4 Ways To Be Seen as a Successful Leader — Even When You’re Not the Expert

Woman sitting in front of laptop with headlines explaining.

Adobe Stock

Profile Picture
Mary Despe83
Recruiter, Advisor, Writer, Presenter.
May 23, 2024 at 12:27PM UTC

There comes a time in a professional’s career where they're asked to lead a team. However, you never picture your first leadership experience to be guiding a group that knows more than you do. Though you may be excited that you were chosen for the opportunity, you're might also be a bit panicked because you don’t know where to start. Here are four key things to remember to help you lead a team when you are not the expert.

1. Realize that this is a part of professional growth. 

While it's a bit scary to lead when you have limited expertise in a specific area, the reality is that this is common. As people move up within the ranks of a company, leaders must make decisions about things they do not have first-hand knowledge of nor direct experience with all the time. 

It's easy to understand your importance when you're recognized for subject matter expertise. But when you advance professionally, you'll find a new challenge in how you continue to add value to a company. It becomes about finding ways to make your mark beyond being an individual contributor. It may be new territory for you professionally, but it's a natural part of growth you will encounter as a rising leader. 

2. Showcase others and don't steal the spotlight.    

Others might play key roles to develop the concept around the winning campaign, provide the critical strategy to enter a new market or design product features that will revitalize the customer base. However, it's important to remember what your role is. As the leader, you're not there to dazzle in the same way that the star contributors do. According to Linda Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of Being The Boss, you should focus on "setting the stage," providing the support and resources your team needs to succeed. Your purpose is to empower your team to do its job well, focusing on activities that position them in the best place to succeed.   

For example, if your team is tasked to re-engineer a process that's meant to engage customers quicker and with more personalized attention, it makes sense to seek input from people who were involved in creating the initial process. But instead of asking them to simply report on how things work, encourage them to participate in more powerful ways. Have them lead the sessions that focus on the content matter or allow them the opportunity to address the executive team’s questions rather than saving it as an opportunity just for yourself. After all, aren’t they the experts that know how things should work? While other leaders exercise control over every part of a project, you shouldn't be that person. You could be more effective by reading the situation as a chance to engage your team in meaningful ways. Give your others the platform to share insight that benefits the overall goal when they can speak to it better than you could. By allowing this, you promote the best ideas on how to solve a problem while fostering respect, humility and trust with your colleagues.   

3. Stay on top of your game by providing a big-picture context and awareness of the overall business impact.

 Your team might be experts in their domain of knowledge, but you're the master behind the curtain. You know the ways that your team’s efforts may make or break a situation. You also have access to all the information that tells the story of why their activities are important. To tell the story of how their work impacts broader organizational goals, you provide the context and detail to your team about all the activities that they might not see nor realize. By providing timely and accurate information, you can provide a complete look at the business, educating everyone involved in the project with the details that create the overall picture. This is a great skill to have, as you’ll be able to play a key role found in leadership. Instead of staying in a single area of expertise within the company, you’re able to communicate the intricacies end-to-end, bridging the technical aspects of the business to the overall strategic vision.

4. Cultivate your leadership skills so that you become the person everyone wants to work for.  

Being in charge provides a unique opportunity to directly impact others’ careers. As a leader, you can influence the destiny of others' professional experiences in several ways. From giving a stellar performance review to providing the forum for people to share ideas regularly, you set the tone for how your team members are treated.   

Maya Angelou’s quote says it all:  “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It's important to recognize the power of personal interactions. When you're a leader, others look to you to establish the "rules of engagement" while working together. They seek to understand how they will be treated on a project and hope to gain clues from the ways you behave. Are you providing an environment where people are encouraged to innovate processes or are they pigeonholed into predictable roles? You create a space that speaks to how team members participate. By establishing the practice within teams to foster open conversation, respect, and the opportunity for growth, you will build a leadership reputation that is admired by all.


Mary Despe is the owner of MK Despe Consulting, a recruitment company based in Honolulu, Hawaii. She helps job seekers land the opportunities they desire and coaches companies on how to build high-performing teams. Sign up to receive monthly tips on careers, hiring, and the job search at marydespe.com.

Why women love us:

  • Daily articles on career topics
  • Jobs at companies dedicated to hiring more women
  • Advice and support from an authentic community
  • Events that help you level up in your career
  • Free membership, always