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Rely on the experts, and admit that you can’t do it all


Rely on the experts, and admit that you can’t do it all 

IbyIMD+ Published 9 November 2022 in Magazine • 5 min read

Cryptocurrencies, the metaverse, AIeven the most non-technical executives will increasingly have to interact with these new technologies to get their work done. Instead of worrying about appearing incompetent, leaders should focus on creating a caring and collaborative environment that allows other experts to shine. 

As a leader, you may be used to being the most competent person in the room — your functional expertise having played a major part in propelling you up the corporate ladder. But the rapid advance of new technologies – from blockchain to augmented reality – and increasing demands to solve complex issues and satisfy multiple stakeholders can make it impossible for one person to stay on top of everything. 

This can be a humbling experience. Yet the speed of technological innovation – and the risks that come with it – mean managers may well need to tap far younger employees for advice. This is particularly the case in the field of cybersecurity, where all leaders, not just chief information officers, must think about security across all aspects of their business. 

The good news is that you don’t need to be an expert in everything to be a good leader. In today’s world, the most successful executives have moved beyond command and control to empower others to do their best work. 

1. Be honest about your emotions 

As a first step, all leaders should examine how appearing less-than-competent makes them feel. Self-awareness is key. If you are disappointed or anxious, it’s important to be able to label that emotion before moving forward. Executives who try to do it all due to the fear of exposing a lack of proficiency risk damaging their organizations. 

Once you are honest with yourself about your weaknesses, you will be able to identify what you need to learn and when to rely on others. There may be occasions when you need to upskill to become more proficient in your role. At other times, you should step back and allow others with expertise to shine.  

When Meghan was promoted to a senior position at her company right before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she was tasked with running a team that immediately had to get to grips with working from home. In her late 40s, Meghan had been promoted due to her technical skill, but lacked the knowledge around the digital tools that could help her team to keep doing their jobs effectively. 

Meghan quickly realized that she would need to turn to younger IT experts to learn how to take her operations online. She also had to come to terms with the fact that she wasn’t good at presenting herself on screen. Once she had labeled the anxiety this created, she turned to a coach to learn how to conduct meetings via Zoom and attend them effectively. In doing so, Meghan succeeded in building a virtual team that crossed borders and continents. 

2.Create an environment of psychological safety 

To get the best out of your team members, you need to become a “secure base leader”. Simply put, this is a person that focuses on the opportunities over the challenges, provides a source of comfort, and offers others a sense of energy to take risks and create change. After all, what is the point of surrounding yourself with experts if they are too afraid to speak up and challenge the person in charge? 

This involves regarding the team member as not just an expert but as a person who may have certain needs to become more proficient at their job. Your role is to understand their day-to-day challenges, provide support, and instill confidence so that they can perform at their best. 

To do so, you need to connect on an emotional level to build trusting relationships. Make sure you listen closely with the intention of understanding the thoughts and perceptions of your team members. In teams that lack psychological safety, people often appear defensive and hold back or obscure their real opinions. The goal is to foster an environment that allows for honest feedback delivered in a respectful way. 

3. Embrace a positive mindset 

It may come as no surprise that the pandemic, global geopolitical crises, and the spiralling cost of living are bringing people down. According to a survey by Gallup, negative experiences outweighed positive ones in 2021 while stress, sadness and worry all inched higher worldwide. This is alarming not only for a collective sense of wellbeing, but also because we are more capable of riding out uncertainty and adapting to the accelerating rate of change when feeling positive. 

The onslaught of new technologies can sometimes feel overwhelming. Yet as people managers, it is important that we see these changes as opportunities rather than threats. The rise of automation in factories may lead to a loss of certain jobs, but with the right training and development, it also opens opportunities for more interesting and fulfilling careers. 

The best leaders are those who can reframe a challenging situation into a positive narrative to motivate and empower others to embrace the change. 

4. Focus on creating a dynamic and caring team 

With the decline in overall happiness, it becomes even more important that people can find joy and fulfillment in their work environment. Joy, in part, comes from the spirit of belonging to a team and finding meaning and purpose in your role. A Pew Research Center survey found at least a third of Americans who quit their jobs in 2021 cited feeling disrespected at work as a major reason. In the battle for skilled workers, those with technical expertise are unlikely to stick around with a toxic boss. 

To ensure this doesn’t happen to you, leaders must remain calm, composed and grounded, show that they value each individual and can see their potential by encouraging risk and providing opportunities to stretch. 

When put under pressure, many leaders will feign competence to save face. Yet this behavior risks backfiring and exposing you as inauthentic. By admitting your lack of knowledge and creating an environment of psychological safety, you will be able to inspire and motivate the experts that you rely upon to perform at their best. 


George Kohlrieser

George Kohlrieser

Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD and Director of the High Performance Leadership program. He serves as a consultant to several global companies including Accenture, Amer Sports, Borealis, Cisco, Coca-Cola, HP, Hitachi, IBM, IFC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Morgan Stanley, Motorola, NASA, Navis, Nestlé, Nokia, Pictet, Rio Tinto, Roche, Santander, Swarovski, Sara Lee, Tetra Pak, Toyota, and UBS.



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