Australian manufacturers are typically SMEs with limited leadership, specialist and technical staff. Here, Alistair Gordon, the author of a new book on the subject, explains how you can get more out of your technical specialists, by involving them more in the totality of your operations.
It’s a familiar story: a small manufacturing business hires a technical specialist to improve efficiency, or to create new products or help cut costs.
But the specialist’s work never quite seems to land – their ideas don’t seem commercial, and the business doesn’t take them up.
Is this the specialist’s fault, or the fault of the business and its management?
Let’s call it a failure to set the right goals. Technical experts are rarely encouraged to step outside the sphere of their expertise, and so across their career, they aren’t given consistent, reliable training in skills like negotiation, influencing, pitching a project to make sense commercially, or making complex topics make sense to CEOs, boards and their managers.
It’s a failure of expectation as much as training. Having coached technical specialists such as engineers, actuaries, medical researchers, scientists, and software developers for nearly ten years now, I’m always amazed how many companies spend enormous time and effort finding and hiring experts – then, once they’re hired, ‘let them get on with it’.
If you hired a technical specialist to add value to your business, you can’t afford to take that approach. Once an expert is hired, here’s three ways to improve their effectiveness.
First, explain your commercials
One of the most important questions a specialist can ask is ‘What should I work on next?’ No doubt this is a question you ask yourself as well. But to answer it, as the manager of the business you have access to customer, sales, margin and cost data, and reporting to help identify what part of the business needs help.
A small business may not want to expose every single item of financial information, but it’s helpful to expose at least broad trends in your company and industry. To perform at the highest level, an expert must be able to answer questions like ‘Who is our biggest competitor? Why are they successful?’, or ‘Why does this customer segment prefer product X over product Y?’
Asking an expert to help grow your business, not just improve its technical infrastructure, is a crucial first step to encourage commercial thinking. It also motivates the expert, asking them to take on tougher challenges than they’ve had to face in the past.
Second, teach specialists to coach
A lot of experts are ‘stuck’. Over time, they become the only person who intimately understands a critical process, or a tricky set of machines, and no-one else has the expertise required to keep either running.
The expert becomes overworked and resentful. Every issue in their specialty, from serious to trivial, has somehow become their problem. The business can’t afford to move the expert to other work in case something goes wrong. And if the expert gets hit by a bus, the business is in trouble.
In this extremely common situation, the specialist needs to learn to coach and delegate. As a first step, encourage experts to share their knowledge, and teach others in the business how to manage basic technical operations. As well as building a positive brand for the specialist, this encourages others in the organisation to see them as easy to approach.
Think of it as succession planning. Ultimately, your goal is to encourage experts to remove themselves from low-level support work, making more time for high-value strategic action.
Getting a specialist ‘unstuck’ will also make them far happier at work. If one of your specialists seems to always be negative, obsessed with problems rather than solutions, it’s likely they’re stuck and need help.
Third, involve specialists ‘from day one’
Specialists often complain to me, as a coach, about ‘being pulled into projects at the last second’. To contribute successfully to any project, a specialist needs to understand the ‘why’, not just the ‘how’.
That is, they need to input into strategic goals, not just the execution of a plan. Their broad domain knowledge can only benefit your business if they understand what you’re trying to achieve.
Even if you feel an idea is not concrete enough to ask others for input, consider running it past your experts. They appreciate being asked, and it’s likely they have a helpful view of the practicalities. This also prevents having to rework a solution that looked easy but in fact is not technically possible.
In many businesses, specialists are paid a great deal to contribute their expertise, but not provided with the skills they need to maximise that contribution. Business skills can be taught. Don’t sell your organisation short by not providing experts with the full range of tools they need to be effective.
Alistair Gordon is the co-author with Dominic Johnson of Master Expert: how to use Expertship to achieve peak performance, seniority and influence in a technical role (Expertship Press $49). He is CEO of Expertunity, an expert coach, speaker and author, and a long-time veteran of the media and organisational-development worlds. More information here.
Picture: Alistair Gordon
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