In this post, we share the research of Amanda Goodall, a senior lecturer at London's Cass Business School. She argues that the best leaders are technical experts rather than generalist managers, and her research findings cover doctors leading hospitals, scholars/researchers leading universities, and in a sporting context, all-star basketball players and Formula 1 drivers managing teams.
Her roughly 20 minute Harvard Business Review ideacast can be found here:
Our previous article about specialist expertise (In Pursuit of Knowledge: Specialising vs Generalising as a Career Strategy) discussed the specialist vs generalist balance, arguing that managers need to be familiar with a variety of disciplines to support their team members, see opportunities across disciplines and interface with varied functions across their organisations. We also highlighted the challenges for experts in choosing what to specialise in and how to keep their expertise sharp over time. We showed how both career strategies (depth/specialism and breadth) have their place in the consulting industry as an example.
By nature, the leaders/partners at professional service (consulting) firms will have a high degree of technical expertise, for example in accounting or law, so would likely be another example of Amanda's technical expert leaders. In contrast, an example of a generalist manager mentioned in the ideacast: a politican running a university.
Amanda's research shows too that people managed by experts are much more engaged in their work than people who are managed by generalists, who might be good administrators but who can’t actually do the surgery, or shoot the three-pointer. Her research finds that whole organisations perform better when they have technical experts in leadership roles, which is positive news for experts, especially in a world where expertise is "falling out of favour" given a "movement against expertise".
Higher job satisfaction
"If your boss really understands the nature of your work, then that predicts your job satisfaction." Amanda's research found three strong predictors of high job satisfaction among employees:
She explains that factors influencing this are:
"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."
Some of us, particularly those with longer careers, have been unfortunate enough to be managed by a generalist with little understanding of the nature of our work, perhaps more than once over our careers. And, this is exacerbated where the manager has no interest in learning about it, or listening, either. This can be incredibly demotivating.
Amanda does caveat though that an expert manager needs to be "trained in leadership and management" intimating that those skills can be learnt and practised. "We’re not suggesting you pull someone randomly out of an operating theatre or out of a sales room and put them on top of their organisation."
The recording also refers to research done with Cornell and Warwick Universities which found that "coaches who had had long playing careers in the NBA or who had been All Stars were associated with winning teams" i.e. outstanding basketball players with long playing careers were more likely to go on to make outstanding basketball coaches.
While this finding relates to management of teams, our Protagion article makes a similar point about coaching in tennis - see "Tennis Superstars and Coaches: The Power of Personal Experience". And, it also underscores Protagion's belief in career mentors who have a professional background or a solid understanding of the specialism their proteges work in, in order to "encourage you in the right direction to advance in your career" in Amanda's words.
The ideacast also shares Amanda's research into physician leadership, looking at rankings of the best hospitals. She found, across three specialisms, that "in all cases, hospitals that were ranked higher were more likely to be led by physicians than they were by non-physician managers". And, performance scores were "about 25% higher in those hospitals".
Learning leadership skills
Amanda encourages experts to "throw your hat in the ring and become a leader". The ideacast interviewer (Sarah Green Carmichael) questioned when is best for learning these skills, noting that "[Fulltime] MBA programs are all... predicated on the idea that you come in as a technical expert,... you learn [about] leadership...and then you can basically go anywhere and [lead]. Amanda responds with her view that "the problem with taking people away, say, for a year or two degree right away from their [specialist] context is that then they begin to forget about their context, and their management and leadership stuff is learned... in a context-free environment almost." She advocates learning these skills in stages, and immediately applying them to your specialist context.
Advice for non-expert leaders managing experts
Do you agree that technical experts can make great leaders? Why do you think so?
Is it perhaps that deep knowledge (to expert level) requires many years to develop, while general skills (assuming the right temperament) can be learnt more quickly?
Or, is the specialist mindset, including a detail orientation or individualistic focus, at odds with the breadth of perspective necessary for leadership?
Further Harvard Business Review reading for those interested in Goodall's work: