Transitioning From The Role Of Expert To A Leader Has Its Challenges.

As a healthcare CEO I’ve had the privilege over many years to work with some truly great leaders. They’ve come from many different backgrounds — healthcare is a diverse field — and I’ve been lucky to have worked alongside some of the best.

I had an early formative experience working as a young administrator alongside an eminent Professor of Surgery. He was tall and distinguished looking, spoke well, and was a pioneer in his chosen field. His colleagues held him in high regard and he wore the mantle of leader with great dignity. He was in short, my hero.

Over the course of the last thirty or more years I’ve met several more medical leaders like him, and it is a characteristic of these men and women that they understand how important it is to capture the full commitment of the people they work alongside and who support them.

Experts may of course successfully lead teams, whether in the laboratory or in clinical practice. So it’s no surprise that expert clinicians do become supremely able leaders when removed from their area of expertise.

However, for every notable success there are many examples of less successful transitions from the world of the expert clinician to that of successful leader. The question addressed in this post is why this should be the case and what can be done about it.

Based on my observations, here is my tentative diagnosis and suggested treatment.

1. Experts Tell, Leaders Listen

Experts ‘have the last word’ — they are the authoritative voice on their given topic. This mindset is very different to what is required from leaders. It is not so such much telling, as listening that characterises an effective leader as Tanveer Naseer has written:

“We need leaders who recognize that to engage people in the work they do requires the willingness to truly listen and understand the realities of those under their care”.

An expert making a transition to a leadership role would do well to reflect on how they will build an understanding of the world from the perspective of the people they are to lead. For instance, spending time alongside their team witnessing their experiences in a non-judgemental way can build useful insights.

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2. Experts May Make Assumptions Based On Their Expert Knowledge

An expert in one area is often asked to lead apparently similar groups — think of a Clinical Director who is a urologist leading orthopaedic surgeons. However, assumptions which hold true in their own area of expertise (urology) may not work as well when transported to a different field (orthopaedics).

Experts may be partially blinded to this insight by virtue of their expert knowledge. Experts can guard against this tendency by asking open questions, seeing things for themselves and listening carefully to the stories told by the people in their care.

3. Experts Accumulate Authority, Leaders Empower Others

An expert’s authority is derived from their peers — status is mediated by the recognition that their work has standing among their peers. Authority and power are accumulated over time.

Leaders use their positional authority to empower people they lead. They are not power accumulators.

As a new leader, an expert has moved from perceiving success from a largely personal perspective to shaping it from a group or collective perspective. To put it more bluntly, an expert transitioning into leadership might usefully consider the truth that their own success hinges on the group’s success.

4. Experts Trade In Certainties

On the whole, we don’t want our experts to display vulnerability. We need them to have confidence in their experience and know-how, while nevertheless committing to continuously bolstering their knowledge.

Leaders understand that more often than not, they don’t have the answers — the people they lead do.

A new expert leader might be advised to ‘cordon off’ their area of expertise psychologically. Saying out loud that one has a lot to learn about something new is a powerful way of encouraging people to speak up. You’ll never know what needs fixing if you never hear about what’s not working.

5 Experts And Leaders Understand Failure Differently

Experts understandably see failure as diminishing their authority as an expert. Accordingly, experts tend to ’stick to their guns.’ Leaders with a growth mindset see failure as an opportunity.

“Dealing with failure is a leader’s stock in trade”.

An expert who transitions into a successful leader acquires an ability to see failure through a new lens. They learn to accept that it’s through one’s failures that some of the best opportunities for growth and development occur.

Coping with failure requires resilience and in this regard experts are usually very well equipped.

6. Healthcare Experts Value Predictability

Healthcare experts are usually scientists, who value predictability. Healthcare managers (not necessarily leaders) are often rationalists who value explanations.

This different way of understanding the world may explain why healthcare managers and clinicians sometimes misunderstand each other. It’s true that improvement science is now providing more ‘scientific’ methodologies, but it’s still the case that managing people tends to be more art than science.

Experts who find themselves leading people outside their home team may need to warm up their people skills. Just because something’s true, doesn’t making it right — nor does it turn a potential solution into a remedy. It’s only when people commit to change that things start to happen. Being right is not enough.

Question: What successful transitions from expert to leader have you witnessed and what made them work?

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