What to Do When They Know More Than You…

They say knowledge is power. But if that’s true, how can you be in charge when you don’t know as much as the others on your team? Lots of times you might find yourself put in charge of something you know very little about, or that your teammates know much more about than you do.

How are you supposed to lead them? In this first of two posts I’ll talk about the one critical thing to do right away to help you establish credibility and get your team moving forward.

What to do...When they know more than you...
There I Was…

Being the least experienced on the team describes my first real job. It was 1987, I was 21 years old, on the DMZ in Korea, and I was about to take charge of my first ever platoon of Soldiers. I was nervous. There were about 45 of them; most were older than me, all were more experienced.

As one of them liked to say, he had more time standing in the Army chow line, than I had total time in the Army. The guy working most directly for me had about 17 years of Infantry experience; there wasn’t much I was going to tell him that he didn’t already know.

It’s not an uncommon scenario. In fact, if you lead long enough, it is inevitable. Your expertise in some area may be what got you selected to be the leader, but as you move up the hierarchy, there will always come a point where the people working for you know more than you.

But if they know more than you do, how do you lead them? How to you establish credibility? How do you get them to follow when many of their sources of power are much stronger than yours? Well, there are actually lots of things you can do, and we’ll work through a bunch of them. For today, we’ll focus on the very first and most important thing to do right away.

The Number One Thing

A common response for the leader is to attempt to master the technical details of the new job as quickly as possible, and that’s important. Often, technical skill is what brought them success in the first place. But there are two problems with relying solely on this strategy:

1) Someone will always know more, so you can never rely on superior technical knowledge as your main basis of power; the higher you go, the harder it will be.
2) It takes too long to get there, and you need to produce results sooner rather than later.

Instead, the key thing you can do to start off on the right foot is to focus on relationships with your teammates. Specifically, focus on your influencers. Working through them is a great way to begin to establish your leadership. Here’s how you can go about it.

Identify the Influencers

If your group has been around for any length of time, there are sure to be people on it who are more experienced, and hold the respect of the other team members. Start by figuring out who they are.

In some cases, it might be part of their job description, like Assistant Manager. In others, they may be the people who have been there the longest, or have the most technical skill. Or when a question comes up and everyone always says, “ask Mary” then you know that Mary is one of your go-tos. You may have a few people like this. That’s a good thing.

Meet with your Influencers

Once you know who they are, talk with them. Preferably before you talk to anyone else on the team. Your goal is to establish an understanding of how you will work together in the future.

By speaking with them first, you are recognizing their influencer status, which they are likely to appreciate. Also, it’s best to talk to them “off-line” or to the side if possible, not as part of a larger group. That’s also a part of giving your discussion with them a level of importance.

What to Say

Here’s a formula you can use to start the discussion, and the signals you are sending when you speak this way:

1. Start by recognizing their special status. “Everybody says you are the go-to person for this work,” or “I understand you have been doing this for several years.”
Signal: I get that you have special status here.
2. Confirm and acknowledge what they know. “Your expertise/experience is great to have on the team.”
Signal: I acknowledge your expertise/experience and think it is important
3. Then voice your desire for their input. “Would you mind if I got your thoughts and ideas about key issues here from time to time to help make good decisions?”
Signal: I’m still in charge, but I respect and value your input; this is your chance to influence the team through me; we can be together on this.
4. Give yourself an “Out.” “I want to make sure we get the job done, but at the same time I want to be smart about it, so I’d love to have your input.
Signal: I won’t always be able to do what you say and you’re not in charge, but I’ll respectfully consider your opinion.
5. Ask a question. If the preceding conversation has been positive, try asking a question like, “Based on your experience, what are two or three main things I should focus on for the next few weeks?” or “what do you think we do well that we should be sure to keep doing?”
Signal: I’m delivering on my promise already, and want your thoughts on something important.

When you ask them about their thoughts on key work issues, you will get the benefit of their experience. When you act on some of their ideas, they will have a sense of ownership in their success, especially if you give them credit as you put those ideas into action (which you should).

When done well, you will end up with new supporters who are less likely to challenge your leadership in the early days, and can help you avoid common pitfalls while you are still getting your bearings.

Build the Relationship

If your influencers are positive and supportive of your efforts, work to get to know them better. Ask about things that aren’t strictly work-related, like hobbies, sports teams they follow, what they like to do on weekends, favorite restaurants. When you show that your interest in them extends beyond the job, you form a closer bond which can help you work better together.

This doesn’t mean you need to become best buddies; and if you are a supervisor, it’s best that you don’t. But showing genuine respect and interest in them as people will improve your working environment.

When the leader and the key influencers of the group are all on the same wave length, the team has a greater chance of being successful. And when they succeed, you succeed.

Back in the Day…

My first day on the job back in Korea, my senior Sergeant and I had a conversation that started very similar to the one outlined above. Over the next hour I got the benefit of his views, experience, and ideas, and we put many of them into action.

For the next year we had a mutually supportive relationship that got us through the many challenges of a tour of duty on the Demilitarized Zone. I learned a lot from him, and he helped me keep the platoon moving in the right direction. The same approach can work for you.

The Takeaway

It can be tough to start out as a leader when your team is more experienced than you. The best thing to do is to begin by figuring out who your influencers are. When you focus on building a relationship with them, you gain the benefit of their experience and knowledge. And by working with them you may gain their support at the same time. Just be sure it is clear that they are advising you; the final decision and responsibility is still yours.

In the second post of this series, I’ll talk about all the other things you can do to establish your credibility as a leader when you seem to know less than everyone else.

Take Action

Ask yourself who the influencers are on your team, and then look at your relationship with them. Is there mutual trust? Do they share their knowledge with you and support the team? Do you consult them before important decisions? If yes, great, keep doing that. If not, maybe it is time to sit down with them and come to an understanding – it will be a benefit to everyone.

Question:  People can be influencers in different ways; technical and social come to mind; how else?  Which is most important?

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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