One of the labels I actively avoid having stuck to me is that of expert. This has nothing to do with humility. I am simply not an expert. I may be more knowledgeable or experienced in some areas, but by no means would I consider myself a leading authority on my chosen areas of interest and profession. Case in point I have not written a book, delivered a Ted talk or started a podcast whilst in lockdown (and there is nothing wrong with quality podcasts!).
There are others, coaches, facilitators, consultants who are more experienced than me and from whom I learn every time we interact. In my eyes they are experts, and equally, they dislike the label. And yes, by dictionary definitions we might be seen by others as experts. And here is the thing – so are you
A person with a high level of knowledge or skill relating to a particular subject or activity
So why is it that clients insist on bringing in the expert?
There are many good reasons for bringing an expert into your organisation or onto your project:
- There is a specific piece of knowledge, or specific process, that you would like to inject into you work that currently doesn’t reside within the organisation.
- A fresh perspective is needed to get a team unstuck. Or help a team look at a challenge in a new way
- An opportunity to transfer knowledge
There are also a number of wrong reasons:
- Abdication of responsibility or accountability. “But you are the expert, why can’t you motivate or excite my people?”
- Speed over everything else: “Just give us THE answer!”
- Looking for someone else to take the blame for a doomed project.
- A lack of trust with internal competence and an external voice of gravitas is required to gain support for a recommendation
In the wrong hands, labels like expert may create a power dynamic similar to that of teacher and pupil. An expectation is created that the expert has the answers and the staff can take a more passive role with respect to the work. This stifles curiosity and creativity. It closes the mind to internally generated new ideas and hands this responsibility over to a single individual. I find it dangerous when others view an expert as the exclusive authority. Doing so potentially undermines the psychological safety within the room as dissent from within may not be welcomed by those who brought the expert in.
Economist Noreena Hertz in her Ted Talk (yes, I know) says that “we’ve become addicted to experts. We’ve become addicted to their certainty, their assuredness, their definitiveness, and in the process, we have ceded our responsibility, substituting our intellect and our intelligence for their supposed words of wisdom.”
If I dislike being labelled an expert, what about consultant? And is there a difference?
Being labelled an expert is counter to the philosophy & values I bring to my work. I believe the solutions to the specific challenges individuals, teams and organisations face come from within. These challenges are also contextual and therefore so are the solutions. As an insider, you know your organisation better than me. You understand the culture, the politics and business imperatives better than a guest.
I am drawn to the definitions of expert and consultant by the Institute of Management Consultants who suggest that there is a profound difference between the two:
“An expert is generally regarded as one who has specialised knowledge of a domain or discipline. This knowledge may be validated by widespread acceptance by others with similar knowledge or by users of this knowledge. This resident ability may come from experience, training, education apprenticeship or a combination thereof. We generally seek out experts to make decisions or acquire knowledge for ourselves. Recognised expertise often takes years of applied effort to achieve.
A consultant is one who uses knowledge, ability or a process to resolve a problem, suggest a course of action or create new knowledge. In contrast to an expert, in whom usually resides information that serves as an answer to a problem, a consultant brings a suite of attributes and abilities to create a solution. These attributes may include expertise but usually extend to independence, objectivity, analytical processes, extensive skills in pattern recognition, communication, and emotional intelligence.”
As you can see, the value of a consultant is to be able to correctly diagnose and effectively transform an often ill-defined problem and apply information, resources and processes to create a workable and usable solution.
Some experts are good consultants and vice versa, some are neither, few are both.
I recall an inhouse workshop exploring topics linked to organisation development and learning. The organisation placed great value on research, science and having an academic mindset. After listening to an in-depth presentation, the audience was still non the wiser as to what to do with this new knowledge. How to apply the imparted wisdom and expertise … in a way that also justified the associated price tag! Only after key individuals took on a consulting role was progress made. A context specific course of action linked to business performance was established and the work got underway.
I am not suggesting we don’t need experts. We do. Experts bring depth to their area of expertise that the rest of us can pick up, apply and add breadth. Let’s just not confuse the role of the expert.
I hope that in the context of my work, I am of greater value to a client as a consultant. That I use my knowledge, skills and experience to support others and make a difference. And what I have learned over the years, is as Albert Einstein said “the more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.’
 Jan, v. H., Grönlund, A., Mussari, R., & Ruggiero, P. (2012). Exploring public sector managers’ preferences for attracting consultants or academics as external experts. Qualitative Research in Accounting and Management, 9(3), 205-227. doi:http://dx.doi.org.hult.idm.oclc.org/10.1108/11766091211257443