How to coach technical experts to work with non-technical teams
Summary: Some of our best team members are very technical, but we have to do lots of hand holding when they are working with non technical teams. This is a waste of our time. How as leaders of experts teams do we coach our most technically capable experts to interact effectively with non-technical teams?
Written by Kirsty Allen 17 Jun 2022

7 Tactics for Coaching Technical Experts

Experts - they have extensive specialist knowledge, are lovers of technical challenges, & willing & able to come up with solutions - yet their brilliance can also be their downfall.

  • Their deep specialist knowledge may see them experience difficulty simplifying & translating this to stakeholders - hindering their ability to be seen as a credible, trusted adviser.

  • Their love for technical challenges may see them dive into detail at the expense of considering the bigger picture.

  • Their problem solving ability can see them be overly self-reliant, & miss opportunities to collaborate across divisions.

  • Their logical thinking style, strong risk perception, & often quiet discernment, may hamper their ability to showcase their creativity & feel heard & included in brainstorming sessions.

So what can managers do to unlock their brilliance?

  • Define what differentiates good from great technical experts. In our Expertship Model we define “master expert” separately to “expert” to give experts something to strive towards. Does your team member know what excellence in their field looks like? Do you regularly give them balanced feedback across various capabilities?

  • Provide business alignment & a sense of purpose. Help experts get out of the detail & feel like they’re doing meaningful work by regularly discussing the “why”. What long term benefits are they contributing to? How can they communicate the commercial value they provide?

  • Promote their expertise. Ask them what knowledge they have that will be useful for others to know, & how can they document & share this - in a digestible manner - to showcase their expertise, develop others, & free up some time to work on more strategic, value-adding activities.

  • Leverage their problem solving ability. Provide space, & utilize the GROW model, to encourage them to identify opportunities, solve roadblocks & craft strong solutions. Explore what “best case” & “worse case” looks like, question what assumptions they might be holding, inquire into what they understand about the “reality” of other stakeholders involved, & ask who & what will help them deliver impactful results.

  • Role model what you want to see. You might make a point of (a) sharing information to help them thrive, (b) asking questions to gather information before you offer a solution, (c) using data to tell a story, or (d) demonstrating an open mindset towards change - to encourage them to do the same for others.

  • Validate the act of speaking up. Recognize & encourage contributions so they’re not shy providing technical advice to others, & can therefore be seen as an expert.

  • Challenge them to broaden their thinking. Ask them how they’re staying on top of what “best practice” in their field looks like, evolving trends, emerging customer needs, etc. OR something simpler (although it probably has a bit more of a negative tone)?

In our experience, experts feel like they’re drowning in unpredictable currents of competing requests.

To protect themselves, they can go into a flight-or-fight mode - disconnecting from others & working head down in a vacuum in an attempt to stay afloat & showcase their competence, or sticking their heels in the deep ocean sand & being painfully rationale about why something can’t be done or a course can’t change.

So how, as their manager, can you maintain a steady ship & get the best out of your technical stars?

(1) Offer a compass - a ‘true north’ & shared purpose to give a sense of meaning & help experts prioritize.

(2) Provide best practice guidelines - discuss what good & great looks like.

(3) Involve the crew - support them in networking, working well with, & leveraging the strengths of others.

(4) Provide a life jacket - minimize threat & find out what they need to feel confident to get to shore .

(5) Acknowledge & agree on procedures to assess & manage risks.

About the author

Kirsty Allen is principal consultant with Expertunity (About us), and specializes in coaching people leaders and technical subject matter experts. She is based in Australia.

For more information about leading technical subject matter experts expertly, visit our Leaders of Expert Teams Resource Centre.

Special free offer: download our Leader of Experts Performance Guide, for further tips on coaching technical subject matter experts. Use the form below.

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