefighters, security professionals, environmental experts, and other specialists who rise to leadership positions. They often get to this point because of their technical knowledge and skill as well as their success with focused project teams; they typically have not had a lot of general management or leadership training.

Getting stuck in their comfort zone is a common mistake we see SMEs make, particularly in challenging circumstances. Hunkering down into one’s technical expertise feels familiar and allows SMEs to exert some control when chaos reigns. However, the technical challenge is often but one part of a much more complex problem.

To lead effectively, SMEs must master the ability to break free of their comfort zone and then “helicopter”: get down low enough to ensure that the right people are attending to essential details, but also rise up to perceive the larger situation, its many facets, and the dynamics and interdependencies playing out in that system.

With Deepwater, the interactions between the media and various political figures influenced operational decisions as much as the engineering considerations did. The long, colorful strings of oil containment “boom” were not particularly effective in many areas for this type of spill, but elected officials valued them. Most of the response activities were taking place beyond the view of their constituents, and officials wanted something they could point to that would show tangible action. Attending to such optics can be frustrating for SMEs, but they are often an essential part of the political response narrative.

Our SME host might dismiss such concern, instead focusing strictly on operational considerations. But the most effective SME leaders we met in Louisiana understood the bigger picture. Elected officials weren’t going away and, in fact, those concerns had validity. They used the Hippocratic principle: Address each important stakeholder’s needs while doing as little harm as possible to essential operations.

Related to the comfort-zone pitfall is the failure to communicate effectively, if at all, with nontechnical constituencies. SME leaders need the ability to “code switch,” a term for flipping between two languages that I picked up from Camille Fournier, a tech entrepreneur and former CTO at Rent the Runway, a fashion-rental website. “I have seen engineers fail to code switch all the time,” she told me. “There's the baseline inability to describe a project or idea without immediately reverting to jargon.”

She further explained that beyond word choice, code switching is also about knowing which details will help the other person understand the situation and which can be left out. Tech SMEs “struggle to recognize what their communication partner values and needs out of the exchange,” she said. So it isn’t just a matter of turning your patter into plain English — it is sticking to the information the other person needs, and wants, to know.

The final, and perhaps most critical matter for SMEs, is the need to “lead up” to a boss or other person up the hierarchy who may have little expertise with a very specific and technical problem. In a chaotic situation, these people want to feel some sense of control, and that can lead to their taking charge even though they have little understanding of the most effective actions. SMEs need to help these busy individuals make good decisions and prioritize actions.

SMEs must break free from their comfort zone and then “helicopter.”

SMEs are well-advised to build a relationship based on confidence and, ultimately, trust. Fournier advises proactively communicating significant issues and how they have been resolved. “Even if [executives] don't respond, pushing information up so that it is available to them is something most CEOs expect,” she said.

SMEs must also grasp the boss’s perceptions of risks and rewards. One retired senior U.S. Coast Guard officer I’ve encountered in several settings said that whenever he assumed a new command, he would meet with senior elected officials in the area as soon as possible. “Once I understood their concerns and priorities, I was better able to frame problems and potential solutions for them when they came up,” he told me.

On the flip side, those who work with SMEs can help to make that relationship more productive by recognizing that in an increasingly connected world, SMEs are an integral part of the team. Building trust and a rapport with SMEs will better help them help you.

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Leadership Perils for Subject Matter Experts