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Subject Matter Expert to Leader Interview With Maria Conte

A ‘job’ is about getting paid and punching a clock, a ‘career’ is about learning, growing and advancing.

I can tell you from personal experience that as I moved from a technical to management role, I had no one to guide me, or provide advice. I won’t kid you, it was that same feeling you get when you go to a new school multiplied by 100. I did eventually figure it out, but wish I had a hand. Heck I didn’t even realize I was transitioning from a SME to a Leader. As I look back on it, I actually found myself using leader-like skills while I was a technician. Today I find it an invaluable skill, going back and forth from SME to Leader depending on the job and environment.

This where my long time, good friend Maria Conte comes in. Maria is an ‘Executive Coach” whom I’ve known since 1990. I can see the eyes rolling wondering what this has to do with my typical technical articles. I can tell you that in some point of your life, if you are good at what you do, you will find yourself managing a project, group or troubleshooting task force. This is what Maria calls, “From SME(Subject Matter Expert) to Leader”.

I think you will find Maria’s advice and experience can help with your boss, peers, staff and life. Hey, what have you got to loose. I will now hand it over to Maria to explain and provide some ideas of what you can do to help you with your career.

Thanks Tony. Transitioning from being the "SME" to a leadership role is not always easy; most of the time we are promoted into a leadership role because we are great at what we do and once in a new role we are faced with some of the following challenges:

  • how to transition from SME to leadership

  • dealing with relationships - they were my peers now I'm their boss

  • letting go - allowing the team to pick up where you left off, trying to shift workload to your former peers despite how crazy their current workload is

  • earning credibility as a leader with your team and your boss

At first this may seem a little overwhelming or impossible. The great news is you have an opportunity to shine in your new role. You're already the "rock star" or "expert" in your former role which you can now leverage as you transition into your leadership role.

An important role as a leader is getting to know your direct reports as their leader not their peer. Take the opportunity to meet with each team member one-on-one; find out their strengths are and identify individual growth potential. Have them identify what leadership traits they respect and how they like to be lead - everyone is different and will need to be managed / lead differently. You'll need to earn the right to lead - this may take some time.

Tip: Having weekly one-on-one sessions with each team member gives you the opportunity to hear what's working for them, what challenges they have and how you can support them . It also gives you a pulse of what's happening on the team.

Shifting from being the hands on SME to being the leader was one of my biggest challenges. As a Sales Engineer I worked closely with our sales organization and was the "go to" person for many client opportunities; I enjoyed solving problems and being engaged deep in the "weeds". Letting go and transitioning this was very challenging for me. I had to learn to let go of my old accountabilities and embrace my new ones. I had to trust that the team was more than capable of picking up where I left off.

One of the first things I had to do was to transition all my clients to the team. To tackle this I worked closely with the Account Rep to identify other Sales Engineers (my new team) that would be a good fit for each client. Working closely with my team, the Account Rep and Client, we started the process. This included:

  • mutually agreed upon timeline for the new Sales Engineer to be fully engaged in all day to day activities

  • Continue to support the Sales Engineer from behind the scenes (it's important for the new Sales Engineer to create the trusted relationship with the client and the Account Rep).

  • Assure the team (client, Sales Engineer and Account Rep) that I am always available to support them

Maintaining open communications is key in this process. In the early weeks be sure to check in with your team member and affected teams to see how the transition is going. Offer any support or encouragement when needed - be sure not to "micro-manage" you want to empower your team member and allow them to shine!

Tip: Hold monthly team meetings (either breakfast or lunch) no more than 1 hour - touch base on Organizational (news from your boss) updates, workloads, projects and celebrate wins - invite any special guest; I found if there's someone on the team that has a special win - it's great to invite my boss to the session to share in the recognition. This raises the visibility of your team to your boss and others in the organization.

Another huge challenge for any leader is dealing with an already overwhelming workload. This took me a long time to figure out how to manage this without jumping back in to my old role as the SME. This is what worked for me.

  • First, meet with the team to identify current projects, workload, timelines, any priorities

  • Secondly, Is there any other resources within the team or cross-functional team can assist with some of the tasks? or are there any tasks that don't belong to the team?

  • Third, check in with my boss to share current workload challenges and identify any priorities that can be shifted or transitioned.

  • Fourth, communicate any changes in deliverables to all party members to ensure expectations are re-established and met.

  • Re-group with the team and ensure everyone has what they need to balance their workloads

Workload is something that needs to be monitored continuously; you will be able to do this in your one-on-one meeting or during your 'walk about'. As the leader you can help your team prioritize what jobs / work needs to be done and be their advocate for things that need to be re-prioritized.

Tip: "Walk about" - I found that anytime during the workday it's worthwhile to stop by and check in on your team, cross-functional teams, etc. It helps build rapport and gives you a chance to provide on the spot coaching / support, mentoring, etc.

Earning credibility as a leader will take time. With continued communications, listening, support, coaching and mentoring you will gain trust and credibility. Make an effort to really understand the strengths and growth potential for each team member. Many times the best thing you can do for someone is just listen. I find most people will figure out their own answers given the chance to hear themselves out loud. Empower and trust the expertise in your team to pick up where you left off.

Celebrate wins big and small and be sure to share those wins with the Team and your manager.

Maria Conte, CEC, PCC, RYT-200

Maria is the founder of Conte Executive Coaching and Consulting Group, Inc, located in Oakville, Ontario, Canada; CECCG is a leadership development and strategy firm that supports individuals and organizations in ensuring the success of high functioning executives, managers and business leaders. Through her work as an executive coach, she coaches others to become empowered and successful leaders.

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