How to Transition From Solo Expert to Effective Manager

Manager teaching her team in the workplace
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Something interesting happens on the road to developing as a manager. Your technical expertise—the knowledge and skills that enabled you to excel as an individual contributor—is decidedly less valuable at this new level. Unfortunately, many managers miss this point and burn a large amount of energy striving to remain the smartest person in the room. 

Smart managers learn quickly to draw upon the expertise of team members to build team and group performance and support individual development. In other words, smart managers learn to let go of being the expert on every topic and develop new experts on their teams. 

What Got You Here Won’t Cut It Moving Forward

For many first-time managers accustomed to serving as the expert in their roles as individual contributors, letting go of this part of their workplace persona is difficult. People who are highly competent at their jobs naturally associate their technical or specialized acumen with their success—it becomes part of their professional and personal identity. 

What they fail to recognize is that the rules of survival and success have changed—with less emphasis placed on their specialized knowledge and more placed on their ability to deliver business results through others. The failure to understand and adapt to this new reality creates a wide variety of problems for the manager and team members. 

When the Manager Acts as the Expert, Stress Fractures Appear

The manager who insists on retaining the role of expert adds stress to her team in a number of ways. Some of the most common include:

  • Team members perceive their technical expertise is devalued by the manager’s insistence on supplying all of the answers or always having the final answer. 
  • Instead of building a team-like atmosphere, the manager as expert reinforces a hierarchical environment.
  • Individuals grow resentful over time as they recognize their ideas and opinions don’t count. This resentment manifests either as aggressive behavior or, what the manager interprets as poor attitudes.
  • Personal initiative fades as team members become accustomed to the manager supplying all of the answers. 
  • Overall performance suffers as the as the group’s working environment turns sour and as the manager increasingly becomes a bottleneck, with team members waiting for him to opine on every issue. 

When New Managers Must Sink or Swim

The transition from individual contributor to manager is challenging. The burnout or churn rate of first-time managers is unacceptably high across many firms in large part because there is little advance training offered, and even less post-promotion coaching. Many managers are left to sink or swim with their new duties. When faced with a high degree of ambiguity about their new role, they naturally revert to what has worked for them historically: their ability to navigate tough problems by drawing upon their specialized knowledge.

If you find yourself living through a similar scenario, here are six ideas to help smooth the transition from expert to manager without introducing the stress fractures described above.

Six Ideas to Help You Transition From Solo Expert to Effective Manager

  1. Rethink Your Mission: As a manager, your new mission is to create a working environment with your team that encourages them to do their best work. Your technical expertise is never the focal point. Enabling your team members to develop and then showcase their expertise goes to the heart of your mission.
  2. Focus on Cultivating Trust: Continually asserting your technical expertise fights the trust building process. Instead, ask questions and encourage individuals to offer and pursue their ideas. Your willingness to let them experiment and even stumble showcases your trust and support.
  3. Teach: There’s a difference between co-opting the work of your team members supplying the answers or countermanding ideas and teaching them what you know. Managers that teach, particularly at the front-line levels, are supporting the development of their team members in a compelling manner.
  4. Resist Your Instinct to Answer and Instead, Ask One Simple Question: The most important question a manager can deploy on a daily basis when team members reach out for guidance is: “I’m not sure. What do you think you should do?” Your instinct is of course to answer the initial inquiry based on your technical expertise. In many instances, the answer might be painfully obvious to you. Nonetheless, your best course of action is to suppress the urge to offer an answer and ask for their ideas. By doing this, you stimulate critical thinking, and you show that you trust people to think and act for themselves.
  5. Promote Team and Individual Learning: A key part of succeeding in your mission to create a working environment that encourages growth and performance is to model the behaviors essential for learning. Invest in your team members where possible. Send them to technical or subject matter training. Give them time to attend educational seminars or webinars. Build a team resource library. Encourage them to teach-back to the group what they learn from their endeavors.
  6. Promote Team and Individual Learning: In addition to the above actions, it is essential for you to offer positive feedback to individuals or groups who exhibit initiative and tackle the tough problems in the workplace. Make your feedback valuable by specifying the positive behaviors and the impact they had on results. Rinse and repeat on a daily basis.

The Bottom-Line

Success as a manager is less about your technical acumen and more about your ability to draw out the best in others. The expertise that served you so well in the past must now take a back seat to new skills focused on supporting and developing others. Start by reframing your professional mission and then concentrate on cultivating a new layer of skills that will support your growth as a manager and leader.

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