Expertship in Action

How best to manage subject matter experts

Do you manage a team or division of experts – people known for their deep technical capability but not for their commercial or people skills? Sometimes they bring this on themselves, by not engaging with stakeholders in the most effective ways. But this is not a fundamental character flaw. Rather, it is a skills gap that can be addressed, with your support. By Dominic Johnson, Master Facilitator, Expertship programs at HFL.


Domain subject matter experts are increasingly vital parts of any modern organisation. Without them, the organisation could not function effectively. Yet these key people are often unrecognised or underappreciated by the broader organisation. Their key contributions are not fully appreciated. How can you, as their manager, help enhance their influence and impact?


Here’s a few suggestions that are easy to implement and have. In our experience they have significant payoffs.


1.  Define their roles more broadly

The expert’s job is about much more than the simple deployment of their technical skills. For these skills to be most effective, subject matter experts need to be able to leverage their skills across the wider organisation. That means their role needs to be more broadly defined.

They, and you, need to look beyond their technical skills. In practice, their role most likely includes managing a number of stakeholder relationships. It might involve being an active participant in the change process, or even taking more of a leadership role in changes in and beyond the team. These responsibilities need to be clearly defined.


Their job will also most likely impact on the customer experience or on the organisation’s operational efficiency. For a full list of capabilities and responsibilities that might be applied to experts, see the Expertship Model. Determine which of these capabilities and responsibilities might be reasonably included in your experts’ role descriptions.

 to build these skills.

2.  Be prepared to hold them accountable for outcomes – and provide coaching and support

It is the expert’s job to provide critical inputs on their areas of specialisation. Very often they regard this as the totality of their responsibilities. You need to insist on more, as per the expansion of their roles mentioned above.


A good way to do this is to set goals. Figure out which organisational metrics they might reasonably be able to influence or impact, and assign targets accordingly. Importantly, be prepared to offer timely support throughout.


3. Identify and support their development needs beyond the technical

The Expertship Model provides a useful framework for identifying key development needs. While keeping professional and technical skills up to date is a must, there will be additional critical capabilities – prioritisation skills, relationship skills, influence skills, presentation skills – that will enhance their overall effectiveness.


A critical conversation with the expert often revolves around the technical aspects of their role, an area in which you yourself may or may not be an expert. But usually these are not the pieces that really make the difference – it is the so-called ‘soft skills’ that bring the hard skills to life for stakeholders.


In fact, in a recent client interaction we interviewed 60 managers of experts and asked them to describe attributes and behaviours of their very best experts versus their least effective. Technical knowledge wasn’t a key differentiator – the key differences were all in the so-called ‘soft skills’.


The Expertship Model provides a frame of reference for a much more valuable conversation about the totality of an expert’s role, not just the technical component. The key focus of this conversation is where the expert has the opportunity to add more value, as opposed to where they are doing work that adds little value and which they should be delegating – or not doing at all.


It is very difficult to manage an expert when there is no agreement about what good performance looks like. Using a framework like the Expertship Model helps you set performance targets, because it shows where an expert can make a difference.



You probably know that your experts are not as expert as they could be. But that isn’t necessarily what they think. If they believe they are being judged only on their technical capability, then maybe they are correct in thinking they know as much as they can. But if you ask them to consider their role in a broader context, then they’ll see that there is an opportunity for them to be even more expert than they currently are, because they will have more influence. The Expertship Model is a critical foundation for this conversation and insight raising.




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You might also be interested in reading this article: Why Talent Reviews with Subject Matter Experts are Awkward




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