How to lead people who know more than you

How can you lead them when they know a lot more about their work than you do?

If you’re a manager in a knowledge-driven industry, chances are you’re an expert in the area you manage. But as your career advances, at some point you will be promoted into a job which includes responsibility for areas outside your specialty. Your subordinates will ask questions that you cannot answer and may not even understand.

How can you lead them when they know a lot more about their work than you do?

You must learn and practice a new leadership style. Your old style of management, which I call “specialist management,” depended on expertise. You need to put that behind you and adopt a new style of management: the generalist style. Based on my work with leaders who have successfully made the transition, here are the four key skills to develop and practice:

1) Focus on relationships, not facts: One of the profound differences between the two managerial styles is that the specialist leader focuses on facts, whereas the generalist leader focuses on relationships. A specialist manager knows what to do; the generalist manager knows who to call. The single best tip for building relationships is to think about how you build relationships with clients and apply those same skills to colleagues. Spend a lot of time, face to face, getting to know people as individuals. In the generalist style, you are constantly adapting your approach to the individual and the situation and that means knowing people very, very well.

2) Add value by enabling things to happen, not by doing the work. A big part of enabling things to happen when you are not the expert involves knowing when to leave things alone and when to intervene. This isn’t easy because you have a broad array of responsibilities and you need to be able to tell at a glance where trouble lurks. How do you know where trouble lurks? One useful tactic is to sit in on a meeting between a direct report and his subordinates. If the conversation is two-way, that’s a good sign. If the manager does all the talking and the subordinates are passive, that’s a bad sign and you need to dig more deeply.

3) Practice seeing the bigger picture, not mastering the details. As a generalist leader, much of your value comes from your ability to see the big picture better than others around you. You might think of the specialist leader as heads-down, deep in concentration, plotting a detailed course on a map, while the generalist is heads-up, looking around and noticing what is going on.

4) Rely on “executive presence” to project confidence, not on having all the facts or answers. As a generalist, you must draw on that elusive quality of “executive presence” to inspire confidence in others. Executive presence isn’t a mystery any more than project planning is; it is a skill you develop. The most useful thing you can do is pay attention to presence. When someone who has presence walks into a meeting notice how they dress, how they speak, how they stand – these are not personality traits, they are skills. Watch some videos of world leaders on the World Economic Forum website. The specialist manager in you will want to pay attention to what they are saying, but the generalist should want to see how they are creating executive presence. Notice the behaviors, practice them and get feedback – that’s the path to executive presence.

(Wanda Wallace is president and CEO of Leadership Forum, Inc. David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate