Expert to Leader – Avoiding a Tricky Transition


With a talent war, technical expertise is increasingly in demand. For organisations, their talent pipeline has become critical to enabling them to deliver future leaders. The rising stars are often identified through their specialist knowledge, high levels of individual performance and their ability to stand out. Assessments of future potential that look at technical expertise, project delivery and thought leadership, define how individuals compete to be top of their field.

Organisational hierarchies have also traditionally grouped experts together by function, allocated them a budget and put them to work to deliver. Without intention group and silo thinking are created, priorities are focused on the delivery of the expert’s field. People are seen to act in increasingly protectionist ways. Heightened in recent years by the tightening of resources and the expectation of delivering more with less, a fight for scare budget.


The transition from expert to leader is one of the most difficult transitions that can take place in a career. Promotion often comes because the expert was the best at delivering the work they are now being asked to lead. However, their knowledge, experience and expertise mean they can often deliver the work better than anyone else. It is unsurprising new leaders struggle delegating work that they were intimately involved with to people they may consider less able. It is no shock that they want to be closely involved in the how, what and where of that work going forward.

“What got you here, won’t get you there.’ Marshall Goldsmith 

It, unfortunately, follows that such an approach to leadership runs the risk of damaging engagement, stifling creativity and reducing productivity – ouch! It also reduces the potential for developing future talent. Therefore this transition requires people to redefine what made them successful. While providing a leadership development programme will give insight into the key skills, without a change in mindset leaders will struggle to deliver and adopt the learning.

An expert’s identity and credibility are developed over time and are incredibly important to them. For the transition to be successful, a new identity and process for understanding oneself need to be explored. Alongside the change in focus will also be the adoption of new ways of working with increased levels of ambiguity and less direct control.


Roffey Park’s research shows there is a critical difference in the motivation of leaders compared to experts. A move occurs from focusing on the success of oneself to wanting to drive the performance and opportunities of others.  Seeing the success of others as the new measure of performance. For a leader moving out of the silo and holding a broader perspective is also critical; as is understanding the wider requirements of the organisation, being able to see the bigger picture and creating a balance between complex and often conflicting needs.

Day-to-day work will also change, what once defined them is a focus they must seek to develop in others. When leaders are struggling with transition they will often be perceived as micromanaging, being overly involved and failing to grab the nettle of their new role. Moving forward means letting go, of their place and coaching to develop that knowledge in others. This critical change requires thought and management.

‘I know what to do better than them (his team) and although I know you’ll state the benefits of coaching, so much more gets done if I just tell them what to do.’ Departmental Head

The question we explored here was what else could he be doing and where else might his knowledge add value, if he were able to use this time elsewhere? What letting go actually meant in this case was that he would have to move away from his safety net and explore areas of his role outside of his comfort zone.

Leaders need to broaden their horizons and become more outwardly facing, understand and work successfully with others. The tacit ability to do this starts with knowing yourself; being able to manage and regulate yourself. This awareness often referred to as EQ leads on to social intelligence and better enables the development of relationships and understanding of others.

Providing the opportunities for new leaders to understand their role and themselves, to define themselves and their leadership edge is critical. To be successful the leader must understand their personality and how to interact and get the best out of their teams. Developing a leadership style that plays to their strengths and that aligns with those of their organisation and team is crucial.

Many polarities and conflicts will exist and require movement and balance:

  • Conceptual v Technical
  • Macro v Micro
  • Self v Team
  • Task v People

Organisations must ensure there is support for their people in this difficult transition. Setting up a peer coaching, mentoring programmes and action learning groups can all provide an internal network and an opportunity to share learning and best practice. New leaders should seek to explore and broaden their network, to learn and build strong supportive alliances.

Employers need to remember that not all technical experts want to lead people. For many, this role is not a good fit. It’s important to be clear about the motivation someone has to step into leadership. It is also equally important to consider the career management and progression of experts who do not wish to become leaders but aspire for progression and challenge. For those that want to become leaders defining leadership, understanding themselves and considering their strengths as well as learning the skills of leadership will be critical to their success in their role.

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We work in partnership with clients and organisations to deliver successful transitions. Our development programmes and coaching are focused on enabling the insight and understanding that stretches and challenges performance. We support clients to develop strategies as well as their understanding and awareness to operate more effectively, aligning with the challenging remit of leadership.

Contact us  if you would like to discuss how Vantage People could help you or your business.

Jemma Barton, Director & Coach


T: +44 7717 131 434

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