The great leadership debate: do you need to be an SME?
Updated: May 18
I live in New Zealand, so I have to slip rugby in here somewhere. Sir Steve Hansen will do. He led the All Blacks to win 93 of the 107 games he coached. Impressive.
He represented Cantebury in first-class level rugby. But he never made a Super Rugby team nor was he an All Black. During the 2015 Rugby World Cup could Steve Hansen kick a conversion? Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm guessing he couldn't. And yet he led the All Blacks to something no other team had achieved: back-to-back World Cup titles.
Because he didn't have to be able to kick the ball over the uprights - he had to lead the people that could.
Would you only hire a professional sports coach who has played sports professionally? Of course not. Because what made them a great player will not necessarily make them a great coach.
The same is true in our organisations.
Is it important to be a technical subject matter expert (SME) in order to lead a team? Are subject matter experts better leaders?
It feels like there’s been a shift over the past decade or so on this question.
Think about how progression has typically worked: You're a bridge engineer and you're really good.
You become the senior bridge engineer, then the principal bridge engineer.
And then what? Promotion to the leader of the bridge engineers!
But what made you a great bridge engineer will not necessarily make you a great leader.
Over the past two years, I've facilitated 20 Exploring Leadership cohorts for a client. We cover (explore) a range of leadership topics: inclusion and diversity, strengths, the power of mindset, communication styles, values, what people need from leaders, human centric approaches, managing vs leading, the organisation's expectations framework (it's busy!).
Without a doubt, the topic which people consistently get the most passionate (and divided) about is whether you need to be a subject matter expert to successfully lead a team.
Let me start by saying being a people leader is only one way to lead. There are system leaders, process leaders, thought leaders, culture leaders within every organisation. People leadership is only one path. But for the sake of this debate - let's focus on people leadership (people directly reporting to you).
So where do I sit on the great debate?
On the fence. No matter how thin the pancake, there's still two sides. Yes, I do think you can be an amazing people leader without subject matter expertise. But this implies that the organisation is set up so that you can succeed. And I'm not sure that's always the case.
There are disadvantages and advantages of being in either situation. Quick brainstorm listed at the bottom. But really, like everything in life - it's about context.
Tips for if you're an SME people leader
If you're an SME and you've been through the wringer yourself - how you can relate to the team is completely different than if you haven't. You can use your knowledge and experience to build trust, review and QA work, develop your team's expertise, and have a keen awareness as to how operational and team decisions affect the work.
But, equally there's a way bigger temptation to get caught up in the detail, to jump in and try to solve all operational problems yourself, and you may stifle innovation by taking the 'what worked for me' as your default approach.
You'd need to be mindful to spend your time on the right things, avoid 'giving' the answer and be a coach, and let go of the idea that your way is the only or best way.
Think back to the team of bridge engineers - they didn't need another principal bridge engineer - they needed a leader. And leadership brings a whole new area of technical capabilities needed (managing interpersonal conflict, fostering talent and development, building inclusive environments, having performance conversations, building strong teams and networks, creating forward work plans, selling the team vision). I'd focus on developing these capabilities to complement your SME knowledge.
It's also worth considering the time, effort, and bandwidth it takes to stay a subject matter expert in certain fields. In some fields (anything technology based) this could be a full time job. I once heard Rohan Wakefield, CEO of Enspiral Dev Academy, state that three years after developers complete his programme, 80% of their knowledge will need to be replaced. That's a massive effort to give while also leading and managing a team.
Tips for if you're a people leader who's not an SME
If you're not an SME in the area you lead, it's not the end of the world. You just have to adjust for it.
Know your value. You didn't get the role because of your technical expertise - and that's fine! You need to be able to articulate the value you are bringing. And that value comes through leading and working with others - not being an SME. Focus on the leadership and management expertise you have.
Have strong governance processes in place. Your oversight won't be enough. You'll need strong QA and governance processes. How can you ensure high quality work is being produced? Mentoring and technical development fall under here. Who is the SME? How does the team get their oversight?
This is where a lot of organisations fall short. Their mantra says, we want people leaders - but their operational structure and governance relies on leaders being SMEs. A lot of team frustration can set in as a result. If you haven't thought about who can provide governance, sign-off, mentoring, and on-the-job training - you're in for some headaches.
Trust and empower. You won't be able to be the leader in every single facet of the team. You'll need to rely on the technical leader/principal. That person will need to feels trusted and empowered to lead this. And of course, they'll need to be psychologically safe to make these decisions. You can quickly become a massive bottleneck if every decision needs to be explained to you. It sounds simple, but this is one of the hardest. Especially when its you on the line if the wrong decision is made. Back to needing strong governance processes.
Be inclusive. This is something every leader should aim for. But, particularly when you're unable to correctly answer technical questions you're going to have to include others in decision-making, QA review, planning, and performance management. You'll need to hear the 'ground truth' from those living it to understand it. You should bring the team into these conversations early and often.
This is where some SME leaders get in trouble. They know what's going on and they may have great ideas how improve problem areas. But, it's tempting to come in and just start doing things without consulting or including the team. Including people in brainstorming, options analysis, and decision-making increases engagement and buy-in within the team. Non-SME leaders are almost 'forced' to be inclusive - not such a bad thing!
Be a naive investigator. Lean heavily into the curious, naive investigator role - question assumptions and ways of working. Not because you know the answer - precisely because you don't! Sometimes just asking the provoking 'why' is enough.
As with everything - awareness is the first step. Recognise what strengths you have and what the gaps are. Then, make a plan to leverage your strengths and manage your gaps.
Advantages and disadvantages of subject matter expertise for leaders
Advantages of being an SME leader:
You know your stuff - you can QA / review the team's work and know what you're looking for
You can build trust through technical competence
You have a shared lived experience with your team (you've walked in their shoes)
You can answer your team's technical questions
You can be a technical mentor / coach
Disadvantages of being an SME leader:
You can get dragged down into the detail of the work and lose time managing / leading the team
Without realising it you can stifle creativity / innovation by shutting down ideas (by reverting to what works for you)
It can be tempting to 'give' the answer, instead of coaching and empowering the team to find the answer
You can focus your coaching too much on the technical side and lose sight of the personal / team development
Advantages of NOT being an SME leader:
You can fully focus on management and leadership tasks, not technical
Your team is empowered the find the answers themselves (because you may not know them)
You trust the expertise in the room and this is empowering
You can bring in a diverse viewpoint or perspective to the team
You have to co-create plans with your team
Disadvantages of NOT being an SME leader:
You can't provide technical QA or governance
There can be inefficiencies if you don't know who can help answer your team's technical questions
Your team may find it harder to connect or build trust with you
Setting realistic, achievable goals and targets might be more challenging