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Not just leaders: The need for developing specialists

Jan 07, 2023

Whether we refer to it as “The Great Resignation” or take a more positive spin and consider it the “Great Reevaluation,” 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 high ambition — have been demanding access to development and career pathing as part of the (perhaps great?) renegotiation introduced by the labor shortage.

There has been a lot of exploration into 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. But what is often not talked about is exploring what it means to really create and culturally sanction a team developmental strategy for specialists, those on your team with special skills who are not yet a manager.

Developing specialists

When an individual moves into a specialist role, or moves up or transitions into a more senior specialist role, critical changes must occur:

  • Shifting your mindset — recognizing that 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 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 interdepartmental 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 that 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 financial institution. Early in their tenure, their focus might simply be on developing an active portfolio and creating a balanced and market-savvy investment offering. 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 and gauge customer needs, design the portfolio respective of that feedback and 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.

How Wipfli can help

Wipfli’s leadership development programs help leaders at every level cultivate a leadership mindset that empowers others to thrive. Learn more about how we help clients with people, process and strategy on our organizational performance consulting web page.

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Steve Hopkins
Director, Organizational performance
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