Why Your Expertise Keeps You Stuck and How to Grow Around It

May 20, 2019

By Sunday Tollefson, MBA, PMP® 

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Does it ever feel like there is no end to the amount of information you’re expected to know?

Do you feel like you have to continually prove your competence “growth” to gain respect?  

Are you ready for a higher challenge but you’re passed over for promotions – while you watch lesser qualified candidates get promoted?

You’re not doing anything wrong. You’ve done what you needed to do. When you started this job, you needed to on-board yourself and demonstrate your value by becoming a super expert on your subject matter. In doing so, you became a trusted resource for your colleagues. You proved that you belonged and the hire decision that got you there was a good one. Great! You did the right thing.

You continued to demonstrate this same ability to rapidly consume and manipulate information. Maybe you did this as a posture to maintain your value in your role. Maybe you were underrecognized and defending your abilities. Maybe you were fighting imposter syndrome.

If you’ve become a master of a single area of expertise, and if you are simply phenomenal at doing your job, why would your manager want you to move on? If you continue to dedicate the majority of your energy to pursuing perfection in your role, you’re making yourself indispensable. In other words, becoming an "expert" is the best way to stay in your current role.

Deepening your expertise in one area is no longer your path to success.

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You have developed a phenomenal amount of expertise. Don’t sell yourself short. With all of your academic credentials you've earned, the jobs you’ve held, the projects you’ve completed, the awards that you’ve won, the accolades you’ve earned, the endorsements you’ve received – you are an impressive, accomplished professional. By now, it’s hardwired into you to weave new information in with what you already have in your mental arsenal. Your expertise is growing organically.

When you focus time on building expertise, you are not building critical relationships outside of your immediate stakeholders. This is a mistake.  Why? You want non-proximal colleagues to have your name in their mouths when key opportunities arise. You need relationships to build bridges to new opportunities. Meaning, you want people talking you up when projects or roles are being pondered, or legitimately posted.

Assuming your next career step comes with additional responsibility, demonstrated leadership will be a consideration in your candidacy. In a word, you need to demonstrate your ability to influence. When you are deep in the weeds researching, calculating, writing, spread-sheeting, reporting, and being an expert on one singular topic, you are not in the business of influencing.

You’re not getting your PhD here, so recalibrate your ideas of how you are using this job as a stepping stone in your career. Remember, your job is both a job for today and bridge for tomorrow. How is your job creating the opportunity for you to capture your dream job at the next chance? 

Women tend to overvalue expertise. Perhaps this is because we spend more of our energy defending our abilities, intelligence, competence, etc. As a result, we overload on the expertise factor while our male colleagues are busy forming relationships and asking a lot of questions. As the resident experts, we are answering their questions. And waiting for more questions. So we can continue to prove our competence.

Q: Who is leading the conversation?

A: It’s not the person answering all the questions.

Pro tip: Learn to let go of being an expert. It doesn’t help you get ahead.

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Logically you know that you’ll never have all the answers, right? And ideally, your responsibility will broaden as you advance in corporate oversight. You won’t have time to “skill up” on every bit of minutiae that may fall under your purview. In additional to a decent level of expertise, you’ll need to demonstrate that you can establish mutual trust with your leadership and your team.

You’re headed up the “ladder,” so what else should you take into consideration as you deploy your talent and make an impact? Take a look at these four aspects of influence, commonly known as "pillars of power."

  • Expertise is acquired by learning, training, reading, or experiencing the subject matter for an extended period. Your expertise is validated by the value you provide colleagues and stakeholders who required information to advance a project or answer a question. Expertise alone will not position you as a leader. Women are more likely to overcompensate for perceived inadequacies with expertise.
  • Connections are conduits who share your messages and help you to identify, acquire, or assign resources who have valuable expertise. Connections are the currency you need to get resources moving and assure your contributions get noticed. A person with many connections – not necessarily tight or close connections – has an ability to solve problems faster. Women tend to be excellent at building connections.
  • Personal authority is an ability to inspire people with words and ideas. Repetition of this behavior increases the strength of personal authority and helps build trust over time. Personal authority bolsters the perception of your expertise level. Further, when personal authority generates loyalty among your colleagues and stakeholders, people want to be connected with you. This is also known as “interpersonal skills” or “EQ” and it is an area where women tend to shine.
  • Position is based on title, grade level, or location in an org chart. If your title doesn’t include the word “manager,” or even if it does, this comes down to decisions. You solicit expertise from others, make decisions, then influence others with your decision. Due to your position, the finality of the decision is typically honored by your colleagues. Without having the positional authority, you’ll use the other three aspects of influence.

The free two-page Promotion Potential Estimator was designed with each of these four pillars as central to your decision making. Complete the worksheet and you'll realize quickly where to dial back and where to lean in to achieve the balance that’s right for your career path's next promotion.

© Sunday Tollefson

For more information, check out How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith. This book frequently inspires my thoughts.

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