How do you turn around under-performing expert talent?
Summary: It’s annual review time. Performance conversations with technical experts can be tough. Here's some tips on how to handle these important conversations so its a win-win for all concerned.
Written by Dominic Johnson 03 Oct 2021

Image credit: ISAAC SMITH on UNSPLASH.

Few companies have real performance management plans for technical talent. They’re the staff whose expertise in software, engineering, legal, financial, HR and other high-level disciplines whose work underpins your organisations’ most critical systems and processes.

These experts don’t want to be people managers, and in the long-term they’re motivated by challenge, not money – which makes annual review time difficult.

What can you offer the high-performers to convince them to stay with your organisation, and how can you turn around disengaged non-performers? As the organisation that founded Expertship, a model for transforming technical specialists into fully realized business people, we’ve had thousands of conversations about annual reviews. They most often uncover three types of expert:

First: non-performers.

Is your expert really a poor performer, or are they not selling their achievements in a manner your business understands? Are they technical good but poor at Interacting effectively with the wider organisation?

Technical experts usually become successful through deep understanding of their field, which rarely gives them time or inclination to also master stakeholder management, pitching projects to boards, or justifying the value of business investment. Their goal is to be the best informed, most competent expert – and with that approach, “the political stuff” becomes an unnecessary sideline.

To change that mindset, experts need career growth pitched as a challenge: the journey from expert, the master of one topic, to master expert – a fully rounded business person, laser-focused on the value their expertise provides to your organisation.

Don’t give up on under-performing experts. It’s possible – in fact it’s likely – that they’re not being challenged in a way that brings out their best. Their attitude can improve immediately if presented with appropriate goals.

Our Mastering Expertship program transforms expert behavior over six months of action, self-evaluation and reflection.

Further reading: How to power up and inspire valuable experts

Second: high potential but rough. Needs development.

Experts rarely make the journey from expert to master expert in one jump, and there’s four areas of growth that can be especially challenging.

Even those comfortable engaging peers and local teams find it difficult to master more complex senior stakeholder relationships, such as executives, boards and external organisations.

  • Sophisticated presentation skills are needed to sell to boards and executives.

  • A radical improvement in focus is necessary to ensure business value is delivered through change.

  • And there’s always more to know about market context and general business acumen.

Here, your staffer presents a common HR development challenge: like any high-potential employee, the expert is a strong performer who’ll become even stronger if coached on their weak spots.

Expertunity offers day-long workshops on each of the topics above (advanced stakeholder management, board presentation skills, delivery of change, and deepening understanding of market context. Allied with follow-up phone coaching sessions, they give experts the push they need to turbo charge their own growth.

Third: wants to lead, or needs to improve their influence.

Some experts, upon realizing that people and business management are a fascinating challenge in themselves, decide they want to become people managers – or a “leader of experts”, as we call it. But while you’d expect experts to understand other experts, and therefore have some natural ability to manage expert teams, that often is not the case. Startups regularly fail, for instance, because a technically minded founder CEO just couldn’t develop the people-management skills they needed.

HR teams trying to grow their own managers know that very few traditional people managers are “born to lead”, and the same is true of experts. Not everyone is a natural manager, but core people skills can be greatly improved through intensive coaching.

Here, we’re created the Leader of Experts workshops: a day’s coaching in high-performance expert management coupled with two goal-setting individual coaching sessions.

Further reading: Why experts need feedback

What next?

Bright and easily bored, experts are challenging to motivate, retain and keep engaged – and this is never more apparent than during annual reviews. But don’t panic. There are actions you can take to turn around non-performers; to correct weak spots of high performers; and to coach experts to become the leaders of expert teams.

Contact us for more information.

How do you turn around under-performing expert talent?