The Leader as Facilitator vs. Leader as Expert

By Marshall Goldsmith

My great friend, #1 CEO Coach Mark Thompson, is a four-time CEO who today focuses exclusively on coaching global C-level executives. A member of our 100 Coaches initiative and the best-selling author of Now Build a Great Business, Success Built to Last, and Admired, Mark’s area of expertise is driving growth and leading change.

For more on the C-Suite Masterclass sign up for the webinar here:

Mark has been involved in more than 70 engagements with boards that are leading vast organizational transformations, and he specializes in working with leaders in high-profile roles who have broad reach and incredible impact.

Our interview series focuses on the C-Suite and topics important to leaders at high levels who want to impact the entire organization in the most positive ways. This week we’ll discuss the concept of leader as “facilitator” vs leader as “expert”.

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Mark: Marshall, leaders often think of themselves as the experts. They’ve gotten where they are because they’ve been high achievers. In your upcoming book, you take a very interesting shift in the way people should think about their expertise and the fact that they may no longer be the expert in the room.

Marshall: Well, if you look at the history of the leadership, the leader was superior. In the cave, the leader was bigger or stronger. The King was descended from God. The religious leader talked to God. The master knew more than the apprentice. The professor knew more than the student.

We always thought these authority figures were inherently superior. That was then, this is now. A great lesson I learned from Peter Drucker is: today, most people manage knowledge workers. And, by definition, knowledge workers know more about what they’re doing than the leader does. This is a huge transition for leaders.

In the past, the leader did know more.

Today, if the CEO knows more about marketing than the marketing person, more about finance and the finance person, or more about HR and the HR person. The CEO doesn’t have a leadership problem, they have a selection problem. Today, you want people to know more than you.

The leader is moving out of a “superior” role to more of a facilitator position. The are asking, listening, thinking, learning and facilitating growth. Our great friend Alan Mulally, former CEO of Boeing and Ford, sees the leader as a facilitator helping everyone around himself or herself learn.

The world of leadership is changing and it’s hard to make that transition.

Mark: It’s huge. When I think about some of these guys who are becoming unicorns so quickly. You can’t scale a business any faster than you can scale yourself.

To your point, Logan Green, the cofounder of Lyft, started to think that every time he hired a new person, like a lawyer for instance, that he needed to read every law book so he could check that his/her work was being done right.

Look, you can’t scale yourself doing that. He got the idea very quickly. It was a selection problem. You need to find the best people in every seat, and that’s how you get scale. That’s how you grow a business and an organization.

Marshall, is there a question that comes to your mind for everyone who’s listening today around this issue?

Marshall: I’d like an example, from some of the leaders who are listening to us, of one person that you manage who knows way more about what they’re doing than you do. I’d like leaders to think of that and then describe that situation, what’s it like. and what some of the challenges are for you in leading this person who knows more than you do.

Mark: Great question. Thank you, Marshall!

 Please share in the comments your example of someone you manage who knows more about what they are doing that you do? Share it with us, what is it like, and what are some of the challenges for you in leading this person who knows more than you do. Thank you!

For more on the C-Suite Masterclass sign up for the webinar here:

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