Whether we refer to it as the “Great Resignation” or take a more positive spin and consider it the “Great Re-Evaluation” (the Great Something, eh?), current workforce and economic dynamics have heightened the focus on both leadership and, more broadly, on employee development. Leaders who can’t lead have had nowhere to hide; their failures have been rather spectacularly public. And employees—particularly those with high potential, or at least high ambition—have been demanding access to development and career pathing as part of the (great?) renegotiation introduced by the labor shortage. We have certainly spent a lot of time exploring the first of these issues, trying to provide guidance on what it means to be a leader and the behaviors and competencies necessary for leadership success. This month, I’d like to turn my attention to the second of these concerns, exploring what it means to really create and culturally-sanction a developmental strategy that includes all employees.
Certainly, I don’t want to suggest that we have exhausted the subject of leadership development. Even the most optimistic take on current events would quickly dismiss this idea. But we spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about the development of leaders, while, statistically speaking, the majority of an organization’s workforce are specialists in one capacity or another. A specialist I would define as an employee whose value to the organization is their unique knowledge and expertise. In contrast, a more traditional leader’s value derives from their support and development of their direct reports.
Some typical specialist roles would include engineer, software developer or IT technician, portfolio manager, customer service specialist, or tax specialist. Even salespeople, chefs, or physicians, could be categorized as specialists, when we consider that it is precisely their unique knowledge and skills that create their value–and which the organization leverages.
While specialists don’t directly lead people, this certainly doesn’t diminish their value nor prevent them from benefiting from development efforts—quite the contrary. Considering their value is knowledge- and expertise-based, developing them increases the organization’s net knowledge and expertise capital, essential to surviving in an information-driven age. And, as surely as leaders evolve in their roles to assume greater responsibility and increased visibility in the organization that comes with higher rank, the specialist evolves in their capacity to bring increasingly sophisticated knowledge and understanding of their domain of expertise to bear on organizational strategy and direction. Coupled with this is the cache of an increased recognition beyond the organization as an acknowledged authority within their respective industry. By analogy, consider the high-profile trades of professional sports teams, and the immediate impact these star players can have when leaving one organization to join another—both in terms of wins and losses for the club, as well as marketing and branding opportunities.
If we can acknowledge that every employee deserves to be developed; and, further, that the development of an organization’s specialists can create competitive advantage, improved strategic vision, and a meaningful notoriety for the organization, then the central question becomes one of how. How do we develop specialists?
The good news is that the foundational elements of leadership development are every bit as applicable with specialists. When an individual moves into a specialist role, or moves up (i.e., transitions) into a more senior specialist role, critical changes must occur:
- Shifting your mindset – recognizing you must let go of some behaviors and develop new ones in order to be successful in the role
- Shifting where you spend your time – spending your time on those tasks and those audiences in the organization appropriate to your role
- Developing new skills and behaviors – a focus on developing and practicing those skills that will lead to success as a specialist
Beyond this common foundation, developing a specialist takes on a distinctly different tenor than developing a more traditional leader. While not exhaustive, the focus would be on:
- Deepening their area of knowledge and expertise: moving from departmental expertise toward cross-functional—and even an industry-wide command of—critical knowledge as they evolve in their role
- Expanding their results orientation: from personally generating results, to creating outcomes through impact on colleagues and peers, and, ultimately, across the totality of the organization
- Expanding their communication bullhorn: moving from inter-departmental knowledge transfer to the transfer of knowledge across the organization–an outcome of which is learning to lead through influence, as opposed to direct authority
- Driving innovation through an evolution of increased command of their domain of expertise: this ultimately leads to recognition as an architect of their domain – a sought-out resource for their industry
What this means, in concrete terms, is to help a specialist to evolve in their capacity to be a true subject matter expert of their field; and to harness this knowledge and expertise so that it extends beyond themselves, and beyond their immediate team or department, to ultimately serve the needs of the organization (and maybe even the industry) as a whole.
As an example, consider a portfolio manager of a bank. Early in their tenure, their focus may simply be on developing an active portfolio: what it takes to create a balanced and market-savvy investment offering, where their functional knowledge and expertise drives the selection and balance of those entities included in the portfolio. But as they evolve, their value to the organization would be increased if this knowledge included the capacity to partner with sales and marketing team members to solicit current interests (i.e., “what are our customers telling us they want?”); to design the portfolio respective of that feedback; and then suggest the portfolio’s advantages in a way that complements sales and marketing efforts to reach this intended customer base. In time, their work might even elevate them to a position where they are actively sought out for advice about market dynamics, or predictions about where the market might be headed. This would be the culmination of their development as a true specialist.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that in most organizations there is a routine cross fertilization that occurs between specialists and more traditional leaders. Individuals may go back and forth between leadership and specialist roles. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. But each tract has unique developmental needs, tailored to the impact they have on the organization itself. For example, leaders have direct authority to support and develop those teams that report to them; they’re expected to take direct action in this effort. A specialist must learn to influence without this direct authority, creating impact through indirect channels derived from their acknowledged expertise. Imagine the benefit of not only developing both of these roles, but of the execution power of those individuals who may operate from both vantage points, as their roles elevate within the organization!
More than ever, employees are not simply asking for, but demanding, opportunities for their development. To cut off more than half of the population—the organization’s specialists—is to miss a crucial opportunity to improve core retention and develop capacities that actually create improved efficiencies and better execution. In addition, in a market where labor demands scream for ways organizations can differentiate themselves from their competition, a willingness to invest in the development of a traditionally underserved majority can call needed attention to the company’s sincere focus on long-term development for all employees and a greater assurance that—whatever future challenges hold—the company’s team members will be well poised to meet those demands.