Why Technical Experts Make Great Leaders

30 April, 2018 / Articles
leader-as-learner

Amanda Goodall, a senior lecturer at Cass Business School in London, argues that the best leaders are technical experts, not general managers. She discusses her research findings about doctors who head up hospitals, scholars who lead universities, and all-star basketball players who go on to manage teams. She also gives advice for what to do if you’re a generalist managing experts or an expert managed by a generalist.

That day that you called in sick today, but your work still had to get done. Could your boss jump in and do your job?

If they could, you’re much more likely to be happy at work. That’s according to research conducted by our guest today, Amanda Goodall.

She’s a senior lecturer at Cass Business School in London, and she studies expert leaders, like a great surgeon who runs a hospital, or a basketball star who goes on to become a coach.

As it turns out, people managed by experts are much more engaged in their work than people who are managed by generalists, people who might be good administrators but who can’t actually do the surgery, or shoot the three-pointer.

Amanda’s research finds that whole organizations perform better when they have technical experts in leadership roles. She’s here with us today to explain. Amanda, thank you for talking with us.

AMANDA GOODALL: Thank you for inviting me.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Why is measuring and showing the value of expert leaders important right now?

AMANDA GOODALL: I think it’s particularly important now because in a way expertise is falling out of favor. There’s been a big shift towards the rise of general managers in many organizations, but also expertise is sort of been criticized. There’s been a movement against experts in a way, and yet at the same time companies that are recognized for being the best places to work for are also more likely to be led by core business experts than those that don’t make it into those rankings.

The first thing we had to do in our research was to establish that the experts were genuinely better leaders by looking at organizational performance. Once we’d found this pattern in hospitals, in universities, in sports areas like in, in basketball and F1 racing, we then had to try and look at the why, so what, what’s going on? Try and look at what we call the kind of transmission mechanisms, if you like, the way that this happens, the black box area.

So, the first thing we found, and we looked at data with 35,000 U.S. and U.K. employees who were matched with their employers. And we found that if people responded in three different ways about their bosses — so if their boss had worked their way up through the organization or started the organization, if that boss was capable of doing the job of an employee, and if the employee considered their boss to be competent — that these were incredibly strong predictors of high job satisfaction among employees.

So, to put it another way, if your boss really understands the nature of your work, then that predicts your job satisfaction.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, what is it exactly about managers who are experts that make them better leaders?

AMANDA GOODALL: What we have found is that actually they communicate better, they can assess someone better. And let’s just stop there for one second. Imagine if you’re being assessed by a manager who has no idea about the kind of job that you’re doing, doesn’t really understand it, hasn’t walked the proverbial walk before you. For them to assess what you’re doing and to help you advance in your career, it becomes very, very difficult. And this is a major, major finding, is that we find that if your boss understands the nature of the work, then they can actually help you. They can assess you well, and they can encourage you in the right direction to advance in your career, and that is a very important element for job satisfaction.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, it’s interesting that you mentioned something like communication because that’s a skill that is often considered a transferable skill. You’re a good communicator, you can communicate about anything. But it sounds like what you’re saying is that’s not necessarily true.

AMANDA GOODALL: Well, obviously, when I talk about experts, I’m holding constant the need to be trained in leadership and management. We’re not suggesting you pull someone randomly out of an operating theater or out of a sales room and put them on top of their organization. So, they need to learn a lot of those skills. So, put that aside though, for now. If you think about communicating, the way that I might communicate to someone that in a job that I have done myself and that I really understand the nuances, all the deep kind of understanding of the processes that go on, I might use words, terms, language, judgment that has come out of that, all that deep knowledge. And I could have had all sorts of training. I could be a great communicator. I could be — I could have a radio program, but if I don’t know how to get through to someone in their language, then in a sense all those communication skills are just surface; they’re irrelevant.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, I want to ask if those expert leaders have to be truly outstanding, or do they just kind of have to have enough knowledge to understand the work in a deeper way?

AMANDA GOODALL: In the university study, so, the 400 presidents in my study, they were all academics bar seven. It was the ones that left research early on in their career that went on to be associated with the least well-performing universities. Similarly, we found that pattern — so, if you look at basketball, it was the most outstanding basketball players that went on to make the best coaches. Now, that doesn’t mean every single doctor or every single basketball player, etc., is going to make a great leader. Not at all. It doesn’t mean that every manager isn’t going to make a great leader, but this is a pattern that I have found on average across a number of organizations.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, tell us a little bit about what you found with the basketball study specifically.

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