Physicians, Physicists and Brainiacs

–Coaching the know-it-all

You read know-it-all in the subtitle like it’s a bad thing. That’s not how I meant it at all.

No, I’m not referring to the seventh-grade insult where we looked at the smartest kid in the room and said, “Well, Mr. Smarty-pants, you think you’re just a know-it-all.” No, that’s not what I’m talking about at all.

physicsI’m referring to those people who hold positions that — quite literally — require that they know it all. And yes, there are several of those floating around in various organizations today. For example, you certainly wouldn’t trust a surgeon who frequently said, “You know, I’m not quite sure about this, but let’s just give it a try anyway.” Nor would you be thrilled if you discovered that a PhD physicist working in some hush-hush, ultra secret laboratory somewhere, said, “Man, I don’t know if this hydrogen bomb will be safe to transport, but hey, I’m giving it my best guess.”

And the list goes on. Not with just physicians, physicists, and other scientific experts; we also include others in the mix, like high-level economists, super-duper engineers (gosh, hope this bridge holds up), and other individual experts that hold sway in things like major decisions, fiscal policy and even advancing regulations or legislation. Life and death can be held in the balance.

These experts tend to hold positions where their key value is providing their knowledge… their expertise. Now, in and of itself, this isn’t a major problem. After all, why wouldn’t we expect these obvious experts to be, well, the expert? The problem isn’t with their expertise, per se, it’s when we assume that these savants can also lead and manage others without any further skill development.

And that can be a problem.

expertNow, to be honest, we frequently promote people into positions of leadership without the requisite skills and knowledge to do that job. Generally, they were the highest performing individual contributor available for promotion. Ergo, they must be qualified to lead a gaggle of other individual contributors. But with this particular group of people, those with extreme knowledge and skills, it can sometimes create a unique situation whereby they’ve been the smartest person in the room for years (if not decades), and now find themselves struggling with what — to them — appears to be rudimentary management and leadership skills.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Do some of these folks have big egos? Certainly. But that’s not all bad, since often that high level of self-confidence allows them to be decisive where others may hesitate. The difficulty that I have seen, when coaching these top-of-the-food chain experts, is that many of them believe that leadership skills are simply intuitive extensions of their current knowledge. After all, most of them have been through 6 to 12 years of higher education and responsible for an enormous organizational impact. How hard could leadership be?

To many, pretty damned hard. But as I said above, it doesn’t have to be that way. In my experience these experts can be coached quite successfully if a few things are kept in mind, such as:

  1. Perceptions matter. Often, these experts don’t realize that others cannot see their intent, only their actions. I was working with one of them not too long ago, and we were focusing on his relationships — including empathy — with the staff. During the 360 surveys I conducted, it appeared that his staff didn’t think he cared about them in much in any appreciable way. When speaking with this expert, however, he exclaimed somewhat exasperated that he really did care. He even went on to give me examples.
     
    So, then, it was the perception of caring that mattered. He wasn’t presenting himself in a manner that appeared to others that he cared in any way. With just a few minor tweaks in behaviors, he managed to convince his staff that he did in fact care deeply about things in their world. Minor tweaks, not major behavioral changes. Perceptions matter.
  1. Leadership is a learned skill. When working with a physician leader, she would frequently push back on me, sort of denying that there were any challenges she needed to consider. In fact, she believed she was doing pretty darn good even in the face of contradictory input from various members of her staff.physicians
     
    When we discussed the opposing perceptions, I asked her if a physician could be qualified to practice without the requisite dozen years of higher education. Laughing, she said “Of course not.” I then asked her, “Why, then, do you think practicing leadership should take no education or skill development?”
     
    You could almost see a lightbulb go off above her head, when it dawned on her that leadership was simply another skill she needed to master. From then on, we focused on skill development, not behavior change. The results were positive, and pretty damned impressive.
  1. Leadership is process driven, not a simple litmus. Contrary to some thinking, leadership is not a collection of random efforts, relationships and rah-rah. It’s understanding the skills necessary and applying them through a fairly logical process. Giving and receiving feedback, for example, is a high-level leadership skill. And it has a logical process, including setting the stage, pertinent questions, and active listening. Maybe not strictly procedural, but certainly following a logical process.
     
    Making it clear that it’s another process to master, instead of some esoteric, nebulous behavior, allows these experts to do what they do best—follow a process to a logical conclusion.

We frequently see these experts, when holding leadership positions, as either (a) so smart that they can’t be bothered with things like leadership and staff management, or (b) we roll our eyes, muttering something like common sense versus book sense. Neither approaches are very healthy, nor do they take us in a direction of improvement.

Experts in leadership don’t have to choose between the two. It’s not an oxymoron. It merely requires a focus on leadership similar to the intense focus they have given their area of expertise.

It really can be that easy.

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