Leaders: What if my direct reports know more than me?

by | Dec 9, 2023 | 0 comments

A version of this article was also published in my column at the Globe and Mail.

It can be daunting for emerging leaders to find their ‘sea legs’ in the early days of a new managing role, especially when one’s direct reports seemingly have more experience and deeper knowledge (at least in some areas).

Recently a client (“Adam”) came to a coaching session concerned he might not be taken seriously in his new role as manager. He was new to the organization and this was his first managing role. He worried some of his direct reports had more familiarity (and time) at the company and had deeper skills in a few areas he would be overseeing.

With confidence waning, he asked: How will I make them see my value as a leader?


Photo courtesy of Pixabay

I’ve been there. Many years ago,  in an earlier career in communications and PR, I was took a new role as Manager for a special, large international project at one of big banks. First time working at the bank, and first time being a Manager at that level. I hired someone to join my team because she had more experience at the bank and had specialized in internal communications, whereas my experience leaned more deeply into the external communications area.

It was a good move and a great hire. We worked well together. But truth be told, I was initially nervous as heck. Like “Adam”, I also worried that she would know more than I did and fretted about how could I be a leader to someone who ‘knows more’ (or so I thought).

Yada, yada, yada. It is common to have those kinds of internal fears and hesitations, but they aren’t founded, as I quickly discovered. We bring different things to the table. And our roles require different ‘value adds’.

As I shared with “Adam” in our coaching conversation, a manager’s role does not have to precisely mirror the diversity of each member’s skills on the team. More importantly, their value is how they bring out the best of their team’s abilities and foster high performance and engagement.

Intellectually many new managers know this, but it can still feel counterintuitive to some. In a leadership academy where I was teaching coaching skills to leaders, many questions arose that pointed to the discomfort managers have mentoring or coaching those who had more experience or time at their respective organization.

In this discussion, one participant offered the metaphor of sports coaches and reminded the group that some of the best coaches were not exceptional at the said sport, but they excelled in making their players great.

This group discussion highlighted a common yet misguided notion that to be a great leader you should have the most expertise and know as much or more than your direct reports.

The now outdated paradigm of ‘command and control’ managing required managers to be the smartest in the room. Today that is a faulty approach given the complexity in our constantly changing landscape.

“What got you here won’t get you there” is an adage I frequently share with my aspiring and emerging leadership clients. Your value proposition and responsibilities change when you manage people versus when you contribute to projects.

Lana’s Success Story:  Fabulous emerging leader but without the depth of technical skills as her team. 

Here’s a success story: My client “Lana” was modest and didn’t yet recognize her own leadership capabilities, but she really was exceptional in many ways. A mid-level manager, she was promoted to a department where she had far less technical experience than those on her team. She wondered how she would provide guidance as a leader and felt like she didn’t belong.

She ended up doing amazingly well not because of her technical skills, but rather because she excelled in her people leadership skills. She found ways to add value by listening, acting as a sounding board for others to solve problems and think out loud, asking helpful questions and bringing the right people together to solve problems collaboratively. She also helped people prioritize when the competing loads became overwhelming and she advocated for her team wherever she could with upper management.

Her teams quickly learned that she had their back and even if she didn’t have the depth of their technical expertise, they trusted her as their leader.

Back to Adam’s question: How will I make them see my value as a leader?

Just a few thoughts to anyone in a similar quandary:

  • Let go of the pressure to compete or even duplicate the skills within your team. Unless the tech skills are crucially required, you will do better worrying less about proving your value and instead focusing on the value within your team. Acknowledge and tap into that and support their potential.
  • Build trust by creating a climate that allows your people to feel safe, to thrive, and bring their best to work. If unsure what that means, ask them: “How can I support you as your leader so you can succeed? What do you need right now?” They will tell you. Ask again and again as contexts, projects and needs evolve.
  • Be generous by sharing the space with your team. Support your people but give them room to stretch and grow. For instance, rather than you being the best problem solver, empower them to contribute to solutions more often. One of my clients is an exceptional problem solver, but he has been intentionally holding back so others can have a chance to shine. He is “unlearning” old habits from his days as contributor and learning new leadership habits that will more powerfully engage people.
  • Recalibrate your own learning and development plan to include more focus on the vast interpersonal and communications skills that are crucial to developing and leading people.

Your value as a leader will more naturally emerge as people feel seen, supported and appreciated. Develop those skills, build trust one conversation at a time and let go of the unnecessary pressure to prove your worth.

Eileen Chadnick PCC, of Big Cheese Coaching, and a two-time ICF Prism award winner, works with leaders (emerging to experienced), and organizations, on navigating, leading, and flourishing in times of flux, opportunity, and challenge. She is the author of Ease: Manage Overwhelm in Times of Crazy Busy.


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