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The Expertise Trap: When a Lot of Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

Being a CEO means being an expert with a huge amount of knowledge, but it can also mean that tunnel vision sets in.

Becoming a team leader or the CEO of a company requires tenacity, skill and knowledge. You either began as the company’s resident expert or quickly became that person — the one who knows everything about everything. While this position serves as an invaluable resource, it can also mean that tunnel vision sets in. Experts on any given topic can be so focused they fail to evolve. 

There is a common perception held by CEOs that the skills that got them the job are the exact ones they will need to lead a company into the future. This is only partly true. In order to take a company where it needs to go, a CEO must continue to learn, evolve and seek feedback. As one Forbes journalist was told as he held forth on his area of expertise, “You can’t read the label when you are sitting inside the jar.”

Sydney Finkelstein, a professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, argues that there are drawbacks to any employee, but particularly a CEO, becoming a team’s most knowledgeable person on a given topic. He says they can become incurious about their field, complacent and overconfident in their knowledge about other topics.

Finkelstein feels that in order to continue to be effective team members or leaders, such people need to be self-aware enough to constantly reinvent themselves and to seek out new sources of information — to be creative, engage in critical thinking and be able to connect the dots in an increasingly complex world.

Checks and Balances

To start this process for yourself and avoid the expertise trap, employ a system of checks and balances. In other words, find someone you trust who is able to give you honest feedback. It’s tough to hear constructive criticism, but it’s essential to listen and react accordingly if you want to become self-aware

Another path to self-assessment is to conduct a 360 review. This means asking everyone around you to weigh in on what they think you’re doing well and make suggestions for areas of improvement. This will give you a clear picture of your current situation and allow you to adjust your priorities as well as revisit your values.

Accountability is Key

Ongoing accountability is also essential, so keep a few people in the loop and check in with them from time to time to see if you are still on track, or need a leadership tuneup.

It may also be helpful when starting out as a CEO to work with a coach. Whether you already feel overwhelmed, are comfortable or are gearing up to take the job, this third-party consultant is able to give you an outsider’s perspective and to focus solely on you. This person can pinpoint specific skills you can work on, give you advice for addressing challenging areas and create a game plan for becoming more successful overall. 

The Team Improves, Too

In the long run, this awareness betters you as an employee and strengthens the team around you. Making sure you evolve in your job can lengthen your term at the company and your career in general, and lend authenticity to your communication with your employees. If you make it clear to them that you aren’t perfect, they are much more likely to be real with you and respect your efforts.

Other ways to stay engaged and not work in your own bubble are to simply make sure you keep learning. Educate yourself about what is happening in your field, even if it means thinking less critically and more creatively. Experts tend to apply the logic and wisdom they have earned through the years to make decisions, but they can miss innovative ideas and solutions this way.

Examine the Experts

Another idea is to think about what other leaders and experts would do in your shoes. Endless ink has been spilled about leadership, but find a couple people you admire like Oprah, Elon Musk or your first boss and think about how they approach problems and create new products. This may help give you more of a bird’s eye view of a situation, rather than one that is “inside the jar.”

You may think all this positive growth and change sounds great, but don’t think dealing with all of it is realistic. Finding the time to hone your leadership skills can be tricky, but there are some simple steps you can take.

Multiple Benefits

Working to continually expand your knowledge has multiple benefits. It ensures that you keep generating new ideas instead of recycling old ones. It keeps you passionate about your area of expertise and helps you talk to and learn from new hires with fresh ideas. 

In the long run, staying engaged helps keep you from becoming burned out, bored and can even help your overall health and well-being. Learning should be a lifelong skill, and if you practice it, even when you are an acknowledged thought leader or industry expert, you’ll be sure to stay that way.

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