What do you need to know to be a manager?

“Not knowing is most intimate.”
Master Dizang, The Book of Equanimity, Case 20

1. Teaching

Twenty years ago, when I was studying French literature for a PhD, I started to teach. I taught French at university to undergraduates. At the time, in order to teach at a university in the UK, you needed to be a subject-matter expert, but you didn’t need to do any training or have any sort of experience or qualification in teaching. Having recently been an undergrad myself, I thought this was kind of scandalous, so I decided to get a professional teaching qualification and signed up to do a Post-Graduate Certificate in Higher Education. (This qualification, also known as a PGCHE, is like a PGCE — the qualification you need to teach in a school in England — but designed for teaching in higher education.)

This decision — to educate myself in education, to learn about learning — would turn out to fundamentally affect my whole life in a number of ways.

One way was through an experiment some of the trainee teachers on the course ran. They paired up and each led a class for the other, forcing them to lead a class in a subject that they knew very little about, certainly less than the university students studying that subject who they were teaching. Although I didn’t participate in their experiment — because I was part of another expriment (which involved ‘interpersonal process recall’: a wonderful supervision system from counselling that facilitates self-reflection and self-discovery)— I was fascincated by it, and I realised that as a teacher you need to combine different skills: teaching skills and skills/ expertise in the subject you’re teaching. The experiment sparked me thinking about the balance of those skills:

If you’re good at teaching, can you teach a subject that you haven’t mastered?
Can you teach a subject about which you know little, or even nothing?
Even a technical subject, or maths, or a foreign language?

I believe the answer is yes, although it requires a radically different approach from what is familiar to most of us from our own experience of teaching and education when we were growing up. It requires a shift from seeing the teacher as an expert who imparts their knowledge to a ‘teacher as coach’— someone who questions students, who helps them to think, who trusts them to find out what’s inside of them and discover their own authetic path, and who supports them to learn for themselves, to discover answers for themselves.

Interesting to note here — as I learnt just recently (HT Aidan McCullen) — that the words ‘education’ and ‘educate’ in English have a latin root educere, meaning ‘to lead out’, giving the sense that education is about uncovering something latent or potential in the learner (as oppossed to ‘putting in’ knowledge).

“In the past, great professors have been a combination of expert and coach. Students have always felt ‘mentored’ by great teachers, but they were really responding to the prof’s trust in their ability to learn and find their own way.” David E. Goldberg

* What do you think?
* Recall the best teacher you’ve ever had: what made them stand out for you?
* Was it their knowledge? Was it how they supported you to learn?

2. Football

We see play out in a debate about football managers similar questions to my questions about the skills that teachers need to teach. Do you need to have been a top-level player in order to manage top-level players? What skills do you need as a football manager: football skills, or coaching/management skills? There are examples of a highly successful former players who go on to also be successful managers at the highest level (Kenny Daglish, Pep Guardiola). But being a successful top-level footballer does not guarantee you’ll be a successful top-level manager (Souness, Lampard). And there examples of people who were not outstanding players who went on to be outstanding top-level managers, managing players above their own level of playing ability (Shankly, Ferguson, Klopp).

* Where do you stand on this question: which is more important for a football manager — their experience/expertise as a player, or their coaching/management skills?

3. Management & Leadership

When do you need subject-matter expertise as a manager?

A similar question arises in other types of work too: Does a manager, a team leader need to be a subject-matter expert in the domain of their team?

In some areas, domain expertise is often seen as critical in order to become a manager in that domain — leaders in HR or Finance generally need to demostrate their subject-matter expertise by being professionally qualified in that discipline. Same for lawyers, architects, and many other professions/functions.

Yet it’s not hard to think of examples where a subject-matter expert is promoted to become a manager and it doesn’t work out well. For example, I’ve seen top performing technologists (eg software engineers) promoted to management roles, where their stand-out technical skills (eg developing software) didn’t set them up well for managing people.

Think of leading a multi-disciplinary or cross-functional team. The person leading that team cannot be a subject-matter expert in all of the disciplines/functions in that team. Indeed, the beauty of such a team is that that sort of uber-expert leader is not needed, and could even be counter-productive — everyone in the team brings their own skills/expertise and the magic is in the non-hierarchical mix, in what they produce together, collectively.

In more senior leadership roles too, subject-matter expertise can be seen as less critical. This is partly due to the breadth of senior roles — you can’t be an expert in everything.

Most organisations of any significant size contain many functions (eg finance, HR, legal, technology). The CEO cannot possibly be an expert in all of those domains. At some point, every manager/leader will either rise to a point where they must lead people whose job/function they have not done, or stop rising. Lots of executives do not have much or any subject-matter expertise in areas they support/manage, yet some of these executives are massively effective.

I remember when I first moved to a leadership role managing people who were the heads of their profession in the organisation — functions I had little or no experience or expertise in. I had to find how to support them and their teams and try to add value to what they did in a way that had nothing to do with knowledge or expertise. It was a hugely rewarding role. It required trust rather than control.

“Trust people and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thinking of the cynefin framework, there is an argument that subject-matter expertise might be more valuable for a leader in a context that is simple or complicated than in a chaotic or complex domain:

The cynefin framework

And given how complex we are as people and how much the world is changing, which skills are leaders more likely to need in more situations?

“Leading change and leading others is an improvisational process. It requires us to be fully present to deal with the unpredictability of the situation. It means being open to the possibility inherent in every moment and being prepared to let go of a plan.” Steven D’Souza & Dinana Renner

The danger of a confident, knowledgeable leader

An expert may (think they) know a subject deeply, yet their preconceived ideas can blind them to new possibilities. They can lose their beginner’s mind, and the more successful we are, the more tempting it can be to kid ourselves that we already know what to do in a situation.

I spent several years working in an organisation where the level of seniority equated to the number of years of experience, where experience was a quantifiable proxy for level of knowledge/expertise. My boss had previously done my job, as had his boss, and his boss’s boss. Work would be reviewed up a management chain, with each person correcting the work of the person below them in the hierarchy. It wasn’t a place for innovation or for questioning the way things were done.

If you’re a confident, knowledgeable leader, a danger is that you come to believe that you don’t need new ideas, or people to challenge you/your way of doing things. Instead, a risk for such a leader is to hire people who will do as they say (because they know best), people they can control, and to issue orders.

Unchecked, they can end up managing people as resources, reducing people to boxes on a org chart, boxes that can be moved around, seeing people as fungible assets, interchangeable rather than unique. If this continues, they stop leading people, and they reduce themselves to command and control.

Jonathan Smart https://twitter.com/jonsmart/status/1565302705718960130

The advantage of Not Knowing

Can a lack of subject-matter expertise even be an asset for a leader?

This is a question Sarah Milstein explores in her story of taking up an engineering leadership role at an established software company, with no skills as a programmer.

There are a number of reasons/situations why/when not having subject-matter can help you as a leader.

In his famous TED talk, and his accompanying book Drive, Dan Pink sets out the power of intrinsic motivation and explains that it contains three elements: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. If as a leader, you don’t bring subjcet-matter Mastery, you leave that space open for others to fill, and in doing so, you can help others to develop and grow. You’ll also avoid micro-managing them and so allow Autonomy. Instead, you can help clarify the team/organisation’s Purpose, by ensuring clarity of vision, strategy and values.

As a leader you can to support the people you manage by removing blockers/clutter/interference, creating the space and conditions for them to do their best work.

And if you’re able to enable or influence your team/organisation to work in more efficient/productive ways, you’ll be enormously valued by people, team, the organisation.

If as a leader you don’t know (the subject), you can be curious and focus on observing and listening. You can bring diverse voices together and challenge assumptions. Or, as one of my bosses put it to me when I first took on a leadership role in a technology organisation (with no technical expertise):

“Surround yourself by experts, triangulate what they say, and sniff out the bullshit.”

More fundamentally, you can create the conditions (eg by building psychological safety) for others to speak up, to offer ideas, to ask questions to challenge, to be creative, to take a risk.

You can generate hypotheses and experiment, and you can help others to do the same.

The leader as coach

At Elsevier, where I work, we are exploring, uncovering and practising what it means to put coaching at the heart of leadership. Thanks to our fab HR team, we’re working to put coaching at the heart of every leader’s everyday conversations, in order to support everyone in realizing their potential. We’re running a program, called Elevate, which:

  • provides an intensive coaching development experience for all our people leaders that equips them to role model coaching-based leadership with their teams, and
  • offers both live and on-demand coaching skills training development for all colleagues.

Furthermore, as a pilot, a group of ~50 of us who have completed the Elevate program are now working toward accreditation as Leader coaches with the Association for Coaching.

This emphasis on coaching skills doesn’t mean we’re putting it above subject-matter expertise or devaluing technical skills. It need not be an either/or situation. It can be both/and.

An effective manager-as-coach asks questions instead of providing answers, supports employees instead of judging them, and facilitates their development instead of dictating what has to be done.

* Recall the best manager you’ve ever had: what made them stand out for you?
* Was it their subject-matter expertise? Was it how they supported you and helped you to develop? Or something else?

Further reading:



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Richard McLean

Richard McLean


Senior Business Operations Director @ElsevierConnect. Mainly writing about getting from A to B, teams, & digital product stuff. Personal acc’t.