Management Matters
Published in

Management Matters

How to Help Subject-Matter Experts Solve Thorny Problems without Making a Fool of Yourself

My two hours of googling will never beat your years of professional experience.

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

I knew next to nothing about the business, but I knew that agency life was my calling.

And I was determined to turn my foot-in-the-door into a rewarding career.

To be taken seriously, I needed to be knowledgeable about my clients’ business and be an expert on selling.

People appreciate you more if you take an interest in their problems.

That drive helped me transition from an expert to a leadership position quickly.

But riding on the tails of late nights and weekends spent working was my imposter syndrome.

The harder you grind, the more you get stuck.

If anything, my responsibilities have only multiplied over the years.

Strategy is problem-solving, and building operations take collaboration.

And the favourite part of my job is working with my clients and other experts.

I’m grateful that I get to do that every day.

But as a leader, I’m responsible for supporting more than myself or my clients.

I’m responsible for supporting both my team as well as my colleagues across the organisation.

And there’s absolutely no way for me to absorb and synthesise every detail on every client.

Believe me, I tried.

And only managed to drive me closer to burnout. Twice.

Thankfully, there’s a better way.

And it’s coaching.

It has less to do with talking and selling your ideas and everything to do with listening and supporting others.

I use two ways of coaching at work.

Teaching others how to solve a problem.

The most common form of coaching is teaching others what you already know.

I learnt online marketing as an entrepreneur building my own business.

In my first two jobs, first at a media and then at a digital agency, I could teach most basic skills and work with senior experts on others.

I don’t get to use this method much and rely on the second way of coaching in my current job.

Working with others so they can find a solution on their own.

I currently lead a team of senior strategists, each an expert in their own field.

I can support my team with marketing strategy and operations. But beyond that, I don’t know nearly enough about brand communication, service design, or managing influencer relations to teach people more experienced than me.

Beyond my team, there are client leads, creatives, art directors, and clients.

Productive collaboration with all of them is an essential part of my job.

Coaching experts from different fields.

Imagine jumping into coaching others, who clearly know more about their field than you, with imposter syndrome.

You can’t effectively help others when you’re constantly worried you’re gonna get caught as a fraud.

This is where I found Sir John Whitman’s GROW coaching model extremely helpful.

GROW stands for:

  • Goal
  • Reality
  • Options
  • Will

It’s one of the simplest aids for coaching and mentoring others because the model assumes that the coach isn’t an expert in the field.

Instead, you must act as a facilitator, helping the expert discover the best course of action without offering advice or solutions.

G for GOAL

Start the session by establishing the outcome the expert is after. Ask questions such as:

  • What is your expected result of this session?
  • What is the goal related to the problem you’re solving?

This will help you establish a purpose and boundaries for the session.


Ask explorative questions — what, who, where, when, how — to help the expert gain a deeper understanding of the problem.

Remember, creating space for people to think and helping them get unstuck is far more valuable than giving them a half-baked solution.

Your only job is to actively listen and ask questions that encourage further exploration, such as:

  • What are the benefits of the solution?
  • What will it take to get the desired results?
  • Who are you helping?
  • What have you done so far?
  • Where did you get stuck?


Too much choice is paralysing. It’s your job to help narrow down the options, with questions like:

  • What different options do we have?
  • What are the pros and cons of each option?
  • How much budget or resources will you need?
  • Do you have enough time to deliver the solution?
  • What would you do if you had no restraints?

W for WILL

This one’s my favourite because, As the coach, you’re responsible for helping the expert succeed.

And the only way for them to succeed is by solving the problem; you must help them decide whether they can commit to solving it and how:

  • What are you going to do next?
  • What kind of help do you need and from whom?
  • How much time can you commit to this?
  • By when are you going to get it done?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how committed are you to getting this done?

Managing yourself when coaching.

These are just a few examples.

And you should always phrase your questions to fit your style and the context of your conversation.

It’s essential to embrace silence. Do not try to fill it.

Only ask one question at a time. You can clarify or rephrase it, but give the other person a chance to answer before asking the next question.

I recommend leaving your phones and laptops behind unless they’re essential for the conversation.

Ask the expert to send you pre-reading material or a short memo beforehand. This is especially handy when solving problems related to a project.

You can listen and take notes.

But if doing two things at once is too much, start by only listening.

Originally published at on July 28, 2021.




There's plenty out there for the C-suite. What about the rest of us-the high potential managers & up-and-comers. The future C-suite. Real leadership & management advice for front- and middle-management. A publication focused on management matters, because great management matters

Recommended from Medium

Gratitude to Tax Payer

Decision Making & Workplace Meetings — Eleven Tips From The Book “How Google Works”

How to make promotions without stress talks

con·ver·sa·tion (My year in review)

Insider Tips: Working Remotely Across Time Zones

Dallas Neighborhoods

The perfect job doesn’t exist…

EA ski and snowboard, castle mountain resort, canada

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


My life’s mission is to help you achieve success at work by doing fewer things better.

More from Medium

Why Co-Creating Is Better Than Solving Problems Alone

Bias in Leadership Development is Real — Now What?

Leaders, focus on the umbrella

5 Ways to Work Past the Overwhelm AKA Analysis Paralysis