Over the last several years our research on corporate leadership and HR has shown a dramatic trend: successful businesses today are run by experts.
I don’t mean experts at management, but experts at the business itself. The days of building “great general managers” are now over, and highly successful leaders are now great engineers, scientists, and sales people who really understand the business itself.
GE, who we have been working with for years, has totally changed its venerable leadership development process. Susan Peters, the head of leadership development at GE, recently announced that new leaders at GE are going to have to stay in their business areas for five years or more. They have to develop what we call “deep expertise,” a complete and total understanding of the business itself.
There many reasons for this change, but the biggest one is that expertise has become the new currency of success. As I described in an earlier blog post (The End of a Job as We Know It), the borderlessness of business in general has created a marketplace where people operate in cross-functional teams, so the need for “general managers” is greatly reduced.
(And GE’s own internal data proves this, the company has found statistically that the highest performing managers have been in their business area
s for five years or more.)
Added to this factor is the fact that people with deep expertise actually make much better decisions. As Jeffrey Immelt discusses in his comments about this new model, it takes many years to fully understand the jet engine business or the energy business. Why wouldn’t we want leaders who know have the deep judgement, market savvy, and technical skills to know what will work? And by the way, if they’re experts we can hold them much more accountable for results.
We have seen this trend playing out in company after company. Accenture changed its leadership model and now measures all its executives and consultants based on a 6-level “capability model.” Ford has asked its engineering and manufacturing leaders to “go back to school” and learn the business of electric vehicles. Qualcomm expects its top leaders to be PhD engineers and most hold patents.
Our research shows that the highest performing companies in every industry have one thing in common: they are run by experts. Look at Oracle, IBM, UPS, Starbucks, Apple – all the brands who endure for decades. These companies are all run by people who have either grown up in the company or have spent nearly all their lives in that particular industry.
How do you build such deep expertise? We have uncovered five keys to success.
1. Be patient. Build time in the job.
You, as a leader or aspiring leader, have to be patient. You need several years (3 or more) in one place and one role to really gain experience. If you are a marketing executive in high tech, don’t jump to a job in retail banking. You’ll have to start over.
By doing this you will build a deeper track record of expertise and success, and naturally gain more responsibility and confidence
2. Take on significant developmental assignments.
The best way to go deep is to take on a bold new project in your current company. A top HR executive at NetApp, one of the world’s most high-performing storage companies, was asked to take ownership for the company’s recent acquisition of Engenio. This particular individual has deep expertise in management, training, and operations, but needed to build more global business experience and wanted senior executive visibility. This new project let him understand the details of another major player in the market and gave him the experience to go even deeper in his expertise in the market, organizational development, and NetApp’s strategy.
3. Find a coach.
If you think back about your own career, you can probably think of one person (a manager, an executive, an advisor) who had a significant impact on making you who you are today. This person took some extra time to work with you, gave you some badly needed advice, and truly cared about your success.
Move up Move downThis is the definition of a coach. A coach is not a manager or supervisor, but rather someone who knows how to help you bring out the best you have. And this person has the uncanny ability to point out your weaknesses and help you learn and overcome them.
We have coaches all around us. You should look for one and ask one of your senior colleagues to take time with you every quarter (or hire a professional executive coach, there are thousands of them). High-performing companies invest heavily in leadership coaching.
4. Passionately study your industry.
Our research shows that one of the most important leadership competencies is “learning agility.” Simply put, this means the ability to “learn fast and learn deep.” You must take the time to read, go to conferences, meet people, debate issues, and continuously expand your knowledge about your industry and your company.
Today you can find amazing information online, and experts are willing to talk with you. But you must make it a passion. Read the financial reports of your competitors. Study what analysts are saying. Read academic research on your market. Buy all the books everyone is talking about. It will pay off, believe me.
5. Embark on “deliberate practice.”
And the final key to success is to “do it.” All our research on leadership development shows that leaders learn through experience. Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful book Outliers talks about why it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything (playing the violin is his example). You should take this to heart.
The world’s best musicians, scientists, engineers, project managers, designers, artists, and virtually every other professional practice continuously. Jerry Rice, one of the most successful football players ever, practiced harder than anyone else on the 49ers, right up to his retirement.
One final point. Leadership itself requires its own levels of expertise. When you find yourself ready for a top leadership position, go back and follow the same five steps again. It takes many years to learn to lead, manage, coach, and develop people too.
I believe it was Plato who stated “A man cannot practice many arts with success.” Today, more than ever, companies want experts to take the lead.
Go deep, not wide. Expertise has become the new currency for success.