Leadership: Knowing the expert, not being the expert

Candice Eaton Gaul, RSM International

The biggest challenge that leaders currently face is how to let go of many traditional components within the leadership construct. In an increasingly complex and ambiguous world of work, the only way to be effective is to build increasingly diverse and multi-skilled teams. However, in leading diverse and multi-skilled teams, it is no longer possible to be the subject matter expert in all areas covered by one team. The result is that only leaders who ask questions of their team members, and who lean into their team’s areas of expertise, will perform optimally.

It sounds simple, but asking questions is, for many leaders, a major shift in individual behaviour and cultural frames of reference.

It takes courage to recognise that it is no longer possible to be the resident expert, as it means releasing control. In an environment of multi-skilled advisors, decentralised power makes sense but knowing it, and accommodating that change, is entirely different. The second element is even harder to achieve, which is the need to build the kinds of connections and team environments that make curiosity and questioning healthy, expected, and respected.

To build an environment like this requires a consistent leadership style based on collaboration and curiosity. Creating a space that is psychologically safe for people to bring their ideas and contribute as best they can, is reliant on trust and deep mutual respect.

Asking team members for their ideas and insight is significant when dealing with day-to-day challenges, as well as positioning for future success. There is a measurable correlation between contribution and employee engagement. Where people feel valued for making contributions, they are more likely to be more engaged. Naturally, this leads to higher job satisfaction; better productivity; higher accountability; and a greater sense of pride. In turn, this makes for a better working environment, better client service, and better business relations.

The way questions are asked are just as important as what questions are asked. Leaders who lead through collaborating with their team experts, enable the development of individuals in teams by allowing them to contribute and explore within and outside of their field. This is the kind of exploration that is an increasingly critical element of embedded learning. Provided the questions asked open up discussion and exploration, leading through asking allows for people to be heard. It actively generates more diverse ideas, which is far more appropriate in our current environment than a single person attempting to instruct others on how to solve complex problems. This style of leadership is a great way to develop emotional intelligence, allowing for better collaboration and a better understanding of motivation and drivers of individuals in the team. It also moves people away from their habitual behaviours to a higher level of cognitive reasoning, which is better suited for adapting to change and responding to opportunities when they arise.

At a conceptual level, leading through asking the experts makes sense. Leaders who question and collaborate have more potential solutions to pick from, allowing more opportunity to tailor an outcome and achieve the best possible results. In practice, however, it is a lot harder to do because it requires: the courage to let go of control; the willingness to deal with uncertainty; and a level of listening that challenges the assumptions we have of ourselves, others, context, and environment.

Phrasing questions in a way that leads to more collaboration and engagement is the next big step in leadership development - and these will be the most important skills to develop in future leaders.

When it comes to leading a diverse team of multi-skilled advisors, it’s time to shift perspective from being the expert, to knowing the expert. The leaders of the future will navigate their environments by asking and encouraging team members to meaningfully contribute by using their subject matter expertise and passion. Building the leadership skill of asking questions to gain insight and understanding, allows for more options, better solutions, and improved employee engagement.  

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