Monday, June 8, 2009

Someone has to end it

Suppose you are the absolute expert in your job. You are the person people come to ask directions, policy, etc. You are comfortable and seldom does someone ask you something you have not experienced or do not know the answer to. Someone has to bring an end to this!

While there is something to be said for having people in the organization that truly understand the inner workings and have the ability to work the system, there is also something to be said for people being challenged and growing. This is an extremely delicate balance new leaders must learn through trial and error.

I remember working with a 35-year expert that was completing his last couple of years before retirement. He appeared as someone not interested in a challenge or learning something new. We talked honestly a few times and I learned he was passionate about people learning from his experiences before he left. Long story short, he ultimately took over the new college hire orientation process giving his knowledge away.

Have you been in too comfortable situation where it had to end? Have you helped others see this dilemma without them realizing they were in it? How did it turn out?


Michael D. Goodhart said...

If there is no challenge, then the blade gets very dull.

John Bushling said...

I have found that many organizations have single point Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Sometimes these SMEs are in mission critical positions which puts the organization at risk. On one occasion I attempted to compile a database of single point SMEs within a branch of an organization. The thought was to begin expanding the knowledge base and prepare a succession plan. (Interestingly, there was push back from leadership.) Many of the so called Baby Boomers are now approaching retirement. Many are also the tenured SMEs. They are the 'too comfortable' knowledge bases that 'truly understand the inner workings and have the ability to work the system'.

Leaders, new or otherwise, would do well to expand this base now or it will come to an end.

Building an Expert Database would serve to identify any vulnerability.

John Bushling

Bob Dixon said...


Interesting question. When I was at Teradyne, I founded and managed the International Procurement Offices in Asia, Singapore, Shanghai and Suzhou. I hired the first person and interviewed all of the others.

At the end of 3 1/2 years, it was clear it was time for the IPO to begin to learn to stand on it's own with me out of the way. I had become a safety net that was not allowing them to complete their full development.

I talked to the person I worked for - he knew I wanted to continue creating high performing organizations and supply capability in Asia. I could have stayed in other roles, but decided to leave to continue what I was good at doing - creating value though organizations and supply bases.

Leadership is about many things - but one of the most important is knowing when it is time to let go ....


Peter Thommen said...

Wow! I can realy relate to this situation, because I am there on my project. I try not to get complacent. I look for new challenges. I volunteer for new assignments. Sometimes it's tempting to take it easy, put it on cruise control. The bottom line is that as senior guy, I'm supposed to show leadership, and if I don't, I'm not doing my job.

Regina DunlapAziz said...

The philosphical comment about " Give a man a fish and he will eat for one day, but if you teach him to fish he will eat a lifetime," holds true about imparting knowledge to people. Life is really about having faith in your skill set, just as much as your having faith in others' skillset.

People who rely on other people too much can cause a brain drain. I have seen and experienced both sides of the coin. When imparting knowledge I know that it is critical for the individual in the leadership position to do something other than share knowledge, it is also important for them to have the opportunities to replenish themselves and continue their own personal growth to prevent the symptoms of burnout. It will end and hopefully on a positive note.

Some leaders like to micro-manage, creating insecurity in a person under their authority and they resist change. Others are confident enough in themselves and others that they allow others to develop critical thinking without the fear of the ship capsizing.

One person's way is not always going to be the perfect way, especially when change/growth has occurred. Leading requires analysis. Analysis requires thought and interpretation. Leading requires a shifting of one's mindset on occassions.

I have personally benefited from studying and reading about "change management" and how to get people to align themselves with the strategic vision of the organization and management.

BaseStation Zero said...

I do see a lot of people who don't wish to learn anything more than what's required for their position. I do not understand this way of thinking. My belief is that we only use 10% of our brains... why not make it a goal to load up the rest? It's always better to know more than to know little.

My 2¢

Michael Rossi said...

Most managers are more interested in telling people the right thing to do to avoid political unrest. It is my opinion that most decision are obvious and can be made by the team who was assigned to the project. Good leaders must know when to help and when to let others come to the right conclusion on their own.

Cindy T. Higgins said...

Thank you for the thoughtful insight. Knowledge sharing is the ultimate gift!

Kevin Wong said...

I go through this pretty often. One of my key strengths is the commitment to learn something and knowing it well. This requires time, patience and the desire to grow. What I run into more than anything is the demand for my time to train and bring other people up to speed. This causes much frustration because I have just spent all this time acquiring my bank of knowledge and in several weeks time, I have passed it on to others that did not bother to spend the time doing the same thing. The even tougher part is the shortfall in leadership needed to manage the information transfer. Managers generally dont care about the efforts put forth or who got the work done. Its a matter of whether or not the work is done. Without strong leadership that recognizes the individual leadership needed to help a fellow co-worker along, its a real smack in the face to the concept of mutual development.

Yes the concept of someone who has fought the battles and managed to survive corporate america wanting to give back by getting involved in the development of others is a fantastic point in life, but at that point, it is a fact that the person is a manager and mentoring new recruits. But when we are all working on the same playing field, personal leadership needs to be recognized rather than the just get it done mentality.

Gaurav Arora said...

Good Occurrence...
But i am not enough by passing such experience...

Peter Gijsbers said...

Hello John,

I have been in that position, had the most knowledge within the company concerning the supply chain and logistics.
I have started my own company in 2008 and faced a lot of new aspects of running your own business. It is still a challenge but learning again every day.

The best part personal is that it brought me back with both feet on the ground and growing my skill set.


Peter Gijsbers

Robert Roma said...

I couldn't agree more but unfortunately during our careers we come across the micro managers whom assume only their decisions can be the correct ones.

John Leonard said...


I enjoyed the article and couldn't agree more. If we know all the answers, then we need to change the questions. Personal and professional growth for individuals and compainies requires a lifetime of learning.

Charles Clark said...

Dear John, Very interesting and thought provoking message. I was an investment banker for 15 years and came up against EXACTLY the same situation. Thought long and hard at how hard I had worked to get to where I was, and decided to do it myself. I have never worked harder, done so much and been so responsible, which in turn has taken me to the next level. They still come up, ask and seek advice which can be frustrating, but I have noticed that by allowing them to do that they are growing. They need that port of call. I now realise we aren’t all made of the same stuff and the more you support them, the more confident and successful we ALL become. I look forward to following you. Best wishes sir, Charlie

Alan Jackson said...

2 years ago I walked into a new job knowing nothing about IT systems, leaving behind a wealth of respected experience within S1000D. 2 years of absolute bliss with respect to learning something new, and bringing old ideas that freshen a different table.

I've still got the 'terrier' attitude where once I have the bite, I won't let go. Maybe I've been lucky but most people I've worked with share the same attitude and this helps.

I've never really understood those with the 'plod through' approach. Maybe they don't really want to be a Tech Author anymore; maybe they never did.

Stuart Rosenberg said...


My mentor had two pet sayings: nurture, nurture and nurture again and make mistakes as no one is perfect just do not make the same mistake twice.

The way to become the go-to guy is to have someone believe and trust in you from the start. when you make mistakes recognize them, understand the causation and take appropriate corrective action. We learn from our mistakes and use them as a stepping stone to improve ourselves. Doing this everyday can only lead to one thing - being the go-to person (misspoke when said go-to guy).

John Craig said...

I find myself in this situation right now in the technology we're adding. We have been building airplanes and designing the systems for them based on a practice that goes back decades. Once delivered, the airplane is expected to fly for 20-30 years with minimal change. I am now finding myself challenging our stovepipe methodolgy both inside of Boeing and tha larger industry itself.

We are now introducing e-enabling, connectivity, and Inflight Entertainment Systems to our airplanes that often lead the commercial market from a technology perspective. All of these are systems that will change, and change dramatically every year - in direct contradiction with the old design paradigm. This will also extend to the support for these systems. Historical support was wait for the airline to have a problem, study it, and send a fix or team to the airline to address. As we move to connected airplanes, this will also change how we'll have to support. With connectivity and new features, will come security and new software upgrades. We will be sending solutions to the airlines for problems that don't exist yet to assure we have a secure and safe platform.

In the middle of this, we're also transforming our production system to leverage these same technologies and will find ourselves having to re-invent how we do business. This will be required not only to be competitive, but to design and build the next generation of airplane that meets our customers requirements.

Am I an expert in my area - probably to some level. The difference though is, the times and technology we're living with today, didn't exist 20 years ago. When I retire 10 to 15 years from now, they won't be what we're dealing with today. We all need to adapt, learn, and deploy to stay ahead of the competition and deliver superior products to our customers.

Kent (K. C.) Takacs said...

These two things have been the pillars of my career:

Acquiring new skills.

Being the resource for the team.

Maturation has enabled me to balance these against each other depending on my manager's needs. It is not for everyone, or, for every position. My resume is a mash-up, and I have to make sure I fit into a prospective employer's culture.

Ben Steijn said...

I think it's also about age. When you're 60+ it will be difficult to pick up new responsibilities. In fact they should concentrate on carrying over their expertise to the successors.

Lance Latham said...

Knowledge transfer is facilitated when there's a reward structure in place to help ensure that "succeeding generations" of team members can access the subject matter expert's "keys to success" after the expert leaves (think: pay out a bonus for the the "soon-to-depart expert" for documenting and training others on solutions to the various "what if" scenarios that other team members struggle with). Of course, a couple requirements here are that:

1.) the departing employee works in an environment that VALUES this type of knowledge transfer, and

2.) managers there are PROACTIVE in terms of getting the most "bang for the buck" out of the departing expert before they leave.

These requirements are 2 "biggies" - any one of which is rare in the current heads-down-reactionary mode that many corporate cultures are experiencing right now. Still, the approach works - have done it myself in various business settings, and the approach has been successful.

Paul Gould said...

Don't even get me started on "poor" Managers and people developers.
I myself are so passionate about people development and "passing-on" how the thing works.
The best approach is to ensure we are not trying to "Find the answer" but we are still "Trying to find the Question" !!!

Kent (K. C.) Takacs said...

"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."

~Alvin Toffler

I love the "Old Farts" for their deep understanding, and am ashamed to confess that "Master of None" describes me accurately.

I'm market driven. I can get compensated for knowing half of a job and being able to ask technical questions, but dollars for decimal points, I won't double my income by knowing the other half. Compared to a licensed engineer, the term "hack" may apply.

John Erste said...

I like your solution to the situation and commend you for developing it. Regular discussions (2-3 per year) to review expectations should occur so both manager and employee understand the needs/desires/goals of each other. This way, when opportunities arise or are developed, a solid organizational plan is ready for implementation. There are different types of employees and the "career advancement" types are most commonly discussed. However, every organization needs a number of solid, stable employees that are comfortable and efficient in their roles. As you mention, there will come a time when it must end and transferring "tribal knowledge" to younger employees has to be part of any good organizational plan.

igor sevonkaev said...

Yes, recently I reached the stage when there is no challenge for me; and experience without challenge is just boring routine. Also I know a person who, I strongly believe should retire! He is an outstanding professional in his area, but he performs worse and worse every day, sadly, pulling his colleagues down with himself. But, being arrogant and self-centered person, makes it impossible to talk to him.



Very insightful thoughts.

I also follow the principle "making and improving on one's mistakes are cornerstone to improvement and life-long learning"

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