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LEADERSHIP: How CEO’s can lead technical experts like manufacturing, R&D, construction, design etc when you are not the expert ?

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LEADERSHIP: How CEO’s can lead technical experts like manufacturing, R&D, construction, design etc when you are not the expert ?

Summary:Every leader goes through a stage in their journey up the “leadership ladder” when they are confronted with responsibilities outside their expertize, when subordinates are technically much better qualified or much more smarter than them

Author:Rupak Agarwal

Many budding leaders fail to cross this hurdle up the leadership ladder or taking too much time to train themselves to cross this milestone. The earlier you cross this hurdle, the faster you become an evolved leader.

All through my childhood days, the spirit of competition was ingrained in me, competing with fellow students to get meritorious positions. Pedigree meant a lot. I had to compete to get the prestigious IIM seat. But as I travelled the road to corporate leadership, a new brain wiring was the recipe for success. Collaboration instead of competition.

LEADING TECHNICAL EXPERTS AND INDIVIDUALS SMARTER THAN YOU

When was it the first time when you encountered a situation that your subordinate asked you a question and you did not have an answer. When did you find yourself not even understanding what your subordinates are saying, the technical jargons, the specific metrics, the problems thereon ? Did you feel frustrated, incompetent, disoriented ? Every leader goes through a stage in their journey up the “leadership ladder” when they are confronted with responsibilities outside their expertize, when subordinates are technically much better qualified or much more smarter than them. How should you handle this stage in your leadership journey ?

Over more than 2 decades of corporate experience, I have seen many budding leaders failing to cross this hurdle up the leadership ladder or taking too much time to train themselves to cross this milestone. To my mind, the earlier you cross this hurdle, the faster you become an evolved leader.

I call this milestone the transition from the specialist to becoming a truly evolved leader. I am today sharing some of my own learnings as I kept moving sectors and industries which were very diverse and often put me into situations where I had people around me who were experts in their fields (like network team in telecom and construction, design and contracting teams in real estate) and smarter than me in many ways. You could have similar situations like leading manufacturing, R&D, equipment maintenance teams in various industries. I have been following what I have coined as a “MERCERP” approach in dealing with individuals smarter and more technically qualified than me.

M – Metrics : Often I found that it is a challenge to measure an expert’s accomplishment. There are many different parameters which get thrown at you. What is important is to be able to design very simple business based metrics which can be understood by everyone and has inbuilt milestones to track progress. Sometimes, it is a good idea to get outside expertise like a head office functional expert or an outside expertise for a short term when you are not very sure. However, it is very important to ensure that you do not criticize an expert for missing a milestone but definitely look for any repeating patterns which can indicate that either the expert is not expert enough or the project needs to be better defined.

E – Enable : Before crossing this leadership milestone it was easier, you made decisions based on your unique knowledge and expertize and you could easily see your contribution. However, as a leader at this juncture, the role shifts to not doing a task yourself but enabling things to make happen, developing the fine balancing skill of when you have to let go and when you have to intervene, developing your trust on the capabilities of the team working on the project. Keep asking lots of dumb questions. Find out what worries your team, where they get stuck, from where they can get inputs and then create opportunities to make things happen. Simply put, just get insights into what your experts do and make space for them. Make them accountable for their results, not their activity.

R- Relationships : This is the transition from focusing on facts, knowing what to do , telling your team the answer to their problems to focusing on relationships. How well do you know your experts ? Do they connect emotionally with you ? Are you able to adapt your style to suit the individuals and the situation ? Do you know whom to call to enable finding a solution ? The leadership ability to bring key experts together to collectively find a solution comes out of building that emotional connect, that versatile leadership style and  through developing your emotional intelligence as a leader.

C – Collaboration : All through my childhood days, the spirit of competition was ingrained in me, competing with fellow students to get meritorious positions. Pedigree meant a lot. I had to compete to get the prestigious IIM seat. But as I travelled the road to corporate leadership, a new brain wiring was the recipe for success. Collaboration instead of competition. So when you do not know the solution to a problem your experts have come up with, admit “I do not know”. Yes, it takes a different mental ability to say so. Throw the problem to the team, picking up the best minds based on your experience. Your team knows the everyday problems and the best solutions will come out from the grassroots. Ask them the right questions. And this is where my ICF certification in coaching really helped me, helping them reach that “aha” moment. I have found that asking for help and enabling teams to find the answers by asking the right questions helps you earn respect and gives them ownership of the process.

E- Executive Presence : A question that must be coming to your mind is how do I inspire confidence in my experts when I am not confident of the facts ? What has helped me personally cross this treacherous gap is developing Executive Presence. As a leader you are constantly being watched, you are always under a microscope. Your executive presence is judged by how you dress, how you speak, how you stand, how you connect to your audience through sincere emotion, how you in front of a group of customers, peers or employees deliver key company messages with clarity, confidence and poise…the list goes on. Is there calmness and confidence in your voice, are your sentences crisp and to the point, are you natural and exude warmth, do you handle stressful situations without losing grace ? When your team sees you holding your own amongst other senior leaders, they respect you. These are not personality traits but skills leaders develop over a period of time.

R – Reverse Mentoring : In yesterday’s organization, the boss was the teacher and the employees were there to learn. Not any more in this millennials age. Learning today is a “two way street”. How open are you to continuously pick up new skills ? How do you feel asking an employee 3-4 levels below you to be your mentor on a new skill you want to pick up ? The key is being shameless, being in active listening mode and being in a continuous learning mode. Just like learning a foreign language, if you do not immerse yourself, you will never become the person who can start using jargons of your new industry or function and get to engage your teams effectively.

P – Big Picture : The key leadership skill to develop is, can I see how the problem I am focusing upon is affecting people 2 levels up and 2 levels down. This will force you to think deeper and make the real difference to the organization as a leader. Your task is to dream, envision, plan the future of your organization and steer the ship. Get your experts aligned to this big vision and then give them their space. Use your network to enable and get work done and communicate with all stakeholders, the broader perspective.

I have found this “MERCERP” concept work for me as I transitioned to P&L roles and moved industries where I had to deal with highly technical people which were the core of that industry. I hope some of these learnings work for you as well.

Rupak Agarwal is an alumnus of IIM Bangalore and currently works as a Business Head with Godrej Properties Ltd. He is a turnaround specialist with multi industry expertise across technology, consumer, media, telecom and real estate.You can connect with him on twitter at @rupakagarwal*Views expressed here are personal.

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