Many times, the professionals chosen for leadership roles are the ones who have demonstrated their value as subject matter experts. It’s an obvious choice, since their team members already look to them for guidance. That is why stepping into this role feels completely natural for so many leaders, especially new ones. They’re essentially performing the same functions they did before they landed the leadership title. 

For instance, they act as a primary resource for information and feedback about their area of expertise. They’re intelligent and credible. People seek them out to field questions about complex issues. They are the go-to source for troubleshooting. When things aren’t going as planned, people turn to them for help in resolving the issues. Their problem-solving skills are legendary. They may also get involved with training. Chances are, they take the lead in helping to educate other staff members on processes and procedures related to their specialty. 

Organizations depend on the deep knowledge and experience of these subject matter experts, so on the surface it seems like a simple, seamless progression for those highly-valued employees, to officially shift into leadership. 

Unfortunately, their transition might be so easy in the area of specific subject matter expertise, that it creates a big challenge. Here’s why: being a leader requires the flexibility to perform a wide range of roles discussed in this series. We can’t do that effectively if we get stuck in a rut, playing the same role all the time, the familiar one, the one that’s easy and comfortable. 

If you’re a subject matter expert, it’s important to monitor and even limit the amount of time you spend playing this role. Focus on learning all the other roles involved in leadership: coaching, managing, visionary, ambassador, change agent, motivator and subject matter expert. You’ll need to intentionally push yourself out of your comfort zone to learn these new skills, associated with your leadership position. 

To help leaders who are new and subject matter experts, often a coach or a mentor is needed so that they can learn and embrace all the facets of their position. This learning process includes three steps: 

  1. Start to get comfortable with the idea of not knowing everything. As organizations expand, work structures become more complicated and it will eventually become impossible for one person, even a seasoned leader, to know every aspect of cross-functional processes. Let go and begin to trust that others on your team can take care of the minute details, while you focus on the bigger picture.
  2. Be proactive about learning the functional skills associated with leadership. In your previous positions, you might not have needed to know about things like general management practices, budgeting, forecasting. Dedicate ample time to increasing your proficiency in these new areas. That will give you more confidence as you shift into other roles, required for your leadership function. 
  3. Develop the intangible skills that will solidify your position as a well-rounded leader. This is the interpersonal side of leadership. Things like improving your communication skills, active listening, resolving conflict, coaching others. The key here is taking the time to build more relationships within your team and across all lines of business. Admittedly, this aspect might be a bit more challenging for subject matter experts who are highly technical or quantitative, but even if it’s out of your comfort zone, push yourself to make this a priority. It’s one of the best things you can do to break out of your expert persona and shine a light on your ability to work with and through others. 

Your contributions as a subject matter expert provides great value to your organization. Just be sure to deliberately stretch into the other roles of leadership, to maximize your impact on the team, and keep your own career moving forward.