Being an ‘expert’
Yesterday the Envato coaching team, which I am a part of, had our quarterly offsite (onsite). The agenda for the day was: to review our personal OKRs from last quarter, address the anonymous feedback given about the coaching team in a survey that is conducted semi-regular across all the service groups of the company, develop team OKRs for the coming quarter, rejig our team practices, define different levels of coaching service to better serve across the company and, to finish, talk Coach Brand.
That last one…that one sticks in my throat. That one sits in the same place as my discomfort of my own self promotion. That session was challenging for me. It wasn’t assisted by being at the end of a day that was productive but also intensive. It’s a fine line between being challenged to step up to confront your uncomfortable place and a need to be accepted for your core feelings. I won’t pretend I didn’t come out unscathed.
Despite my discomfort with team (and self) promotion I also understand that it is needed. I am acutely aware of some of the cynicism directed towards the coaching team. Both direct and indirect feedback has been given questioning our value, style and qualifications. The core of it appears to be the perception that as ‘non-tech’ our validity as having authority of knowledge is questionable. I don’t take this personally. If you let it, it can be exhausting to, at times, feel the pressure to prove yourself. It would be easier if colleagues came from a place of, at the very least, giving us the benefit of the doubt and demonstrate belief that we are able to help them.
Humans are human and in the modern workplace there is regularly research and observations that trust is one the largest contributing factors to high performing teams. Trust needs to be earned. And so the coaches must earn the trust of the internal tech community. It is worth noting that results from the survey of service groups, at least in regard to the coaches (we do not see other team’s results), indicate that the more contact an individual has with the team the higher they score us. The few low scores received only came from those who had very little to do with us. An indicator that we need to raise the awareness of what it is that we do.
As a part of the exercise of defining how we build the coaching brand we individually identified why we thought it was important to have one. One word that came up and grated on me, as it has before, was ‘expert’.
I know that I’m not the only one who struggles with the concept of expert. I’ve mentioned previously one of the tools we use for teams to self assess themselves along attributes of a high performing team. One of the ratings in the self assessment reads ‘expert’ and then has a definition. A number of times a few participants have commented on how they struggle to identify themselves as experts. I ask them to focus on the definition and they can often identify with that far easier. I empathise with them.
So why do I fight against labelling myself as an expert? And to be perfectly honest I don’t give that label to others too often either! To me an expert is someone who has extensive subject matter expertise. They may not know everything but they can speak with genuine authority. If you ask a question they can answer clearly and often succinctly with an obvious depth of knowledge/experience sitting behind that answer. If you challenge them they either seek to use fact not opinion to hold their point of view and/or they are open to discuss the alignment in the opinions. It’s quite possible, I hold people I consider an expert too high on a pedastool. After all, the dictionary states a simple definition “A person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area”. But this discomfort of identifying myself as an expert won’t shift easily.
A big part of it is that I don’t think being an expert is the object of my working life. It’s not what drives me. I know that I have moments of being very good at what I do. But what gives me purpose is akin to seeing a light bulb go off in the expression on someone’s face as something I’ve asked them has triggered an awareness from within that person. That’s one of my strengths, my ability to be in tune with that person and ask powerful questions.
Not being an expert has stood me in good stead in the past. Many years ago I was employed as the Producer of the AFL website, I knew next to nothing about football but I was good at managing website development. And that is what I did, leaving content production to those in the know. My indifference to the sport, and more so a particular team, meant that I could focus on delivering a site which covered all things, more or less, equally.
I’m not interested in being an expert. I am enthusiastic about learning. So how do I keep that the focus? As something that resonates with me from within the coach brand? For me there is no simple answer. It’s one that I will keep mulling over.