Why don’t we offer executive coaching to subject matter experts?
Summary: Executive coaching is common and well-understood. But L&D and OD departments rarely contemplate executive coaching for senior, well paid, mission-critical subject matter experts (SMEs). Why? How should we think differently about it?
Written by Kirsty Allen 02 Sep 2021

Image credit: stock.adobe.com

7 challenges faced by technical subject matters experts and how coaching can help

Offering executive coaching to people leaders is now standard practice for most organizations – and has been proven to be a very successful way of helping senior executives safely grow as leaders. But it is very rare for L&D and OD departments to contemplate executive coaching for senior, well paid, mission-critical subject matter experts (SMEs). Why is that? And should we think differently about it?

I recently delivered some personality debriefs to a group of very senior technical medical experts – doctors – as a prelude to coaching these experts. It turned out they face similar challenges to many executive people leaders we work with:

  • Imposter syndrome – confidence around decision-making and what their peers think of them;

  • Developing trust and confidence in others – including sharing what they know to build talent;

  • Transitioning from a quote directive to a much more coaching style of stakeholder engagement;

  • Managing competing priorities and email overload;

  • Finding time to reflect and innovate to future proof the organization and stay ahead of competition;

  • Letting go of their functional hat to embrace an enterprise mindset;

  • Generating alignment and buy-in to ideas.

While SMEs – like these doctors – are very expert at some things, they are well aware they lack knowledge and experience in others. (But they might not like to admit it.) How much more valuable could experts be in your organisation if they developed confidence in other areas?

What’s the issue with developing experts?

Experts can be a tricky group to develop, or even approach about professional development.

  • What if experts think they are already as expert as they can be? (Many do.)

  • What if they think, by suggesting development for them, we are criticizing their level of expertise?

  • What if experts are dismissive or corporate development programs?

  • What if experts feel that they can only learn from other experts?

  • What if experts are “too busy” fire-fighting to see the value of spending time building their non-technical skills?

I am describing here the sort of reactions many HR executives get from experts when approached about involvement in development opportunities.

But maybe if we approached them about executive coaching their reaction might be a little different. That’s certainly been our experience. In fact, they often embrace coaching. Why?

  • One-to-one coaching is a safe place to explore and develop missing skills and capabilities that senior employees often don’t want to admit to;

  • In our system, they get to choose from a short list their own coach – and they almost always choose one of our expertship coaches, those who have been subject matter experts themselves (sometimes we can even match the technical domain the coachee works in);

  • Coaching acts as a unique and objective sounding-board, which can be a life-saver and a career-saver;

  • Working with their coach, experts can often overcome challenges and pressures they have been putting up with for a long time;

  • Coaching can prepare them for the next challenge or organizational change.

  • It can help them maintain engagement, manage conflict, and increase their executive presence – a critical success factor for senior experts.

Executive coaching has long since lost its “remedial” image.

Most senior executives and experts now accept it is a tool to enhance performance by helping them uncover strengths and blind spots, and clarify and accomplish goals. Typically combined with data – in our coaching of experts we use the Expertship360, a tool designed specifically for assessing the performance and impact of experts – these insights drive deployment of new mindsets, behaviors and results.

Experts have picked a field to specialize in (IT, law, engineering, science, HR, etc.) and dedicated hours to master it. An experienced executive coach can convince them that they could have greater impact if they learned how to build formidable teams, apply adaptive expertise, and consider risks and opportunities in a way that balances the long-term needs of stakeholders.

How do I start coaching subject matter experts and individual contributors?

If you are starting to think about the possibilities here, there are some resources that might be helpful.

Our Chief Research Officer, Darin Fox, recently shared behaviors of high performing experts, and common growth opportunities, in this webinar.

Expertunity has supported over 2000 individual experts transition from service providers to strategic partners through Mastering Expertship. We’re now offering our Expertship360 and 1:1 Coaching for Experts: What is it and why is it needed? to support behavior transformation in those critical to value creation and the efficient delivering of projects.

Download a description of the coaching program below.

Download Coaching for Experts for further reading