Let’s say your organization uncovers a weak point in the coverage of workforce development. It could be a rare problem with a very special customer or an intermittent failure in the HVAC system. 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?
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 XYZ Dryer unit. You are 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 this, it puts us in a shaky business situation. Also, we would love to use your expertise in installing other units. 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.
- Find a way to offer support and re-enforcement. “I hope you are excited about this opportunity. We will send you to a Train the Trainer course where I’d like you to create a plan to train three other high potentials on the unit.
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.
By the way, the method our leader takes with the Subject Matter Expert follows the Building Giants method (see the image below): The leader found a business need (free up expert time and create more experts) and assigned the SME to both get training and conduct training. In the third step, the SME is assigned to train others and get them up to speed as budding experts. The final part, evaluation, is a quick assessment: Did the need go away and how so? Success in this scenario is more experts, and an expert trainer with much more time on their hands for advanced work. What did it cost? A seat in a Train the Trainer class, and time spent in permanent skills increase.
Also, your organization may enjoy some additional benefits: Increased chance of keeping your three new experts, due to increased engagement and interest in their job and learning more. The experienced expert may also bring a wealth of experience to a new problem. The company may have had to hire a new expert to install new units, a huge time and cash drain in recruiting.
Trained and engaged employees are more ready for internal promotions and cost less that externally hired leaders. They even have a much lower failure rate in new roles.
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