They are out there; people who are smarter than you. Get them on your team! Great post by Rebeca Knight for HBR.
The best managers hire smart people to work for them. But what if your direct reports are smarter than you? How do you manage people who have more experience or more knowledge? How do you coach them if you don’t have the same level of expertise?
What the Experts Say Getting promoted to a job that includes responsibility for areas outside your domain can be downright terrifying. Your employees may ask questions that you don’t know the answers to and may not even fully understand. “When you’re a technical expert, you know your value to the organization,” says Wanda Wallace, President and CEO of Leadership Forum and author of Reaching the Top. “But when you don’t have the content expertise—or the ‘best’ content expertise, you struggle with: what is my value?” Figuring out the answer to that question requires a change in mindset. “Your role is no longer to be an individual contributor,” says Linda Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School and the coauthor of Being the Boss. “Your job is to set the stage and by definition that means you will have people who are more experienced, more up-to-date, and have more expertise working under you.” And while it may feel professionally disconcerting at first, it bodes well for your future. “The higher you go in an organization, the more you’re expected to make decisions on which you might not have direct experience or expertise,” says Roger Schwarz, an organizational psychologist and the author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams. “It’s a beginning of the shift in your career.” Here are some tips on how to make that transition as seamlessly as possible.
Face your fears It’s natural to feel worried or insecure about your ability to manage someone who has superior experience or knowhow. “Business is emotional,” says Wallace. “And when you’re leading a group that knows more about the day-to-day work than you do, it’s scary.” According to Schwarz, the first step is to consider whether your fear is based in reality. “If no one has said anything to you directly or indirectly, you need to look deeper and ask yourself: where is this fear coming from?” Hill agrees, adding that it can be dangerous to ignore self-doubt. For one thing, “if you feel threatened, other people will pick up on those signals.” For another, “if you don’t feel comfortable coaching someone who has more experience than you, you might end up neglecting that person.”
Seek counsel Consider reaching out to other managers who may have experienced similar challenges. “Talking to peers, coaches, and mentors about your feelings and fears of inadequacy” will help you feel less alone and may also give you ideas on how to handle the situation, says Wallace. A candid conversation with your manager might also be worthwhile, according to Schwarz. “Share your concerns and ask what led him or her to select you for the role and what you bring to it,” he says. This isn’t “fishing for compliments,” he adds. “There’s nothing wrong with asking for reassurance,” and the answers “will give you insight into your strengths and the development needs of your reports.”
Get informed In yesterday’s organization, the boss was the teacher and the employees were there to learn and do as they were told. Today, “learning is a two-way street,” says Schwarz. Tell your direct reports that you want to learn from them and then be deliberate about “creating opportunities to make that happen,” he says. “You don’t need to become a technical expert, but you do need to know enough about the details to know where the problems lie,” adds Wallace. She suggests shadowing team members for a day or even for a couple of hours and “asking a lot of dumb questions.” Find out what worries them, where they get stuck, and from whom they could use input. “Get insight into what your people do,” she says. “It’s enormously motivating for employees.”
Confront any issues If members of your team express concerns about your ability to lead, or you hear that the office rumor mill churning with spite, you need to address the issue head on. When dealing with a direct report who is openly hostile or out for your job, you should be honest and “willing to be vulnerable,” according to Schwarz. He recommends saying something like, “I know you have more experience and expertise than I do, and I understand you have concerns about that.” Don’t go in “trying to protect your ego.” Instead, approach the person with curiosity and talk “about what you can do to help meet his needs.” Remember, Hill adds, your goal is to “figure out how you’re going to work together and support your employee.”