Let’s say your business occasionally suffers a big loss. It could be caused by a rare problem with a very special customer, or an intermittent failure in the HVAC system. When things go wrong, it is a very bad day, disrupting productivity, or causing lost customers. Who in your organization is best at resolving these headaches quickly? Is it a thirty-five-year employee nearing retirement? Does the business hold its breath when this subject matter expert (SME) goes on vacation or is out with the flu?

Do You Have Enough Subject Matter Experts?

Sometimes organizations get into this situation due to the subtle orchestrations of their SMEs. They may feel threatened when asked to train others, and therefore perform this task poorly. They may do a minimal job of drafting step-by-step procedures; after all, they don’t want to share their “superpowers.” We can’t blame them, really. In return for their inability to develop competent successors, SMEs get job security and hero worship when they are able to pull the company back from the brink of disaster.

To solve this problem, start with a quiet heart-to-heart:

  • Acknowledge the value of the SME. “Pat, you have a true superpower with the lyophilization unit. You helped us set up the unit and get it to freeze-dry our delicate product to a perfect dryness without damaging it. You are still our top go-to person on the unit whenever anything goes wrong.” Now watch the look of pride expand across the face of your superhero.


  • Next, explain your position. “Pat, I’m really nervous that you’re our only expert on the system. It puts us in a shaky business situation, because you’re our only hope to prevent loss in a serious breakdown. Also, we would love to use your expertise in designing other systems. But we can’t free you up until you develop a few additional experts to take your place. We want to turn you into a master trainer in the short term so we can free you up for this important work in the next few months. Who would you recommend we select for you to train?”


  • Find a way to offer support and re-enforcement. “I hope you are excited about this opportunity. Please develop a list of objectives for the trainees, and let’s meet weekly for a few minutes so they can tell me what they have learned. Let me know what I can do to help in those meetings. Thank you—I know this is going to work!”

The more conversations leaders have like this, the more organizations unlock the skills that need to spread to make the company more flexible and resilient to change.

Partner with Katy Caselli for a Development Planning Workshop that brings real results as well as a Train the Trainer course that prepares SMEs with a fun and interactive workshop-style course.

Also, check out her Course catalog at www.BuildingGiants.com for other courses in Leadership, Employment Law, Technical Writing and more.