In business, the path to leadership tends to get the focus of development. Many companies, often with the assistance of outside expertise, develop careful and logical leadership pipelines. They ensure that leaders are on track to move to the next level and that the company is always in capable hands.
What we forget sometimes is that not every talented, motivated employee wants to become a leader. Some individuals with deep, valuable knowledge of a specific area prefer to realize their full potential within their specialty area.
Companies not paying attention will lose these talented contributors. They may even struggle to attract them in the first place. And, importantly, specialists in the company will be less engaged… and therefore, less productive.
It is crucial that companies start to develop specialist pipelines to attract and retain top performers.
A Poorly Understood Path
With a leadership track, it’s fairly understood which position leads to the next one. Those with leadership ambitions generally understand how to move to the next level. Companies usually define the path early on, sometimes as early as the job interview.
Non-leadership professionals tend to move into specialist roles with no clear next move. They have the potential to become experts, and then knowledge leaders. But how do they get there?
Without a path, a specialist becomes disengaged. He or she will seek new challenges and professional development, along with greater compensation. The person may present their case for a promotion. However, some people get promoted only to discover that nothing looks different, except for an incremental pay increase and a different title. When that person sees no path forward in their current company, they move up by going elsewhere.
The company then must fill the vacant role. They can look within, but will likely find no one prepared for it. That is because specialists haven’t been adequately prepared for advancement, either. The company then hires from outside, at greater expense and the risk of gambling on the wrong candidate.
Cascading Effects Down the Org Chart
When a specialist with higher aspirations moves up or leaves, they affect people in positions beneath them.
Take an accountant, for example. That person comes into the company and, over time, might eventually move up to controller. Each time they get promoted, they need to leave behind some of the tasks they used to do. By the time they reach the level of controller they are working at a bigger-picture, strategic level. Their day-to-day work looks entirely different from that of an accountant. But as they shed those original tasks, they were handed off to someone else. That hand-off doesn’t always happen or go smoothly.
What sometimes happens, when a specialist moves up, is that they end up simply adding to their existing tasks, rather than leaving some behind. This is partly because they are not taught how to pass along knowledge or don’t want to give up work they are proficient in.
Specialists tend to develop deep expertise in their area. Current business structure teaches them to jealously guard that expertise; knowledge is power. They resist sharing what they know and lack the ability to teach it to others. Yet, for a company to keep functioning as its talent moves up the hierarchy, it needs to ensure that transfer of knowledge.
What a Specialist Needs to Grow
Most employees say that they want to grow in their jobs. However, some companies mistakenly assume that growth means moving to leadership. They tend to promote top performers to leadership roles without questioning whether leadership suits that person… or if the person even wants to lead. So the specialist either turns down the offer or struggles to fit into leadership. They then leave to do their specialist role somewhere else.
When a specialist gets promoted, some key factors play into a successful transition. They must understand how they add value to the company. They need to adjust where they focus their time. And, they must develop the specific skills they need for the new role. Companies should provide their people with all of this knowledge.
We talked above about how important it is for specialists to learn to communicate what they do. Sometimes their knowledge is so specialized that they simply struggle to explain it to someone else. One requirement in common between specialists and leaders is the need for emotional intelligence. When specialists learn components of emotional intelligence, they can better articulate what they know to people that their knowledge impacts without the recipients’ eyes rolling in the back of their heads.
People leading the specialists may want to help but not know how. Companies come to Oliver Group saying they simply don’t know how to develop their specialists when they know more about their subject matter expertise than the leaders do. Naturally, companies want all of their people to do their best work, and they are seeking solutions.
Results of a Strong Specialist Pipeline
Companies can benefit in many ways from developing their specialist pipeline. When you develop capable, independent specialists, you need fewer leaders because specialists are plugged in contributing the highest value without the help of leaders. You will also draw better candidates to your company and keep them longer as we know they value the thought and time put into their development. Lastly, you will waste less time and money on talent churn. All of these things save on overall expenses.
The pipeline does more than attract and retain talent, though. It creates more satisfied, productive, innovative employees. When people clearly understand their objectives and their place in the company, they work faster and produce better outcomes.
Specialist development may be more important for attracting and retaining Millennials than for any other group. Based on their 2016 report, “How Millennials Want to Work and Live,” Gallup concluded: “Millennials fundamentally think about jobs as opportunities to learn and grow.” 59% of Millennial survey respondents said that opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important to them.
While the idea of developing a specialist pipeline has been proven in Europe for some time now, it is a newer idea here in the U.S. Leadership Pipeline Institute US and Oliver Group are preparing to pilot a specialist pipeline program with a healthcare technology company where they need a stronger pipeline of specialists ready for the company’s growth. The company wants to decrease burnout, increase engagement, and most importantly, build talent to keep their company running at peak efficiency for years to come. With solid guidance, any company can do the same.