Before you say no:

leadership trumps functional expertise to deliver change


Published on: August 2018

Written by: Jacqueline Brodnitzki

We’re seeing an intriguing trend in succession planning and in the placement of senior executives in roles at the global companies with whom we work.

Gone are the days when subject matter expertise was the key to rising to the top. Instead, expertise and many other typical management skills are table stakes. To lead at the top now, leaders assuming key executive roles have to embody much more. They must be talented leaders with vision, both in terms of creating strategy and communicating it in a way that aligns and engages their teams. They must also be highly skilled in creating a collaborative environment where leaders and teams thrive. In searching for these critical skills, companies may even choose to trade off functional expertise to find the right person to step into a pivotal executive role.

Take a newly minted Chief Security Officer we’ve worked with at a large multi-national technology company. Her predecessor, with deep experience in the function, had been in the role for a very long time. He ran the department with a top-down, highly controlled approach. He handled all meetings with the Technology Leadership Team and the Executive Leadership Team of the company. Additionally, he kept his team insulated and didn’t give them much opportunity to meet with anyone outside the team. The team found it difficult to learn and grow and because their leader made most of the decisions. Critical knowledge about the company systems, protocols and their history were not widely shared beyond the leader, risking the longer-term integrity of the function. When the CSO retired, the company decided it was time for a big change to the culture of Security Office organization, and they needed to bring in someone who could make that change happen.

Looking for leadership to deliver the change

The company opted to go with a highly-skilled leader with an enterprise view to take on this significant task. They selected someone with little security experience, but a proven track record as an exceptional technology leader. They knew there was plenty of functional experience on the team – what was lacking was a leader to take the Security Office to the next level of impact and value to the organization. The new CSO has since come on board and changed the function – and the opportunity for the team – significantly for the better. The team has gained exposure to senior leadership that they never have had before, and they are learning rapidly and sharing their knowledge more widely. The direct report to the previous CSO has gained exposure, responsibility and influence across the enterprise and the industry, encouraged and supported by the new CSO. By leveraging her leadership skills, this executive has created a sustainable culture that lives beyond her experience in the field of security.

The power to lift the organization

What this story shows is the power of a great leader to lift the whole organization: power that has nothing to do with functional expertise. Now that this leader has been in her role for almost a year, we’ve noticed she’s been able to strengthen the team even more than she could have if she only had deep functional expertise. She has guided the team to be stronger leaders and have more exposure as she encourages them to present to the Technology Leadership Team and the Executive Leadership Team. She has removed the bottleneck and her team is flourishing. There is now greater engagement, the team is learning at a faster rate, and they are delivering more effectively on their enterprise responsibilities because of her leadership.

But the answer must be yes

Was it easy for this leader to step into this role? No. The move forced her to have faith that her leadership skills would outweigh negative perceptions by the team of her lack of technical expertise. She had to work hard to gain their trust and demonstrate that she could provide opportunities for them to flourish in a healthier and more productive environment. She’s effectively changed the culture of this team that had experienced limitation and an authoritarian leadership style for many, many years.

This leader was willing to take the leap, but not every leader sees themselves as up to the task. All too often, we see exceptionally capable, highly talented leaders hesitant to move into new roles in which they don’t have deep functional knowledge, such as a seasoned executive who was being tapped to move into a sales leadership role. Her reaction was “I can’t move into that position – I don’t have a strong background in that product line.” This is unfortunate as it is self-limiting, and potentially misses the opportunity to grow and create value in new ways, and for the organization to benefit from a broader, more influential perspective.

Some advice before you say no

How many leaders have passed on opportunities to take a new role where they could have an influential impact because they don’t have the functional expertise? Before you pass up a great opportunity to make an impact on a new and different stage, consider this advice.

Listen to mentors. If a mentor or key advisor suggests putting your name in for an opportunity, take that as an important indicator of your capability to take a different role. Trust the fact that they know you, they know the organization, and can evaluate your leadership abilities and avenues for growth within the organization.

  • Trust yourself. Heed the adage, “when you take the leap, you will sprout wings.”  Have confidence that there will be people on the team beneath you with great subject matter expertise and strong functional knowledge, often chomping at the bit to grow their own impact. If you are a good delegator, and a skilled leader, you will be able to engage with them in a way that enables them to grow and the right things to get accomplished. And you will have the opportunity to learn from them along the way.
  • Embrace “leader as learner” mode. The upside to lacking deep subject matter expertise is you have the potential to be even a better leader because you are forced to trust, grow and develop your team, and you have to stay in listening and learning mode at all times.
  • Tap into your leadership strengths to start out on the right foot. Stepping into a leadership role without deep functional expertise puts an imperative on quickly building trust with your new team.  This requires a number of leadership behaviors, but several stand out to accelerate success in this setting. First it requires a great deal of resonance and concern for the people on your team, so they feel heard and supported. This is also a setting which calls for high authenticity and humility, putting it on the table up front that you don’t have the expertise – they do – and your intention is to help all of them and learn from them.

Leaders in this situation need to have confidence, be self-assured in decision making and be clear with boundaries.  Inclusiveness is key to welcoming dissenting opinions and discussion on diverse points of view and empowering those on the team with the knowledge to take the initiative. Demonstrating you are open to feedback when you are wrong will break down the uncertainty your team will have about trusting you to guide them.

And finally, vision is vital to getting the team onboard. Early on, convey the vision for the team and the function. Lay out what’s in it for them in and get them engaged and inspired about the direction of the group and the importance of their roles. Rather than feel they’ve taken a step back, they’ll soon notice they’re being elevated due to their expertise.

In a nutshell, functional expertise will only get a leader so far. The ability to envision and shape an organization, while engaging and aligning important talent within, are essential to reaching the top of the ladder. Don’t be afraid to leverage your abilities there and make the leap.

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