So, You’re a Great Cook. Can You Farm?
… or, In Praise of the Subject Matter Expert

Please don’t ruin a great technical master by making them a bad leader. Let them become the Subject Matter Expert (SME) that they want to be and push them to surpass their own expectations, instead.

Why do we call some Leader when they’re just performing the same duties as everyone else on the team but at a higher level? I once knew a procurement vice president who was simply executing bigger contracts over bigger spends. No one wanted to follow him and he wasn’t interested anyway. It wasn’t critical to him to lead, train or even know his team as he had important things to do. We should never confuse efficiency at one’s job to be an indicator of potential leadership; they are completely different skill sets.

When an employee is doing very well at his or her job, it is the leader’s responsibility to consider them from their next role. Unfortunately, many rookie managers make the mistake of assuming that upward is the only direction. The chart below shows a typical growth path (green arrow) for an employee who has demonstrated effectiveness in their current position and will move up to the next position of greater leadership responsibility.

Perhaps one of your best employees is a scientist, engineer, or technician who has absolutely no talent or inclination towards leading others. This move to a role of greater responsibility where they may be forced to use undeveloped, or even unwanted, skills would be a disaster for them, for you, and for the company.

Instead consider an alternative progression path (blue arrow) for the SME. This path minimizes changes to the SME’s leadership requirements but counts on them to increase their effectiveness in their current role.

Not everyone is meant to be a leader and that’s OK. For many, being an SME can be a fulfilling, successful career choice. As an Intimate Proximity leader, your job is to get the most out of individuals on your team by understanding their desires and talents. While you need to train the next iteration of leaders, you also need to push your SME’s to their next level of professional development within their role.

Even though an SME desires to stay in their current position rather than move on up to the next one, their day will not just be filled with only doing whatever they love to do. To the contrary, they will have the responsibility of surpassing their own standards and establishing new ones.

Here are a few suggestions to drive the SME to do new things as well as more of what they’re doing well.

  • Establish best practices. Let the SME make their mark on your business by setting standards for their own position and, if applicable, their peers as well. You could even celebrate their work by letting everyone know that we’ll all be following the Bob Smith Method.
  • Teach others about their expertise. This isn’t about “Hey, guess what I know and you don’t.” Instead, this offers a focused leadership opportunity to mentor someone in the SME’s area of expertise. It’s been said that you’ve never really mastered a subject until you’ve had to teach someone else.
  • Learn new technologies or create something new. Your customers won’t put up with today’s standards next year. Let your SME lead the way in learning recent developments of their craft or inventing a new methodology or solution.
  • Publish in professional journals. While maintaining basic knowledge across a breadth of their domain, encourage your SME to establish a new depth of understanding in a particular niche and have them tell people about it. They could additionally end up becoming a SME in their field. Wouldn’t that reflect well on them, your company, and you, their leader?

As you and your SME work together on setting new job responsibilities and goals, be sure to often praise them for being in this position. It is important through this process that you are demonstrating respect for their expertise. While acknowledging that they will have more challenging expectations than those who have been moved on to lead, you want to make it clear that you are both working to get them to do more of what they really love to do. No one wants to be punished for doing a great job by being assigned a position they may fail and learn to hate.

I think the late comedian Mitch Hedberg said it best: “When you're in Hollywood and you're a comedian, everybody wants you to do other things. All right, you're a stand-up comedian, can you write us a script? That's not fair. That's like if I worked hard to become a cook, and I'm a really good cook, they'd say, ‘OK, you're a cook. Can you farm?’”