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The Uncomfortable Challenge In Life Science: Managing Teams Who Know More Than You

June 08, 2016

by admin


In the Life Sciences field, it’s quite common for leaders to manage teams of experts who know more about their speciality than they do. This can cause issues on both sides, with the experts often resenting the lack of expertise in the manager, and the manager in turn feeling out of their depth.


Specialist Leadership Versus Generalist Leadership

Our traditional understanding of leadership requires that the manager knows more than the people they lead. This ‘expert’ style of leadership is what an article in HBR describes as Specialist Management, and it’s what most of us have been taught to expect of our bosses. However, this concept is out dated. The reality of the modern workplace is that a manager is very unlikely to know more than every member of their team (particularly in highly specialised fields such as life sciences) and even more importantly, they shouldn’t feel the need to. Great leadership is about recognising, hiring, and developing talent-not about being able to do the work yourself. This ability to utilise the talent in your team without being an expert in the field is what’s called Generalist Management.



Some great business leaders freely admit that they’re generalist leaders rather than experts in every facet of their industry. Take Jack Welch for example, the ferociously successful former CEO of General Electric, who said, ‘I have no clue about toasters or airplanes, but I’m very good at finding people who do’. This is the classic example of the generalist style of leadership: hiring the right people and putting them to work in a way that best utilises their skills and specialised knowledge.

According to Richard Branson, another classic generalist leader, ‘It’s all about hiring people who are smarter than you.’


The Powerful Advantages Of Generalist Management

A generalist approach to leadership actually allows the experts under your command to be experts! Done well, a generalist style of leadership is something that expert employees appreciate, as it gives them an environment where they are consulted rather than directed, and their specialist knowledge is recognised as valuable. Conversely, when you have an expert in the role of manager, it’s more common to see them dictating rather than consulting, and they risk under-utilising the breadth of skills and knowledge of their team.

A generalist style of leadership also allows you to get a more holistic view of the team, as it requires you to sit back and assess the big picture rather than getting bogged down in specialist issues that take you away from your true management purpose: to lead others.

 How To Become A Great Generalist Manager

If you’re struggling with leading a team of experts that know more than you, there are a few things you can do (or not do) to transform the situation to everyone’s benefit.

1. Don’t try to become an expert yourself. The experts have spent whole careers building their specialist knowledge, so it’s futile to try and match them at their own game in a matter of weeks-and it will just take away valuable time from your management duties. Get a good hold of the basics and then learn as you go.

2. Get to know each member of your team really well. When you know each team member’s skills and attributes, you can comfortably delegate and develop them towards their maximum performance.



3. Don’t pretend to know things that you don’t. Be willing and open when you don’t know something- but don’t fall into the trap of putting yourself down or apologising for your lack of knowledge. You were hand-picked for this role – so back yourself!

4. Don’t give hasty answers in your rush to look like you understand. Always take time to consider your answers- this is even more important when operating in an unfamiliar field.

5. Consult, consult, consult. This is how you will earn the admiration of your team and get results. If you show that you value everyone’s knowledge, they will value you.

6. Rely on your instincts. You don’t need to understand every technical detail to notice that a team isn’t working fluidly together or that results are lower than they should be. Don’t let your insecurity about your lack of expert knowledge blind you to the obvious issues in front of you.

7. Rely on your people. If you have line managers under you, rely on them heavily to alert you if there is conflict or underperformance. Build a healthy feedback loop to get regular information coming in from all parties, learn to give motivational as well as developmental feedback …and be open to receiving and responding to feedback yourself! This is a learning process for everyone.

8. Build your executive presence. We often recognise authority not through the words that are spoken, but in the way the words are delivered. An attitude of calm confidence is vital if you want to be successful as a leader. Work on your body language, check out Amy Cuddy’s seminal TED talk on power posture, and try out some breathing and calmness techniques.



If we move away from the old paradigm that leaders must know everything, and instead require that leaders bring out the best in those that they lead, then we start to appreciate that even specialist managers should be learning more about how to be generalist managers!

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