The Great Talent Divide

Written by Alistair Gordon, 31 Dec 2018

IN ORDER TO GET a sense of how important the promotion and execution of expertship is, we need to examine the current situation as it exists in most large organizations today. There are some important questions that need answers.

Firstly, why is the development of people leaders and technical experts handled so differently by organizations? Do experts get a raw deal, and if so, why?

Secondly, who is responsible for this situation?

Thirdly, what can be done about it?

Let’s compare the learning journeys of a people leader and a technical expert in the same organisation. We’ve chosen two people we know but changed their names.

Talent versus grunt

Alison was a people leader running a team of individual contributors. She had recently been promoted to team leader, after a quite robust internal recruitment process. She was subjected to a series of interviews and a range of assessments where her current and future capabilities were measured against a well-documented set of frontline leadership capabilities (a capability framework).

Following her appointment, Alison had hit the ground running. She had previously attended several introductory management and leadership workshops, and she quickly deployed many ideas and systems gathered during these courses to create a work environment in which her team was happy, motivated, and highly performing.

At her six-monthly talent review, which in this organisation was mandatory for people leaders (but not technical experts), Alison was identified as an early stage leader with high potential. This meant the organization was signalling to her that they would invest in accelerating her leadership development (and therefore her career). Not surprisingly, Alison was very happy. She was on track, highly motivated and engaged, and loving the direction her career was taking. At around about the same time we met Alison, we also met Edward. He was a business analyst in the finance department, and had been with the organization for seven years. Edward’s job had constantly evolved over the years, and when we met him he was being entrusted with highly complex tactical and strategic financial analysis, which meant he often worked directly with senior business unit heads.

Six months previously, his annual performance review with his manager had been a mirror image of the six that had gone before. His manager had scored him a mid-level ranking described as ‘meets expectations’. Edward told us that the annual performance review was virtually the only performance conversation he had with his manager each year. When we asked why, Edward replied “because I’m performing.”

During the review process, the manager didn’t reference any capability framework (there wasn’t one for experts in this organization). The discussion centred around key performance indicators which had been set at the beginning of the year. These were now out of date because, as in each of the previous twelve months, Edward’s job had changed, and he’d been given more responsibility.

He was sure that his manager hadn’t really understood the complexity of the work he completed day-to-day, and believed his manager had virtually no visibility of the more complex and challenging work Edward did for senior business unit leaders. All other meetings Edward had with his manager were short, sharp, and task related. The items Edward wanted to discuss weren’t on the agenda. Why did he get allocated more and more work without either reward or recognition? Why was he scored a mid-ranking rating when all of his senior stakeholders demonstrated Edward’s capability by entrusting him with increasingly complex and important analysis? Why wasn’t Edward’s career trajectory a topic of regular conversation? Why, in fact, did his manager show almost no interest in how Edward was feeling about his role or career path?

It would be fair to say that when we met Edward he was extremely frustrated, and considering his options. Edward had come to believe he would never be promoted. He listed many reasons for this contention. Firstly, there was no obvious successor in place: and he was the only person in the organization who did precisely what he did. Secondly, he felt he was taken for granted by his manager and the wider organization, and that everyone assumed he had no ambition. “They think, because I enjoy parts of the work which involve detail, I’m going to be happy to be a technical grunt for the rest of my career,” he told us. Thirdly, there was no defined career path for him unless Edward decided to lead a team of people in the finance department. Edward wasn’t sure this was a path he wanted to take, and was sure that he’s had no experience in leading people so far, so doubted he would ever be entrusted with such a role.

He was stuck.

The real situation was this: Edward was in fact highly ambitious. He was keen to progress to greater responsibility, a more fulfilling role, adding significantly more strategic value, and greater pay.

Edward reflected on his situation and described to us the Great Paradox of Experts – the more expert he became, the less likely it would be that he would be promoted to wider responsibilities. He was becoming increasingly difficult to replace. The organization was becoming more and more dependent on him in his current role. The last thing the organization wanted was for anything to change.

This Great Paradox of Experts is something we have experienced working with experts on countless occasions. The more brilliant some experts are at their chosen speciality, the more stuck they are.

The career journeys of Alison and Edward are symptomatic of the different ways in which the corporate talent infrastructure is often very well organized for leaders of people but poorly organised for leaders of knowledge. We call this situation The Great Talent Divide.

The Great Talent Divide

Many of the things that Alison takes for granted – clear behavior maps for more senior roles, supportive conversations and feedback from a well-informed manager, internal development programs – simply don’t exist for Edward.

He is likely to get offered a place at a technical conference that maintains the currency of his financial analysis skills, something that confirms his role in the organisation, not extend it. Edward certainly won’t be enrolled in any leadership program. Why? Because he doesn’t lead people now, and is not expected by the organization to leader of people in the future.

Neither his manager or the talent professionals in human resources see him as a ‘people leader’. They don’t equate their definition of ‘leadership’ – leading people – with the actual leadership Edward is demonstrating every day to his stakeholders. Edward is generating new insights for them, reworks processes to produce meaningful information faster, and helps business leaders make informed decisions that promote the success of the organization. This high value contribution is not seen as leadership. It is seen as experts doing what experts do.

More importantly – much more importantly – neither do those in charge of Edward’s development in the organization see the need for Edward to grow his enterprise skills. So the Edward we met was both stuck and ignored. Terrific!

Why enterprise skills matter to experts

Does Edward need development other than polishing of his technical skills? Of course he does.

Even a cursory review of his role shows that he needs advanced stakeholder engagement skills as much as, if not more than Alison. Alison interacts with her manager and her team. Edward interacts with a complex web of senior executives every day. As a leader of knowledge, he is a member of multiple teams, many of them virtual. His difficult role is to report and then influence without authority, often driving change that other people (often more senior than him) robustly resist. His communication skills need to be top notch, because he’s often explaining complex technical concepts to people who have no knowledge or experience of these matters. Edward needs to develop and sharpen his people and business skills – what we call enterprise skills – urgently in order to continue to add value.

Alison has been schooled in these influencing skills for years, even before she was appointed team leader.

Edward, on the other hand, has rarely been invited to any workshops that cover what organizations often call ‘soft skills’, which are so important for success in modern corporations. And those he has attended have been focused on using these skills to lead people, and not around the expert knowledge and problem solving Edward does every day.

Edward’s story is alarmingly typical among experts.

It is a huge failure of systems and thinking, and organizations are being very slow to understand how strategically damaging this state of affairs is.

Why is this? Who is to blame?

The Great Talent Divide

The Great Talent Divide is prevalent in most organizations we first come into contact with.

It is based on the flawed premise that people leaders are the most important people in the organization, and therefore should be heavily invested in. In contrast, the premise is that experts are less important, and do necessary but what is often perceived to be mundane work.

This may have been true in the past (though we’re very skeptical about that), but it is certainly not true now. As the world becomes more complex, tasks become more specialized. People with detailed knowledge in specific areas, based on specialist training and experience, are increasingly needed. We call these people subject matter experts (SMEs), or simply experts.

Most organizations now rely on an increasing population of talented technical experts, who do ever more specialized work. This work typically keeps the organizations functioning – that is, the work is mission critical even if for a considerable portion of the workforce the work is invisible. These experts are also increasingly at the epicenter of innovation and value-creation in their organization.

Ask any Chief Information Officer, Chief Risk Officer, Chief Engineer, indeed, Chief of any technical function – and they will tell you that finding team leaders is easy, but finding the right experts is extremely difficult. And very expensive. The fact is that experts are not only inheriting the earth they are simultaneously redesigning it. In many modern and emerging industries experts are more important than people leaders.

So why don’t the people leading organizations understand this?

Are experts misunderstood? And if so, why?

There are many reasons, and unfortunately, many that experts contribute to. It is convenient for experts to develop a victim mentality about this state of affairs. We often hear experts say that “we’re misunderstood and undervalued.” We usually ask these experts whose fault is it that what they do is so little understood by key stakeholders. It’s convenient to blame the rest of the organization (“They should show more interest in us.”), but a review of behaviors suggests that as experts, we contribute significantly to the lack of visibility of our role.

We might start with the fact that experts rarely get asked in any detail on what we do. We’ve met experts that say to us if others aren’t interested in what we do, why should we waste out time explaining ourselves to them? We’ve also met colleagues from other parts of the organization who are wary about asking experts what they do because they fear a long and jargon ridden explanation.

Secondly, many of us have had a poor experience attempting to explain what we do, and this makes us nervous about attempting explanations again. Describing what we do to the uninitiated can be a long and tedious process, which often ends in failure. Often, we are guilty of using too much jargon which makes what we are describing impenetrable to most colleagues and other key stakeholders.

Thirdly, what we do as experts is often invisible to the wider organization, unless something goes wrong. A messaging engineer, for example, whose day to day role is to manage all of the email and messaging systems inside the organization, will be nearly invisible to the wider organization until there is some failure in the system. Indeed, if they are doing their job brilliantly, by definition they will be invisible most of the time.

Because we are commonly in mission critical roles that are low profile, we operate under the radar. There is an expression that as experts we are all familiar with: out of sight, out of mind.

A recent survey we conducted showed that 82% of expert respondents felt the wider organization they worked for did not understand the work they did or the value they added. Respondents said an even higher number of senior leaders – 85% – didn’t understand or appreciate their work. These results are hardly surprising. What we do is difficult to explain, and most people aren’t interested.

A Chief Information Officer described this paradox to us this way: “High-profile senior leaders attend lots of high-profile meetings, while the experts are actually back in their cubicles, heads down, out of sight, doing the real work.”

A Chief Legal Counsel described it this way to us: “Sales send us a contract to review and approve, which may be just a few pages. They don’t see the hours of due diligence and checking my team does to ensure the contract keeps the company safe. They just think we are slow at what we do. The sales director told me my team ‘lacked urgency’, but actually while the sales reps were out for drinks at 6pm, my team worked until 10pm on the contracts.”

A key theme in this book is to stop blaming everyone else for our poor situation, or lack of resources, or lack of respect. We need as experts to step up and step out and communicate our value more effectively. This book spends many pages discussing how best to do this.

One way is to describe our roles more dynamically. The messaging engineer could simply describe what they do as ‘back-end systems on the messaging platform’. Or they could say that they spend most days fighting off cyber-attacks and phishing emails, so that all the employees in the organization can safety communicate with each other and do great work. The latter explanation makes the engineer sound like a warrior rather than a code jockey. Both descriptions are true. But one demonstrates more clearly the value the engineer adds. Experts are ‘different’

Our distaste in making ourselves sound like warriors or rock stars, when combined with how experts act differently to other employee groups within the organisation, further deepen the circumstances that allow the Great Talent Divide to prevail.

Experts, for example, are not seen by the rest of the organization as ambitious. Why? Because most experts don’t want to be people leaders, and the definition of ambition in many organisations is defined by how rapidly you rise through the ‘ranks’ and how many people report to you. Most experts we work with have no interest in such a career path.

In a recent survey conducted by the authors, 87% of experts said they felt they could contribute more value, at a more senior level, if only they were allowed to. Our experience in working with experts is that most are very frustrated that they lack the influence, authority, and resources to be able to transform productivity and enterprise capability. If experts lacked ambition, they wouldn’t be frustrated, would they?

Very often, we find the team culture among experts the concept of ‘management” is abhorrent. Jonathan, an IT specialist, describes it: “A life of continuous meetings, never reaching clear conclusions or achieving outcomes – this is the life of the people leaders I see. I want no part of it. As a specialist, I can focus on getting real work done.” Jonathan’s ambition is to do great work, often work that is invisible to the rest of the organisation, but very visible to him (and perhaps a few of his technical colleagues). He’s very ambitious to do break through work.

To make matters worse, in many organizations, experts are typecast as people who lack the social or management skills to operate outside their own specialty or to play senior roles within the organization. Many managers believe that experts are ‘not good with people’. Many HR folk are convinced experts aren’t good with people, and openly say so with irritating regularity.

These colleagues have formed this view based on observations over time where they have seen experts favor cold hard facts and clinical analysis at the expense of relationship building and maintenance. But it is not that experts are inherently handicapped or lacking the skills to address this common shortfall. Experts are in most cases left-brained. That is, in most cases, we are instinctively attracted to and focused on technical, intellectual, and rational content. This is actually what often makes experts very good at their jobs.

It’s not that experts aren’t naturally good with people. It is that experts have over-invested in building technical skills, and under-invested in building enterprise skills. The good news? We have hundreds of examples of experts who have quickly transformed stakeholder engagement by being quick studies on techniques and thinking around building great relationships. All these techniques feature heavily in this book.

A further strongly held view of experts is that we have poor collaboration skills – we aren’t easy to work with. Well, in fairness, many of us are not, but again this isn’t because somewhere in our DNA someone decided we were born difficult. The majority of experts tend to be quite introverted. We’re quiet. And we’re independent – we like working alone. And, because we’re experts, we can see into the future and predict problems with solutions our colleagues are proposing before they can. Combine these three and suddenly we are a group of sullen, uncommunicative difficult people.

One of the authors had an experience of working in a mobile applications development company some years back. His experience of highly technical IT folk was completely different from the description above. In meetings, the designers and engineers were animated, passionate, and if anything, overly communicative. In fact, it’s a trait of experts that we all love a good argument. We value debate, the exchange of ideas, and possibly being found to be wrong because it leads to more learning. This team were very supportive of new ideas and solutions.

But often this is a side of experts that only our own technical cohort see. Experts can, when provided with the right environment, tools and motivation, be as effective at building relationships and displaying emotional intelligence as any of their non-technical colleagues in the organization.

A more damaging popularly held view is that experts care more about their profession than they do about their employer. Experts are hired by organizations for their expertise. But the more we use our expertise, the more it seems we become distanced from the rest of the organization. We become typecast as specialists, because that is consistent with our behavior. We are accused of being unable to see the bigger picture because, in some instances, other people’s interactions with us are only at the technical level. In some cases, of course, because we are so focused on the technical side of our role, this accusation is true.

This image of experts becomes self-reinforcing. The organization sidelines us and, as a consequence, we feel unloved and unwanted, or undervalued and taken for granted. So, we hang out with others who are similarly sidelined, our tribe. And because we relate to the tribe more than the whole employee group, when we’re asked at a barbeque what we do, we don’t say we work for XYZ organization, we say we work “in IT.”

This common misconception about how experts relate to the organization has serious implications for both experts and their managers. We discuss this in depth later.

Another common criticism of experts is that we operate in our own little bubble, and we don’t understand ‘the business’ (and we’d include the purpose and strategic of public sector organisations or not-for-profits in this description). A large proportion of the experts who attend our programs are guilty as charged – they demonstrate a significant lack of critical knowledge about their organization and its strategic challenges and competitors.

This criticism is often valid because most experts focus on the acquisition and application of technical knowledge. They operate and interact with the organization almost entirely from a technical perspective. If they attend courses to expand their knowledge and skills, these will usually be on the technical side. This appears to make sense because of the role experts are typically asked to play: to provide objective, emotionless analysis leveraging facts and data, and their technical expertise.

How does the audience experience me?

If there is a lack of ‘big picture’ knowledge and insight, it is hardly surprising experts are under-represented at the senior table compared to people leaders. When it comes to influencing the long-term direction of the organization and allocating resources accordingly, despite their technical expertise being relevant, experts operating in their technical bubble can’t make meaningful contributions about how resources should be prioritized. Organizational structures and processes reinforce this imbalanced focus.

It is a classic catch-22: the expectations of experts’ contribution are restricted to technical inputs based on their area of speciality, and so that is where we focus our attention in terms of knowledge and skills acquisition, which guarantees we’ll not be asked to make a wider contribution.

This lack of broader knowledge and what we call market context means experts’ understanding of their impact on the bottom line (or community impact) is typically remote and abstract. This leads to an assumption that we do not care about business or broader organizational issues. And quite often, this actually is the case.

Another mindset that isn’t helpful: depending on the professional field in which the expert operates, there can sometimes be a view that things like profits and budgets are somehow a contamination of pure objectivity. It also means that as experts, we are typically under-resourced and under-represented. We struggle to express a voice. We are rarely asked or given opportunity to make a contribution.

Finally, there is the belief among many of our non-technical colleagues that experts are arrogant. Our colleagues can often provide some superficially compelling evidence for this.

Experts are attracted to their specialized fields because it allows them to cultivate superior levels of knowledge, which increases their self-esteem. While generally not true, many experts contribute strongly to the perception that it is. Some experts are inherently egotistical people, with no interest in anyone else’s point of view. They have a deep belief in the superiority of their own perspective. Or they have a character flaw which derives perverse pleasure from making others feel small and asserting their own brilliance.

Do we as experts fall victim to behaviors that can be classed as arrogant? Should we defend our expertise (which may simply help to perpetuate this perception)? As experts, we have very likely studied or researched a topic in far greater depth than our non-technical peers. We might describe matters in our field of expertise in conceptually more complex terms than others can easily follow. It might have taken us years to properly understand these concepts ourselves. As experts, we may use unfamiliar or specialized jargon, and make connections between seemingly random data points.

We might also be extremely passionate about our craft, and often this passion comes across as a very strong level of confidence that can overpower colleagues who are less certain.

In our work with specialist doctors, the authors often see this play out. Challenged by someone who is not qualified, doctors are aghast that their 12-years-in-training opinion being challenged. Their response? They usually over-assert their opinion based on status. As a consequence of this brutal put down, the leading nurse (themselves often with 25 years’ experience) or radiographer never challenges that doctor – or other doctors – again. This is neither good for the doctors, those they work with, or more critically, the safety of the patients they are treating.

These type of behaviors can make others feel inadequate, confused, out of their depth, or uncomfortable. Naturally, people don’t like to feel that way and often feel some instinctual need to salvage their dented egos by assuming some negative motive on the part of the technical expert. They assume experts are trying to show off or are just trying to demonstrate their superior knowledge or brilliance.

This is sometimes part of our thought process as experts. Usually nothing could be further from our minds, but it is often difficult for our clients and colleagues to distinguish between the two.

Also, we sometimes expect people to listen to us because we are the expert and, clearly, we know best. This is dangerous territory. How can we be sure that what was right yesterday is still right today? Or that because something is technically right, that makes it the right approach for the whole enterprise?

What tactics can we use as experts use to ensure we don’t come across to key stakeholders as arrogant? We need to explore our own intentions on a regular basis. This may be a useful practice - particularly if we aren’t having the desired impact.

We should ask ourselves questions like: “Am I truly focused on adding value and being of service to others? Or am I more interested in maintaining some kind of prestigious image?”

We need to learn to leave our egos at the door.

Changing mindsets is the key

In Samuel Beckett’s famous play, Waiting for Godot, two characters (Didi and Gogo) wait for the arrival of someone named Godot who never arrives. We sometimes see this scenario playing out for experts. Many of us are waiting for the wonderful day, at some unknown time in the future, when everyone else in the organization will suddenly have an epiphany and realize that experts are outstanding contributors, worthy of adoration and investment, and elevation to rock star status.

Classically, these experts are waiting for everyone else to change, and see no requirement for shifting their own mindset or behavior.

On our programs we meet many experts who hold this view. The interchange goes something like this:

Facilitator: So, you chosen to wait for the rest of the organization to see the error of their ways and their thinking?

Expert: Yes.

Facilitator: How long have you had this as your strategy?

Expert: (Pause) Er, ten years or so.

Facilitator: How successful has the strategy been? Seen any changes?

Expert: (Further pause) Er, no. No change. It’s going badly.

Facilitator: (Deliberately long pause) Given the current lack of progress, would you be open to considering an alternative strategy?

Expert: (Grudgingly) I suppose so.

Facilitator: Are you sure? You don’t sound sure. Perhaps you could continue with your current strategy and something will change soon?

Expert: (Having processed the conversation, because they are smart) I wasn’t sure, but now you’ve put it like that, continuing with the same strategy would be madness, right? So, what’s the alternative?

Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. This is, in effect, what many experts are doing – and Einstein’s right, it’s insane.

The first mindset we have to change is ours. Then, and only then, will we be in a position to change the way in which experts are experienced and valued across every organization everywhere. That’s our modest mission with this book – revolution.

This starts with us. It starts now. It starts here. Are you ready? In better news: in many organizations we have worked with its already started and the results are spectacular for both the experts and the organization. In this book we’ll explore the secrets of this success.

What is the alternative?

Revolution is a big word and it sounds far too difficult, doesn’t it? So why don’t we return to the predicament of Edward and see if we can start this revolution one expert at a time.

During our work with Edward’s organization – and Edward himself – we worked to help him change his perception of his career aspiration and his professional growth needs.

Edward concluded that he didn’t have a particular wish to be promoted into a people leadership role, but he did wish to be promoted – rewarded and recognized – for his greater technical contribution. We worked with him to help him shape a clearer understanding of how his work should be both assessed and rewarded with both his manager and the wider human resources team.

Most importantly, we worked with him to change the way he presents himself to the organization, how he interacts with stakeholders, and the ways in which he can show himself worthy of development opportunities. Edward’s organization has started implementing programs specifically designed to assist the growth of interpersonal and business skills (what we call enterprise Edward was one of many critically important talents in the organization that were under-recognized and under-developed.

Edward of course was one of the lucky ones – his organization had started to think about how to optimize the contribution of experts, and how to retain and re-energizes them. That’s why we were involved.

But Edward has to demonstrate a willingness to evolve as an expert, before the organization sat up and noticed he was worthy of longer-term growth investment.

We hope this book on Expertship will assist organizations – and individual experts –address the lack of equity in learning opportunities between leaders of people and leaders of knowledge – the experts. This text provides a language and a framework, which we discuss in depth, which can form the basis of learning initiatives.

But it is also important to help Edward and others like him to shape the future he wants – and deserves. A future where he will be able to create more value for his organization. Go into any technical department in any organization and you’ll find many Edwards. They deserve a new learning deal.

Taking the Expertship Challenge

IT IS THE CENTRAL thesis of this book that some of these broadly held and limiting views of experts are outdated – if they were ever correct – and needs to change. And we believe there needs to be change both from those who work with and manage experts, and who often misunderstand them, and from the experts themselves.

It is impossible to change decades of poor thinking and the views of millions of non-expert managers with the quick sweep of a pen. Or the publishing of a single book.

But in our experience, most experts are punching well below their weight. They have a huge opportunity to increase their mastery of Expertship and reach their full potential. We argue that experts, the authors included, have too often allowed these prejudices against us to develop. It is up to us to actively ensure we receive the recognition that we and our work deserve.

Experts are essentially the custodians of the organization’s unique knowledge base. We are the people who make things work. It is one of the great tragedies of modern business life that we are not more recognized and that our career paths are limited. But it’s time to accept a hard truth. Much of this is our own fault. We have contributed to the status quo, and only we can change it.

So, are you prepared to take on the Expertship challenge? Are you prepared to take an objective view of your level of Expertship? Are you prepared to master the techniques and strategies, described in this book, that will enable you to reframe your expert brand, and reset the value you can add to colleagues and the wider organization?

The quickest way for us to get people thinking differently about experts is by us acting differently. One expert at a time.