Fire Your Experts

Posted on November 4, 2009


I am firmly of the opinion that senior management should not be experts in the departments that they run. They should be expert leaders and experienced managers. They should be fully indoctrinated into the company mission statement and goals. From that point on, their job should be to eliminate any activities unrelated to the mission and goals, to remove roadblocks from their department’s path, to synthesize information into plain English for other senior managers, and to shield their departments from interference from further up the line. They should be casting a critical eye over specialist mumbo-jumbo like brand recognition, social media management, and any other activity to insure that metrics are in place and the activity supports at least one company goal.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not denigrating expertise. There are many fields where technical knowledge is critical to success, or at least to avoiding failure. Engineering, HR, Finance, and Legal are all obvious places where specialized training is critical. What I’m saying is:

We tend to hire people we like. We like them because they are “like” us. It’s human nature, but it leads to monolithic group think. You’re better off promoting from another department, being clear about your needs for the new assignment, and then getting out of the way.

Success in a specialty field is no guarantee of leadership or management capabilities. It’s human nature to fall back on what you know, so these people are going to behave like senior managers they’ve met before. That’s no way to innovate. Better to bring in someone with a proven track record for leadership.

Specialists tend to “go down the rabbit hole.” You see them in meetings, struggling to communicate to people outside their area of specialty, launching into lengthy explanations, and focused on some department goal. Those are the wrong qualities for a senior manager. That person must be able to communicate clearly and tersely, and must be focused on the company’s mission and goals.

You could be incredibly lucky. You could have a specialist who also demonstrates leadership skills and talent. Put that person in charge of some other department, but don’t promote to senior management of his specialty field. If that’s his professional goal, he should move to a specialist company.