A Case for More Experts in Management
First off, let me say I don't think you need to be an expert to be a good manager. In fact, I don't even think you need to be an expert to be a good individual contributor. Sure it helps, but I believe there are other traits that are more important for making good technical contributions and better management decisions.
A mentor once told me, when hiring, look for intelligence versus skillset, because a fast & flexible learner continues to be useful when a project ends, but a finite skillset will eventually be obsolete. My definition of intelligence has evolved, and now I think he was really talking about mindsets. I believe having empathy & a growth mindset might be even more important than expertise or leadership.
In my opinion, there's a common misconception that experts lack leadership skills, or that their unique skills are better utilized as individual contributors. However, this artificial perception blocks potential contributions from others with unique perspectives, and it creates a void of subject matter expertise & experience in leadership. Instead it reinforces the stereotype of the alpha-type boss and the nerdy, absent minded professor.
I strongly feel this lack of diversity in leadership & individual contributions is a real missed opportunity to maximize collaboration with unique voices & special experiences across an organization. This opportunity cost limits growth and sustainability, and I would bet these types of businesses die from starvation & cannibalism as experts give up, frustrated from a lack of voice, and leaders, failing to listen to these valuable perspectives, opt for short term gains and cash out before they crash & burn.
A New Model
Instead of perpetuating this rigid 20th century hierarchy, I propose a new model where empathy & open mindedness are championed for all, and opportunities are encouraged for all maximizing diversity. If a contributor excels at research or analysis, that doesn't mean they can't learn to be an empathic leader. If their work is a safe & supportive environment that encourages stretch goals and embraces failure instead of punishing it, they can grow to accomplish anything, enhancing their perspectives and adding value to the organization.
Conversely, why are non-technical workers pushed into management, limiting their opportunities to learn new skills and make unique contributions. I don't believe workers are just one thing and only have one value. They are constantly growing and bringing new values to the organization.
T-Shapes & Growth Mindsets
Several reports have expressed the importance of lateral moves and T-shaped workers [1-4]. When a manager takes an assignment as an individual contributor they learn new skills and gain new perspectives that gives them both depth & breadth in their field. This allows them to synthesize new ideas and innovations they wouldn't have had if they'd remained siloed. Similarly when experts take on the responsibility of management, they are forced to delegate work, give up control, & learn the business constraints that limit what the organization can do. These perspectives are critical. Again, as with the manager, the expert now synthesizes these new ideas and innovates in ways they wouldn't have if they'd stayed in the lab. Both of these coworkers are now T-shaped. Instead of staying in fixed roles, by embracing a growth mindset, they have created synergy.
"Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement on their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don't mind or fear failure as much because they realize their performance can be improved and learning comes from failure." Wikipedia
Empathy is always in short supply, although we all know it to be the most valuable of human abilities. Would anyone of us be alive if it weren't for the caring love of our family & friends. At work we draw boundaries, as we should, but that should not exclude empathy from the workplace. In fact, I argue it's even more important. You want people to give their best, then they have to have a safe & supportive environment where they feel trusted and respected. No punitive action is ever useful at work. Positive & constructive feedback is based on the assumption of good faith. That everyone is pulling together and giving their best for mutual success. Where failure is not criticized, but a learning opportunity for all.
So in summary, don't box yourself in or your coworkers. Strive to create a culture where anything is possible, learning is continuous, and failure is always an option, and that's good. Encourage lateral moves and grow a T-shaped workforce. Listen to experts and encourage them step outside of their comfort zone to take a turn at the wheel, while leaders experiment and analyze data. Don't be afraid to mix it up. The result might be a more sustainable and profitable business.
- Introducing T-Shaped Managers: Knowledge Management’s Next Generation -- Morten T. Hansen & Bolko von Oetinger, Harvard Business Review, 2001
- Lateral Moves -- Dear HBR Podcast, Harvard Business Review, 2018
- The Value of T-Shaped People -- Mitchell Pratt, LinkedIn, 2019
- To Say Yes or No: Is a Lateral Move for You? -- Marissa Lee, LinkedIn, 2020
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck, Penguin Random House, 2007
- What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means -- Carol Dweck, Harvard Business Review, 2016
- How Praise Became a Consolation Prize: Helping children confront challenges requires a more nuanced understanding of the “growth mindset.” -- Christine Gross-Loh , The Atlantic, 2016