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Expertise: A Potential Derailer for Leaders at all Levels

by Steve Hrop, Ph.D.
on 2016-05-13

When differentiating between managing and leading, American scholar and organizational consultant Warren Bennis famously stated that “managers do things right, and leaders do the right thing.”

In my experience as an executive coach, the leading-versus-managing debate is a false dichotomy that distorts the true nature of executive work. All leadership roles – from first-line supervisor to CEO – can be broken down into three main categories: Leader, Manager, and Expert.

The Leader category consists of strategic planning, change management, creating alignment, and innovation. Falling under the heading “important but not urgent,” the tasks associated with realizing these objectives are often measured in months or years. Managers typically involve themselves in daily and weekly activities that directly focus on people and process management. Giving direction and providing feedback to direct reports, monitoring performances, tracking timelines, and dealing with problems in “real time” are key elements of managing. Finally, the Expert category involves tasks and decisions that the executive performs in a hands-on way.

Early in the coaching process, I ask an executive to estimate the percentage of time he or she currently spends within each category. Then, I ask them their optimal or desired percentage of time. The results are always eye-opening: Many successful executives spend too much time in Expert mode.

A CEO client of mine devotes 80 percent of his time to Expert tasks. He is a former plant manager and engineer who rose through the ranks over a 25-year career at the company. He understands the operations as well as his plant managers. So when he visits plants, he stops by every department to spot problems and recommend solutions. As a result of discussing how he’s dividing his time, he’s starting to realize that these frequent plant visits are taking him away from other responsibilities, especially key Leader tasks.

Often, the root cause of spending too much time in “Expert” mode is that the tasks associated with this function reside within the executive’s comfort zone. As a result, they have difficulty delegating these responsibilities.

And while we know that mastering the art of delegation is the key to better time management, the reality is that Experts hate to delegate. They believe they can do it better and faster than anyone else. This is not a sustainable approach over the long term. In fact, it keeps people dependent on the Expert, resulting in a reduction in overall organizational capability and leadership bench strength.

To ween executives away from “Expert” tasks, and try their hand at delegating, I recommend following this 12-step process:

  • Define the task
  • Select the person
  • Assess ability/training needs
  • Explain why
  • State required results
  • Identify resources required
  • Agree on a schedule
  • Confirm understanding
  • Provide encouragement
  • Support and communicate
  • Provide feedback and answer questions
  • Recognize and celebrate

I always stress that delegation does not mean losing control. If the executive approaches delegation from a coaching and development perspective, the results are often gratifying for both parties.

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Steve Hrop, Ph.D., is Vice President of Organizational Development Services with Caliper. He works extensively in leadership development, executive coaching, and other aspects of organizational-development consulting.