I was having a conversation with Professor Andy Rosman, Dean of the Silberman College of Business at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a few weeks ago and I said that I tell young managers all the time, "If the textbook works, keep reading and applying it, but if it doesn't, don't be afraid to go off script." Prof. Rosman nodded and replied, "You just defined what it means to be an expert."

Expert. This is one of the most over-used words you'll ever hear. Many people will refer to a particular individual as an expert or describe themselves as one. Certainly, curricula vitae are designed to represent people as experts. But how do you know, especially when your business depends on it, that you're dealing with a genuine expert? This is particularly critical in startups because when everything is on the line, there is rarely enough time or resources to permit rounds of trial and error.

On several occasions, I hired someone whom I thought was an expert but was far cry removed. In every instance, the person had many years of experience working at companies recognized as leaders in their respective fields. In one case, I hired a person in an area that I know very, very well. In two other cases, I hired experts in areas about which I had known little. In all three situations, I assumed their experience was aligned with the challenges we were facing, or sufficiently analogous that they would be able to facilely extrapolate their past successes to my present problems. I empowered them and gave them the benefit of the doubt, not watching over the shoulder, not holding them to quantifiable deliverables and schedules because, after all, they were experts. However, that was a big mistake as a lot of time passed and a lot of money was wasted before I realized they weren't getting things done. So, when Andy said that I had just defined "expert," he touched a nerve.

He then sang the refrain of Kenny Rogers' The Gambler--"You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run." (Kenny, you have nothing to worry about!) Andy added that the domain of card playing has a finite set of alternatives compared to the world of entrepreneurship and innovation management in business, but the same rules apply.

For the next two hours, Andy explained the qualities of an expert:

  1. Knowledge. An expert knows how to be rigid and how to be flexible. So, step number one on the road to becoming an expert is having (a) demonstrated competence in applying the tried-and-true approaches that are taught in business school and reinforced daily in the office, as well as (b) having prowess in devising and implementing creative solutions that work.
  2. Experience. The universe of experiences that an expert can call upon is much larger than that of the novice. Often, an expert just knows more and calls upon very similar experiences to solve the problem. An expert has seen more examples of the rigid prescriptions working, and she has seen more instances of creative solutions, and the attendant trial and error, winning the day. So, take home message, Harvey Specter on Suits could not have been an expert the day after graduating from law school.
  3. Adaptability. This is much more than just creativity. Motivation is a huge part of being able to adapt--to go off script and deviate from the tried and true rigid approaches. Another is appetite for risk--no one ever got fired for buying IBM, but many businesses failed by not having the right systems for their needs. The ability to extrapolate from analogous experiences is critical, because the creativity has to be applied within the context and constraints of the current dilemma.
  4. Judgment. Armed with the aforementioned traits, what makes a real expert is a sixth sense. Is now the time for me to break script and extrapolate, or should I create an entirely new solution? Or do I try to retrofit a similar experience to solve this problem? How do I know if this is the right thing to do? A big part of judgment is intuition. In the end, is becoming an expert all about an "it" factor? I think not--intuition without knowledge and a rich set of analogous experiences from which to extrapolate is just a hunch, simply shooting from the hip. Sure lightning strikes, but an expert is someone who demonstrates adaptability and judgment time and time again.

Still, it would be nice to measure an "it" factor, wouldn't it? Prof. Rosman tells me that "it" first needs to be defined and then measured, and if not directly, maybe indirectly through surrogates. He is working on a project to develop distinguishable profiles for those who have "it" vs. those who don't. Soon, we might have an answer.

Imagine that--being able to identify an expert before the fact. That would have come in handy for me in the three instances, cited above, where not only were time and money wasted, but my credibility with the team. Think of it--you announce to the team that you are bringing in this hot shot expert. Several people on the team are already upset because they weren't promoted into the position, so they have it out for the new guy. You are undeterred--in fact, you stand by your man with even greater conviction than usual. And, you are proven wrong. You look like a fool. No, this is not a Direct TV commercial; it is life, the life of your startup.

The hard lesson is that when you're seeking a true expert, look for these four qualities between the lines of the CV's, and ask for specific instances where these qualities were demonstrated.

I wish that I had.