Have you ever been promoted to a leadership role where you were not a subject matter expert? Or maybe you were hired to lead a team only to realize you don’t know anything about what your direct reports do in their jobs? Then this article is just for you – I’m going to help you learn how to lead a team when you are not a subject matter expert. Because I’ve been there, done that, and learned the hard way so you don’t have to!
Moving Up in Management and Struggling
The first time that I was a supervisor, I managed an employee whose job was my previous position. Because I knew the job inside and out, I knew exactly how to train them, how to help them solve problems, and how to assign goals and projects. It was a good relationship and we were able to work together well as a team. I thought I was a great manager!
But in my next big job move, I managed a much larger team. As I sat down to get to know my direct reports, I quickly started to realize that they knew a lot more about their positions than I did. I asked lots of questions and took copious notes as they talked about their work.
But inside, I felt like a total fraud. I knew that the day would come when they would have a question or need help with something in their daily work. And because I’d never been in their position before, I felt like I didn’t have the expertise to quickly solve their problem. And if I wasn’t an expert, how could I call myself a manager?
I really wanted to do a good job and I was ready to study each position deeply, learning the ins and outs of daily work. But before I started devoting all my time and attention to this mission, I was fortunate to get some good advice from one of my colleagues and mentors. They told me that to be a good manager, at a certain point you have to let go of knowing everything and start trusting yourself and your team.
This immediately rang true to me. I realized that while learning the ins and outs of everyone’s jobs might make me feel better, it would actually hold me back from the real work I was hired to do – lead the team! I needed to learn how to create value in this new way and how to communicate effectively with my team to help them do their best work.
How to Lead Effectively When You Are Not a Subject Matter Expert
Since then, I have led a number of teams where I wasn’t a deep subject matter expert. If you are used to finding success in your career through your expertise and individual accomplishments, it can feel really uncomfortable at first. So here are some key areas to focus on to when you find yourself leading a team when you are not a subject matter expert:
1. Understand your value
It feels so good to be recognized for your expertise. But guess what? That feeling is not the right feeling to measure your value and success anymore. As a manager, your value now comes through your ability to work with and through other people. That is what you were hired to do and how you can help your department and organization be more successful.
This can feel less tangible and frankly may not always get as much external recognition. So it’s important to remind yourself of your role and find ways to track your own success. That might mean finding pride in the wins of your individual team members. Or pride in yourself for gracefully managing a difficult conversation. Set a goal for who you want to be as a manager and make sure to check in on it over time.
2. Use Active Listening
Active listening means listening beyond just the facts of a conversation. It means listening for tone, emotions, and coded language. Pay attention to body language – even if you don’t 100% know the ins and out of a problem someone is describing, you can probably pick up on their level of concern or frustration. There is often a story behind the words someone is saying, and the more you can pick up on that, the more effective you will be as a manager.
Active listening will also help you to pick up on patterns of conversation. Is there specific jargon that someone is using? Is there a particular way folks refer to part of their work? Using these patterns of conversation yourself will help you to create a better connection with your employees and build trust.
3. Share Context
Whether you are in a senior team meeting or in a department meeting, you have information no one else has. In a senior team meeting, you know the needs of your department and how they might be impacted by the conversations. In your department meeting, you know the bigger picture strategies and priorities of the organization. Your ability to communicate context in both rooms is key to the success and alignment of your team.
Context is the keyword here. You don’t have to know every detail of every project – you just need to recognize when there is important information to be shared and to communicate that message at the right time.
4. Embrace Uncertainty and Humility
Admitting you don’t know something is scary. But making a bad decision because you were too scared to ask for help is scarier. It would be an absolute waste of your time to learn about every aspect of every position on your team. There’s a reason why people were hired!
Instead of trying to do their jobs, trust your team to be the experts. Bring them into projects and meetings when you need to share more details with others. By letting go of knowing everything, you are able to focus on what is most important.
Managing other people can be a big job. It feels tempting to build up your confidence by focusing on gaining and showing expertise. But if you really want to accomplish great things, your time and attention is needed elsewhere. This might not feel comfortable at first, and that’s okay. Embrace the discomfort, trust yourself and your team, and eventually, you will gain confidence, feel joy, and feel valuable as a team leader. Remember: it is possible to lead a team well even when you are not a subject matter expert.
Louisa helps people who are passionate about their careers manage their productivity and mindset in order to avoid burnout. Visit her at theactually.com for her free foundational guide to creating an organization system to get things done while keeping a peaceful mind. Louisa is also a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and the General Manager of a major regional theater.
How to Lead a Team When You Are Not a Subject Matter Expert
March 19, 2020