How to lead experts when you are not one?

So you’ve got the dream Brand Manager role or just been assigned to lead the coolest multi-functional marketing project. It is high profile and rich in resource, be it funding or manpower. But there is one problem. You have to work with the most notorious sales guy involved in this project. He is also Leading expertsinvolved because this is his area of expertise thanks to his long years in the company. And…. let’s say he is not the biggest fan of your type: marketing hotshot in mid twenties. How will you lead him to achieve outstanding results? In other words, how will you lead the experts when you are not one of them?

The situation is common for most of us who go through the ranks of brand management, who are expected display leadership early on in their career. To cope with these responsibilities, Brand Managers are chosen among high profile marketing talent and put through a competitive and meritocratic system to develop in “up or out” career systems. Yet, not all departments have the same fast track and junior leader – senior functional partner tension is almost unavoidable. Moreover, it is seen as a test by top management for Brand Managers to overcome these barriers, so learning them early in your career is key. Here are few tips to lead experts, when you are not one of them:       

Don’t be intimidated by experts: Respect the expertise of your functional partners, yet do not over-estimate their expertise. Easier said than done, first establish the roles in your mind:  You as the “leader” and “Expert” as the consultant. This means two things: One, ultimate responsibility lies with you. Two, expert is there to help you, not to block you. Setting this mental rule will help you to listen their advice and direction, but will give you the backbone when to disagree. When you feel you are pushed to make a decision that doesn’t feel right, remember the first mental rule: Ultimate responsibility lies with you.

Penetrate the subject to build your knowledge: One of the most common mistakes I see in junior marketing people is lack of their willingness to learn cross disciplines such as finance, sales, logistics or research. Yet most functions are not built on academic knowledge but mostly common sense. The backgrounds of people working in logistics or finance are hardly different than the backgrounds of marketing people. And you would be amazed to learn so much about another function when you take your functional partner out for lunch and ask him to explain his job and challenges to you. When I took over a Brand Manager assignment for a leading shampoo brand in Turkey, I was the fastest promoted among my peers yet I had no clue about the managing its financials in a post crisis, hyper inflationary environment. Instead of ducking, I went straight to Senior Finance Manager and asked him to teach me how to manage the financials. Not only he was surprised to my humble approach, but also he got the satisfaction of teaching me what he knows the best. I later on applied this learning technique to many other subjects such as logistics, annual sales negotiations and public relations. What better way than learning from the best?        

Understand the goals of experts to drive alignment: You might often find yourself in conflict with multi-functional partners to deliver marketing goals against functional ones. This is quite common, particularly in matrix organizations. For example while you may want to build up the fastest distribution before a national launch, logistics department might want to minimize the inventories hence jeopardizing the speed of distribution. I never advice “arm wrestling approach” i.e. arguing the importance of fast distribution against the inventory costs. Instead, best way is to find win-win solutions such as reducing the inventory levels of regular products during launch to help functional partners deliver on their objectives without risking the new product launch. Such win-win solutions not only brings fast alignment, but respect of your partners.     

Don’t be afraid to challenge experts in their own back yards: This is one of my favorite quote from Colin Powell. If you penetrate deep enough, you will be equipped to discuss solutions to problems. Your biggest advantage is your freshness to the subject versus the experts who sometimes tend to be the victim of their own paradigms. While discussing a pricing problem for my shampoo brand in Turkey, I once offered a controversial solution to price it up dramatically after crisis against the key competitor and invest back to marketing to differentiate and justify premium,  against the stunned looks of my Senior Finance Manager and Sales Manager. Yet, I had already studied the price sensitivity well and discovered sweet spot above certain price range. Moreover, our brand was the most advertising sensitive brand in the market which could only benefit from increased marketing spending. When the Sales Managers questioned my business experience prior to this decision, my answer was: “I can think”. Against all odds, we executed the proposal and delivered record profitability without losing market share in the year of crisis. While the stunt elevated my fast track reputation to a new high, it gave me a lifelong experience to do my homework before challenging experts.  

Lead, lead, lead: One of the reasons of having more senior functional partners is driven by the fact that it is the choice of these individuals who prefer to pursue safe, focused careers. Yet, you will often see that when it comes to risk taking, experts are often drawn to people who are ready to take full responsibility to deal with management. In my experience, experts dislike politics of alignment and happily delegate this to the Brand Managers. This is where you can “help” them by overcoming the barriers by “managing management” or “securing resources / funds” that experts avoid to ask. It is quite expected from Brand Managers to develop early management influential skills. Once achieved, it gives you the “Reason to follow” status and grows your influence and “like” points in the organization.     

Working with experts from other disciplines can be one of the most satisfying professional experiences when done smartly. Enjoy the challenge of transforming them to your best supporters using these tips. Good luck!

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