Identifying and Transforming SMEs into Effective Leaders

February 15th, 2021 – As executive search professionals, we are asked to behaviorally interview interested and qualified candidates against a set of criteria commonly referred to as “The 5 Must Haves.” These include the knowledge, skills, abilities, attributes, and accomplishments that our clients deem most critical to successful first year and beyond performance.

In this lineup, you will most certainly find functional Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). While important, these individuals and their skillsets are not what separates the contenders from the pretenders. In fact, what differentiates one candidate from another is their demonstrated leadership, interpersonal skill, cultural fit, and overall alignment with the organization. In essence, SME is not necessarily a synonym for “exceptional leader.”

Exploring a Candidate’s Fit

After the first 10-15 plus years of a high performer’s professional career (post-graduate, if applicable), SME skills are presumed. Where we as search firms earn our fees is with our ability to assess and delve deeply into a candidate’s suitability for our client’s culture. Do they possess the passion, presence, and positioning for executive leadership? Is this something that they viscerally enjoy, or have they been thrust into prior roles which they did not truly fit?

Irrespective of their economic sector, far too many Boards and C-Suite executives place a greater emphasis on subject matter expertise to the exclusion of overall leadership, management, and supervisory prowess. Often, an individual may be functionally talented in multifamily, single family, finance, accounting, HR, operations, administration, sales, marketing or otherwise, and will start to make a significant impact within an organization. Soon thereafter, they begin emerging into roles of increasing responsibility. While they begin as a SME, often they are given large-group management and leadership roles before they are ready to assume such a position. Why does this happen?

In corporate America, we have a long-standing love affair and infatuation with SME. However, we must curb this enthusiasm to ensure that these vital contributors are truly ready for prime-time executive leadership roles. Preparing them for such a role is a vital part of both their personal success and that of the organization.

Slow Your Roll … Take Baby Steps

After 3-5 years of evaluation and assessment, a potential leader may be ready for a supervisory leadership role. However, we have seen many clients throw these folks immediately into the deep end, thrusting them into roles that require leading 10 or more people. With this approach, the SME does not benefit from the experience of first managing a small team of 3-5 people. Typically, this has disastrous people management and/or operational results.

Allow the SME to crawl before they can walk by critically reviewing their maiden voyage over at least 1–2 years. Give them consistent and substantive feedback and determine whether they have the leadership gene. If and only if you observe a passion and aptitude for team leadership do you promote the SME to positions of increasing leadership responsibility.

Emphasize Care for Staff, Team Goals & Development

To be an effective leader, you really must care about people, including their growth, development, morale, and career goals. The worst leaders have neither the leadership gene nor a fundamental care for team versus individual goals. They still possess the SME mentality, demonstrating an “all about me” mentality. They do not delegate; they don’t give timely feedback; they don’t communicate transparently and, most importantly, they are terrible at delivering bad news. The unnatural and unequipped leader also tends to punish in public and praise, if at all, in private. The best leaders praise good performance and deeds publicly and course correct less-than-stellar performance and behaviors both privately and in a timely manner.

Nip Culture Killing Behavior in the Bud

How many of us have seen the corporate movie featuring a self-promoting and interpersonally inept SME whom everybody hates but who has the ear of those who make leadership and succession planning decisions? What many executives overlook is that these “jerk factor” and “culture killing” characteristics strip away at the very fabric of employee morale, retention, and values they are trying to promote.

Leaders who over-emphasize SMEs and the personality flaws of this cadre will continue to lose consistently high-performing leaders to competitors and clients. These regretted losses can be avoided when Boards and C-Suite leaders reward – financially and with promotions – those who demonstrate both individual/operational as well as interpersonal/leadership performance.

Shift the Paradigm … The Time for Change is now

Many of our clients from housing finance agencies, non-profit, association and healthcare sectors are hiring a different kind of leader. This is a person who can effectively manage change, motivate, inspire, mentor, coach and develop; it is one who can transform organizational results and culture. This leader is more servant than selfish. They were likely an SME that did not overlook and underestimate the value and importance of interpersonal and relationship management skills.

These new leaders likely mirror the best and most effective leaders from the past – the ones that employees, teams and senior leadership respected both personally and professionally. Humble individuals do not require personal accolades or recognition because they prefer to reward teams and employees instead. The organizations that will win the succession planning, talent acquisition and retention wars in the months and years to come will be those who develop, advance, and promote the truly gifted and exceptional leaders within the core of SMEs.

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