The Myth of Subject Matter Expertise

The further I get into my career, the more I begin to question that technical skills alone are a key indicator of success. Didn’t we all believe that to be hired or to hire the perfect fit, we had to be or find the candidate with the best, most specialized credentials, the expert in a field?  I have now spent nearly two decades working in large corporations and consistently have been guided over time to pick a track and become a specialist.  It could be in supply chain, or sales and marketing, or business strategy – the content did not matter, but staying in one area seemed to be what did.  This is a path I have been unable to embrace and now find myself encouraging young professionals to think beyond a discipline and value a broader skill set as well.

What I have learned on this journey of a career, is that it isn’t the specialist who will round out the team. It is rather the competent, sharp, open-minded futurist with vision and the confidence to make bold moves that I am looking for.  The ability to push beyond specific training to use education and skills creatively to enhance a team or solve complex problems is a rare and very important skill set. Specialists absolutely bring a specific value to a team, but that alone is no longer enough.  The challenges we face, the problems to be solved, and the pace at which the working world moves demands something more.  We need to be building a workforce of tomorrow that blends specialized expertise with a high level of emotional intelligence, creative problem solving, empathy and vision.  These elements of character and integrity need to be seen as more than personal attributes; they are corporate strengths as well.

As one acknowledges the pressure for young students to choose a discipline before they even start undergraduate work, I wonder how we are cultivating these leaders of the future. Is the pursuit of a liberal arts education a thing of the past? The intellectual generalist, perhaps assumed to be a jack of all disciplines and the master of none, are presented with the opportunity to become the observer, the perpetual learner, the writer, the linguist, the thinker, the artist. The exposure to a wide variety of practices, ideologies, and philosophies creates a broad platform to begin from.  The foundation is laid for open-mindedness, willing consideration of alternate thinking, and the delight of accepting a challenge to which there is no obvious solution or answer. The right questions become more important than a single right answer.  To develop these skills in our up and coming workforce, we need to value and cultivate them.  They need to matter when we hire and promote. They are not just “the nice to have” attributes they are “the need to have” attributes.

So at this point, my advice for early career professionals is to recognize and hone not only your technical skill but also these very critical personal strengths.  Spend the time to identify where your personal strengths (and gaps) are and invest time in developing these.  Seek diverse experiences – these are not detours or side steps; they are a broadening of perspective and mindset.  It is with this as our foundation that we will develop the teams of tomorrow and leverage technical expertise in ways we never thought possible.


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