Most companies have staff people who provide functional expertise in such areas as accounting, legal affairs, technology, finance, human resources, quality control, regulatory compliance, public relations and many more. They face a dilemma, however, when asked to weigh in on broader managerial decisions since it means transcending their domain of expertise and professional norms perhaps. Medical doctors face the same problem when a patient asks, "What would you do if you were in my shoes doc?" Of course, physicians cannot fully place themselves in your shoes due to personal issues, such as your willingness to undergo various levels of treatments, your risk-taking attitude and pain tolerance, or your family's support system or financial means.
Staff people likewise cannot easily put themselves in the role of the manager or leader. So how do you turn one-trick ponies into show horses who can make bigger contributions to the business?
Questions Specialists Should Ask Themselves
Consider a finance specialist whose current job is to give advice on tax accounting, debt restructuring and acquisitions. Suppose she is promoted to become the "finance point" in a small management team of a growing new business line and is now asked to add value broadly to the company. How ready is she for that and will it work? A good start is to ask the person to answer the following questions and then share the answers honestly with her new boss.
Q1. How do you see the finance support role you are asked to play in your position? (a) a technical expert available when called upon, (b) full/equal member of the management team, (c) protector of the firm's overall value in terms of capital allocation, fiduciary obligations, and risk management, or (d) provider of essential finance numbers and summaries. Note that these are not mutually exclusive answers, so the person should pick the one or two that best describes her current self-view, as honestly as possible.
Q2. Next, the specialist needs to ask her new internal clients: How do they see her current and future roles? This will help assess if the specialist actually understands what each team member expects. The staff person's perceptions can later be compared with what these internal clients actually think, as well as what they expect or actually need from a broader organizational perspective. Most crucial is the degree of alignment with the new boss, who may consider all members of his management team as specialists versus expecting each of them to put themselves readily in the shoes of the boss and give advice accordingly.
Understanding the Deeper Challenges
This key issue is well addressed in a classic book titled HR From the Outside In, which argues that human resource managers, for example, need to expand their horizons from hiring, policy and benefits administration to deeply understanding the strategic role of human capital in a business's success. This means transcending the "employee relations" sub-function, which has been by tradition a compliance role. To support the business overall, the HR person may have to master new competencies such as strategic thinking, effective advocacy, technological savvy, problem solving etc. And in addition, he or she needs to hew to various HR norms that may conflict with these additional other roles.
Now let's consider a finance person on the management team. Ask these questions to help pinpoint where the conflicts lie.
Q3. When producing reports and presentations, or in team meetings, what are the biggest obstacles in going beyond the data and synthesizing relevant issues for the business?
(a) Insufficient strategic understanding of the issues, (b) lack of training in seeing the forest for the trees, (c) expectations (implicit or explicit) from others to stay in the finance lane, (d) reputational risk of making the wrong call, (e) occupational ethos of sticking to the facts and leaving soft judgments to others, or (f) when not sure what the crux of the business problem is, play it safe and give a lot of information so all angles are covered?
Q4. Broadly speaking, what are the main reasons why staff specialists shy away from synthesizing the data for broader insights? (a) Not clear what this mandate means, practically speaking, (b) too busy with reporting or other analytical tasks I am also supposed to do, (c) current incentives are not well aligned with what you want from me, (d) the team dynamics with my internal clients are not supportive of me playing a more strategic role, or (e) the organization's culture rewards us being reactive and playing it safe.
Q5. The role of a strategic advisor, technical expert or internal consultant in a service organization is also very much about clear communication and simplicity. What makes this challenging for you? (a) Limited understanding of what my internal client really wants or needs, (b) hard for me to speak their language, (c) I have a set repertoire of information to distribute without assessing its deeper business relevance, (d) it's difficult for me to simplify reports to their strategic essence, or (e) I don't feel that my voice or views carry much weight in the room.
Finding Practical Solutions
These five questions can generate an array of excellent or dysfunctional profiles, exceeding a thousand when you consider all answer combinations. But it's key to get at the root of the problem for a given specialist. Does it mostly concern their self-view and capabilities versus say the team dynamics on the client side (when taking into account other tasks on the plate). Or could the deeper issues be due to the organization's strategy, structure, procedures, internal expectations, compensation or even the internal culture. Unless there is alignment among these different components, the situation will not improve easily on its own. Consider, for example, the viewpoint of a senior pharma executive desiring broader inputs and value creation from his functional specialists.
He wrote "Strong managers are either leaders who have worked across multiple functions, which gave them diverse experiences to leverage, or individuals naturally skilled at leveraging different functional advisors to get the best answers. Being good functional advisors, in turn, comes down to strong communication skills and an ability to absorb other functional perspectives as well. Functional advisors should evolve their perspectives for the best possible outcome for the business, setting egos, career ambition and competitiveness aside. Diverse experiences or knowing how to extract the right information from functional advisors is what enables a manager or leader to see valuable levers across the business broadly, so that they can add more shareholder value."
Although compelling, the above view also requires deeper insight into the functional roles that matter most. Running through these questions will provide customized data for each analyst or specialist, such that solutions can be fashioned that better align the roles, tasks, constraints, self-images, skill sets, and incentives at play. The most challenging part in many cases is to find role models that already exhibit the desired behaviors, either in the company or elsewhere. Since the most successful executives probably served in specialist roles earlier, and did well enough to be promoted upward, use them as exemplars for others in the company.
The only caveat is that what worked well in the past may no longer be the most effective way now since leadership models have evolved considerably.