Guest Post: The Death of Expertise and Why It Matters for Successful Business Growth

I am currently reading Tom Nichol’s above titled book, and finding it fascinating, enlightening, and even a bit depressing. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it.  To (poorly) summarize his premise: given society’s incredible access to information, often unvetted, usually without context, and frequently just plain wrong, we’re creating an environment where opinion is conflated with fact and everyone feels empowered to speak with authority on the most arcane, complex or nuanced of topics. The book has been attacked as a defense of elitism, but that line of reasoning is the very point of the book! There are people who know more than any of the rest of us do about at least something, and sometimes, many things. To ignore that is to constrain growth and improvement.

I have no desire to expound on the societal impact of everyone “knowing” everything. We all have an uncle who’s a “maven” (a Yiddish term meaning roughly, self-proclaimed expert), and so maybe that causes eyerolls at holiday dinners. Brighter minds than mine can look at the broader implications.  What I do want to talk about here is less about the death of expertise than the increasingly prevalent belief in organizations that others know more (or as much) as the people they’ve hired specifically for their expertise. And that’s important to the success or failure of a business.

In my experience that can, and does, happen in any sized company, but I see it (both as a consultant and an executive) more frequently in smaller growth-focused companies run by founders and first time CEOs—or maybe it’s more accurate to say that there’s a greater likelihood of this impacting efficient growth in early-stage businesses. There’s an important irony (double edged sword, maybe?)  in the fact that what makes an entrepreneur awesome–their ego, passion, conviction, singlemindedness and vision—can also blind them to what it takes to grow their business.

Smart founders, often aided by their investors’ wisdom, will go off and staff a senior team for growth with the appropriate domain and leadership skills, but then make it difficult or impossible for them to do what they were hired to do. I am sure that many of you reading this have experienced the frustration of being second-guessed and overruled, not just by the CEO, but by peers whose expertise lies in far different areas.  Having to justify every action before execution often just devolves into a situation where direction is driven by the best arguer, independent of fact. The result is dysfunction, frustration and wasted opportunities for growth.

While it’s often the hardest thing for a leader to do, the best way to drive success is to let go, and let your talent leverage, well, their talent. Over the course of 30+ years of executive leadership and strategic consulting I’ve learned to hire smart people, give them a clear remit that aligns with corporate goals, do my best to provide appropriate and visible guardrails and remove obstacles whenever they appear. As anyone who has worked for or with me will attest, my view is that you can make mistakes (that’s how we learn!) but own and fix them, and as important, don’t make the same one twice!

I know that nothing I’m saying above is exactly breaking new ground in management studies, but it is a point that I think increasingly needs to be reinforced.  A mentor of mine used to refer to a self-proclaimed know-it-all we both knew as “not always right, but never uncertain”. There’s a fine line between being sure of your convictions and path and charging onward, unencumbered by facts.

And that, I would argue, is the difference between a successfully growing company, and one that “makes all the right noises” but goes nowhere.  Where would you rather be?

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