Smart leaders hire people who are way smarter than themselves. But how do they maintain the respect of their employees?

Most leaders rose through the ranks because they were experts in a particular field. But once you're at the top, your expertise in a specific field is less relevant. You need to lead the team, and you can't get hung up on not being the best-informed person in the room.

Wanda Wallace, president and CEO of coaching and consulting firm Leadership Forum, and David Creelman, CEO of human capital management firm Creelman Research, write in Harvard Business Review about how leaders deal with not being an expert anymore.

"Leaders who come up an expertise track almost always derail here, because they react to the challenge by relying on their core strengths: high intelligence and the capacity for hard work," Wallace and Creelman write. The duo say you should refrain from trying to be an expert when you reach this level. You have more important things to do, and your team has all the expertise you need. If you pretend, or try to cram, it'll end poorly.

"Your staff, who know a lot more about their domain than you do, won't respect you, your lack of confidence in the details will show when you talk to top management, and your attempt to work twice as hard as you already are will wear you down," they write.

What you need to do is focus on what Wallace and Creelman call the generalist leadership style. Read below on how to transition from being a specialist leader to a generalist.

Build up your relationships.

You were all about the facts before, but now it's all about the relationships you build. "A specialist manager knows what to do; the generalist manager knows whom to call," Wallace and Creelman write. "The specialist leader tells her staff the answer; the generalist brings them together to collectively find the answer." 

To build up your relationships with your employees, you need to log a lot of face-to-face time to tap into their skills and talents. "In the generalist style, you are constantly adapting your approach to the individual and the situation, and that means knowing people very, very well," Wallace and Creelman write. "Flying overseas just to have dinner with an important colleague is not a waste of time--any more than it would be a waste of time to do so for a key client."

Don't do the work, but enable the work.

As the expert, you were actually doing the work. But as the generalist, you are an enabler--your role is to help the experts get the work done. "A big part of enabling things to happen when you are not the expert involves knowing when to leave things alone and when to intervene," the authors write. "This isn't easy, because you have a broad array of responsibilities and you need to be able to tell at a glance where trouble lurks."

Make sure your direct reports aren't blocking the way for subordinates to succeed. Wallace and Creelman suggest that you sit in on meetings and make sure the dynamic between employees and bosses is two-way, and that lower-level workers are not passive.

Get past the details and see the big picture.

Your value as a leader lies in your ability to see the big picture and how things fit together. "You might think of the specialist leader as heads-down, deep in concentration, plotting a detailed course on a map, while the generalist is heads-up, looking around and noticing what is going on," they write.

To practice this big-picture thinking, consultant Rob Kaiser says you should take a major problem and think about how it affects employees two levels below you. Then think about how it affects the board and the investors. "It's a simple tactic to describe, but it really challenges you to think deeply, and you can develop a perspective that will make a real difference to the organization," Wallace and Creelman write. "Having a perspective that makes a difference is the value generalist leaders bring to the organization and one that may be noticeably absent in heads-down specialist leaders."

Don't have all the facts, but have a big presence.

When you're an expert, the facts you have at your disposal speak for themselves. But when you're not the expert anymore, you need "executive presence." "When people who have presence walk into a meeting, notice how they dress, how they speak, how they stand--these are not personality traits, they are skills," Wallace and Creelman write.

Effective political leaders, for example, are relaxed and succinct, but they foster an emotional connection with the audience when they speak. You may be nostalgic about the time when you were the expert with all the facts, but leadership is beyond any one area of expertise.

"The transition to generalist management can signal the end for successful specialist managers," Wallace and Creelman write. "But if you realize that you no longer have to be, or even should be, the expert, this can be the most fulfilling and satisfying moment in your career. Your role as a leader is to bring out the best in others, even when they know more than you. The good news is that the tactics described above have helped many leaders across this treacherous gap, and they can work for you too."

Published on: Jun 19, 2015