Executive coaching for Subject Matter Experts (SMEs): Why it’s time has come
Summary: Expertship coaching is a great way to engage senior technical experts in professional development - building up their enterprise skills to complement their technical skills. It says investment, you're valued, and senior. And with the right coach - someone who really understands experts - it can be super-effective.
Written by Alistair Gordon 10 Jun 2020

Executive coaching for Subject Matter Experts (SMEs): Why it’s time has come

Early adopter organisations are beginning to deploy executive coaching for their highly prized technical individual contributors, and there are some very good reasons why.

1. It’s strategically smart

SMEs are more important than ever. They drive efficiencies, digital customer centricity and innovation.

Increasingly, internal review of mission critical roles is finding a higher percentage of these roles are inhabited by SMEs. The pandemic has shown the power of teams of technical experts deployed at speed to change the way the organisation works. Now these experts are being deployed to change the way organisations interact with customers or citizens. Executive coaching helps these experts their enterprise skills to make their contributions more effective and valuable.

2. It makes very good business sense

SMEs are harder to retain than ever before. Professional development investments save organisations effort and acquisition costs.

Many hard to replace technical experts are jumping ship for more pay and flexibility. They are joining organisations where their expertise is better understood and respected – causing the Great Resignation. We hear this all the time from our coachees. These regretted losses hurt organisations is many ways, with years of undocumented knowledge walking out of the door, and the huge cost and effort entailed in replacing top SMEs. Organisations are finding strategies that retain and engage experts – such as targeted executive coaching designed for experts – a much better value proposition.

3. New tools make it easier

New frameworks and 360 assessments designed specifically for SMEs have emerged that make coaching SMEs wildly more effective.

Our company, Expertunity, has successfully delivered great results for 30 clients worldwide. Using our data-driven models, frameworks, and insights, Expertunity has created highly effective development tools – such as the Expertship Model and a 360-assessment – that allow experts to receive highly relevant feedback, as an expert, from their stakeholders. This feedback structured to kick-start their professional development and is proven to deliver the most successful outcome when experts are guided through our Expertship Coaching programs.

4. A new breed of SME coaches are available.

SME specialist coaches have emerged. More ex senior SMEs (who really get experts) are now involved in coaching.

We are among many providers of adult education products and services now deploying coaches who come from the expert world rather than the psych world. SME coachees repeatedly express that they love the value their coach’s experience as an ex-CIO or CFO, or head of engineering adds to their professional development. Our coaches share their wisdom gained from a lifetime of experience in technical industries. Interestingly, we’ve learned it is a great deal easier to teach senior experts to coach than it is to teach career coaches what the life of a SME in a large organisation is really like.

5. Early adopters are getting great results.

Visionary OD and workforce planning professionals have embraced expertship coaching and are seeing palpable results, so it is far less risky an investment. Deploying learning investments are, is at the end of the day, a results-based business. Do the SMEs stay longer as a result of coaching? Are they more engaged with their organisation? Are they making a bigger impact? Are they finding work more fulfilling? Do they recommend similar investments for relevant colleagues? Five questions that get five emphatic “yes” answers from participants and their managers at our clients. So, are there differences in deploying executive coaching for experts rather than people leaders.

We’d argue we’ve learnt the hard way that there are. We feel these are six factors OD experts need to consider when contemplating a pilot initiative:

  • Think very hard about the nomination process and “talent identification” definitions and processes. No organisation will get good results putting the wrong experts on the wrong learning initiative for the wrong reason. A significant insight we have had is that talent teams in general aren’t good at spotting top technical talent. This is a job for the technical managers. And the signs and symbols of high potential; talent in experts are very different from those in leadership prospects.

  • Understand that the most ideal candidates for coaching won’t volunteer. This is a difficult aspect to explain briefly in an article like this, but experts have generally had bad learning experiences when centrally organised, and they push back – they have more important things to do. The communication strategy needs to be well thought through. Hint: it is about growth of the expert, not about fixing them.

  • Make sure that the tools – capability frameworks and assessments – are expert specific. General behavioural assessments, or worst people leadership assessments – simply don’t resonate with experts, and they tune out.

  • Start with data. This is of course true in most cases when undertaking executive coaching for leaders, but it is twice as true here. Experts are a data driven audience.

  • Make sure the coaches understand the dynamic and frustrating life of an SME in a mid- to large sized organisation. Past senior experts are ideal. Experts connect with other experts. They generally don’t believe not experts understand what they do.

  • Socialise the tools and frameworks with managers of coachees. Mangers of technical experts play a crucial role in helping them professional progress out of their technical bubble. But we often forget to really engage the managers early on. We’ve found sharing all the content that coachees are exposed to with the managers is very helpful. We are happy to talk through these insights with any organisation, please contact us.

A couple of last few points.

  • Executive coaching sends lots of positive messages to your high-value technical experts - they are important, worth investing in, senior enough to warrant a coach, and you are respecting their time by suggesting an episodic approach to professional development.

  • It is also a confidential, safe environment for the expert to explore ways to add more value and dispel frustrations. In our experience where you might get push-back on a course attendance, you won’t with executive coaching.

  • We also have an international list of coaches that we have accredited who specialise in coaching experts. Please ask us about our network.

You might also be interested to read about our expertship coaching packages in How we coach experts.

And then there is the overview of our book, Master Expert, which we deploy with all coaches. Master Expert: The ultimate guide for subject matter experts having more influence and impact

To explore Expertunity’s unique globally benchmarked 360 assessment for SMEs, read The Expertship 360.

Download Executive Coaching for Subject Matter Experts