Anonymous Career Advice

Is it possible to have a non subject expert as a department lead?

This week’s anonymous career advice centre’s around a common issue where the department lead is not a subject matter expert and struggles with driving their own teams forward.

Dear focus, my department lead (my direct boss) is not a subject matter expert. They struggle with having the right level of in-depth conversation with the team and it’s impacting our department and delivering important products.
What would you recommend? 

This is more common than you believe and something many of the readers will be questioning or have questioned recently. 

There are often a number of ways to look at this and typically falls into two sides or two schools of thought. 

The Two Sides 

1/ The existing team needs an subject matter leader 

There are times when a team is junior or maturing but need a subject matter expert to be the leader and drive many of the day-to-day decisions shaping the weeks ahead with knowledge sharing and coaching. 

This is often the way early-stage businesses adapt, maturing businesses reshape their middle to upper management to bring in someone who will lead their department day to day, week to week, month to month, quarter to quarter. 

This approach has a shelve life for the incoming subject matter expert, rarely are they given the room or headspace to zoom out and allow their department to step up and elevate the expert subject matter role. 

2/ The existing team can deliver but needs a lead and a leader in the senior leadership team

If you believe you need a subject matter expert driving you from the front each and every day, do you feel your colleagues are not capable of driving the day to day forward? 

The common misconception is that the leader in each department has to be most knowledgeable, some of the best c-suite operators are far from the expert but what they smartly do is build powerful teams around them to drive the day to day and they are one to two steps above thinking about the long term and battling in the board room and driving the conversation with the management team. 

Question To Answer: Disconnected from the department or the discipline? 

The challenge with this approach is often the c-suite member can be too far removed or is not keeping up with the important industry shifts, therefore misunderstanding channel importance or helping to sway the team with the wrong technology or software choices. 

In some organisations particularly Product lead orgs, the Product lead is from a related background and is a political operator with a background related to the product. Not a Product visionary that many of their team require. 

🚨 If this has had a mid to long term department culture issue you should raise this as quickly as possible to your department head or to the HR team.

Specialists Vs Generalists 

Many Marketing departments also experience similar with disciplines moving so quickly the ‘Marketing Leader’ builds a team of specialists around them to address this, as do technology departments, they often struggle to use organisational design and build out the right team vs the team of specialists. 

Very often it can mean the management team are shaping the org for simple delivery or reduced delivery cycles, this is where often there are bigger opportunities for the team to step up and move the company along versus having to be the most senior title. 

Actionable Tips To Take On & Try 

In your particular issue, it sounds like your department head needs someone to discuss with them directly the issue that you and the team are facing and the impact it is having. 

If this is not an option or you do not have a relationship with your department lead, you can take this to their line manager, you can discuss this with HR but often it is best to be open and transparent around concerns. 

There are more subtle ways of educating the lead on this: 

  • 1/ Organise reverse mentorship from one of the team 
  • 2/ Reverse Personal Development – as a team internally coach each other and ensure they are fully invested and learn, strip titles from the exercise and ensure it is lecturer student relationship. 
  • 3/ Have a show and tell each week and discuss the decisions behind it and the future impact it will have – help the team to rotate on delivery of the show and tell. Invite other execs to the show and tell and recap this into a short video format, any concerns you should raise weekly so it does not feel like it is an attack or a surprise 

Something I know to have worked in the past is to create a departmental offsite where the department heads organise an open and honest discussion around the future, reviewing their fears and being able to have open and actionable discussions that have an action list of three to five things to improve.  

Good luck with what you are experiencing, I recommend organising a face to face (in person or over a video conferencing tool) and you have a dedicated agenda where you review your concerns and if this is ignored, then you try reverse mentorship. Often this is enough to open their eyes and you can then pair with the company-wide show and tells. 

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