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How Do You Build Credibility as a Leader When You Aren't the Technical Expert?

Sarah Schott •  March 11, 2015 | Focus on Women, Business and Careers

Five years ago I was working as an attorney in our Law department when I was offered a leadership position in an entirely new area—corporate strategy. At the time, I knew nothing about corporate strategy, which, as you can imagine, made me nervous. What would happen if people found out I wasn’t the expert?

Turns out, the anxiety I felt is pretty common—especially among women. In the article “The Confidence Gap,” published in the April 14, 2014, edition of The Atlantic, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman concluded that, compared to men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. They cited an internal review of records at Hewlett-Packard that showed women applied for a promotion only when they met 100 percent of the qualifications. Men applied when they met 60 percent.

I certainly wasn’t 100 percent sure of myself when I was offered the position in corporate strategy, but I took it anyway. I made mistakes. But I learned from each one. Since then, I’ve grown into two other leadership roles—in life insurance underwriting and compliance. In each of my three moves, I had to rely heavily on my team for technical expertise. To this day I still can’t underwrite a case. But I brought something else of value—the ability to develop and lead people. Those skills earned me credibility as a leader and the opportunity to advance. And with each new role, I continued to learn how to use those skills to establish credibility with my team and bring out the best in them.

Here’s what I’ve learned to do:

1. Be transparent about what you know and don’t know. I’ve become much more comfortable admitting that I need to lean on others for technical expertise. My team members are smart and capable, and I want to take full advantage of their skills. It’s actually empowering—for both me and the members of my team—when I’m willing to say, “I need you.”

2. Show others that you care about their future. While I’ll never develop the same level of technical expertise as the members of my team, I make sure I understand what they do day-to-day and how to align their current responsibilities with what they want to be doing in the future. Part of my job is to help them achieve their goals.

3. Remove obstacles to success. Each time I’ve moved to a new position, I’m reminded of how important it is to ask individuals on my team, “What can I do to be helpful to you?” During those first few weeks and months with a new team, I may not know much about the challenges they face every day, yet my job is to get obstacles out of their way. Most of the time, they say, “There’s nothing I need, but thanks for asking.” But when they do need help, you’ve made it easy for them to speak up.

4. Do what you say you’re going to do. Meet deadlines. Follow through on your promises. When you do what you say you’re going to do, you’ll earn the trust of the people you lead.

My experience has taught me that you don’t have to be a subject-matter expert to build credibility and achieve success as a leader. You need to be a people expert. That means taking the time to know and invest in your team, encourage them to take risks, thank them for their efforts and assure them you’ve got their back. In return, you’ll be rewarded with a team that is loyal to you and the organization and helps advance the company’s mission.

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