Subject Matter Experts: Information Hoarders to Positive Leaders
Summary: One financial services company has begun the journey to transform disengaged, knowledge-hoarding subject matter experts into proactive knowledge practice leaders who willingly add value and competitive advantage across the enterprise.
Written by Grant Heinrich 04 Mar 2019

Editors Note: This article was first published in 2015. It describes the genesis of the Expertship movement, starting with the first ever Expertship program held in Malaysia. The challenges faced by these technical subject matters experts from around Asia then are sadly still shared by many experts still in the region today.


One financial services company has begun the journey to transform disengaged, knowledge-hoarding subject matter experts into proactive knowledge practice leaders who willingly add value and competitive advantage across the enterprise.

Some of the most valuable employees in most organizations, those often most difficult and expensive to replace, are subject matter experts. They are technical leaders rather than people leaders, but they are leaders nevertheless.

In fact, it can be argued that as technical leaders, the way in which they are expected to lead is different, and more challenging than the challenges facing most people leaders.

Technical leaders have to:

  • Maintain current and future knowledge banks.

  • Lead through influencing often without authority.

  • Train and develop other colleagues around their expertise.

  • Brief and impress clients with their knowledge and capability.

But technical leaders face significant barriers. They are often blessed with big ‘T’ (technical skills) and very small ‘P’ (people skills). While they often have no interest in becoming people leaders (many will have tried and perhaps failed), they nevertheless need good interpersonal skills and conversation frameworks to be effective in their role.

They have to lead just as much as people leaders, but they are – typically – never invited to leadership programs, since most leadership programs are dominated by topics orientated to leading people.

A financial services client takes the plunge

A leading regional financial services company last month trusted HFL with building a program for SMEs (this group were all IT professionals) that encompassed on-the-ground country IT leaders and regionally-based subject matter experts. The group of 25 spent three days in Kuala Lumpur exploring the concept of building information practices, and building engagement of a diverse group of stakeholders (including, crucially, the business owners in each country).

The program was built around two learning objectives:

A program specifically designed to help subject matter experts lead knowledge practices effectively inside organizations, and across a very diverse region; and A program built to help technical professionals build engaged stakeholder relationships that were business results orientated and focused on partnering not supplying.

In the program, we reflected on and jointly developed best practice descriptions of:

  • The concept of a knowledge practice leader (the true role of a subject matter expert), and the behaviors associated with a high performing expert in this role.

  • Strategies to build an active and engaged stakeholder network throughout the organization (and where relevant externally).

  • Elevated interpersonal skills to enable high quality interactions throughout the stakeholder network.

In a subsequent program (slated for later in 2014) we will be adding:

  • Strategies for building a successful and sustainable knowledge practice, including promotion and extension of its capability, value to the organization, and the ability to deliver competitive advantage to the organization via thought lead

  • The concept of the Five Levels of Knowledge, and ensuring that each level of knowledge is mastered and executed by the appropriate people in the organization (the subject matter experts being responsible for training in and monitoring levels 1 to 3 executed by non specialist colleagues across the business, and levels 4 and 5 – ‘expert’ and ‘master’ being the preserve of the subject matter expert).

Editors note: The program a=has now evolved dramatically, into the Mastering Expertship Program, and we’ve since published a major book, Master Expert on the subject.


Our clients’ first group was a combination of regional subject matters experts who were prosecuting a policy of one solution across the region in each technical area (no exceptions), and their immediate clients – the IT country heads – who had the difficult task of persuading country CEOs to ditch local solutions in favour of a regional solution (which, of course, the local CEO had to pay for).

“We explored in depth a range of stakeholder relationships, and what would make these relationships prosper, be supportive not adversarial, and importantly, what each party wanted in terms of outcomes from the other party,” explained the Head of IT for the region.

“We quickly discovered many tension points, misalignments, and an outcome from the program was that we left KL with a sense of one team rather than how we had arrived – two competing teams.”

The Head of IT also pointed to the course providing clear direction for participants – everyone had to submit a detailed stakeholder engagement plan, and specific success measures to be achieved within a six month timeframe. The program also developed some strong business messaging for IT country heads to take back to their organizations.

The program was closely co-designed as a collaboration between HFL and the client.

The HFL consultant who ran the program pointed out that the content is equally applicable to all subject matters experts, not just IT teams. “The concept of running an information practice is broadly applicable to engineers, financial analysts, and other professions. And getting SMEs to think about leadership and adding value, rather than just dispensing wisdom from on high, is a transformation construct for many of them.”

Download Coaching for Experts for further reading