HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you. Being a great manager isn’t enough to lead others to success. You also need to deeply understand your organization’s core business. Leadership expert Amanda Goodall argues that the best leaders are technical experts – for example, doctors who lead hospitals or all-star basketball players who go on to manage teams. Goodall, a professor at Bayes Business School at the City University of London, studies the relationship between leaders and organizational performance. In this episode, you’ll learn how to approach the transition from expert individual contributor to a leadership role. And you’ll learn what to do if you’re a generalist managing experts. (Spoiler alert: self-awareness and listening skills are important.) This episode originally aired on HBR IdeaCast in April 2018. Here it is.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green Carmichael. Say that you called in sick today, but your work still had to get done. Could your boss jump in and do your job? If they could, you’re much more likely to be happy at work. That’s according to research conducted by our guest today, Amanda Goodall. She’s a senior lecturer at Cass Business School in London, and she studies expert leaders, like a great surgeon who runs a hospital, or a basketball star who goes on to become a coach. As it turns out, people managed by experts are much more engaged in their work than people who are managed by generalists, people who might be good administrators but who can’t actually do the surgery, or shoot the three-pointer. Amanda’s research finds that whole organizations perform better when they have technical experts in leadership roles. She’s here with us today to explain. Amanda, thank you for talking with us.
AMANDA GOODALL: Thank you for inviting me.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Why is measuring and showing the value of expert leaders important right now?
AMANDA GOODALL: I think it’s particularly important now because in a way expertise is falling out of favor. There’s been a big shift towards the rise of general managers in many organizations, but also expertise is sort of been criticized. There’s been a movement against experts in a way, and yet at the same time companies that are recognized for being the best places to work for are also more likely to be led by core business experts than those that don’t make it into those rankings. The first thing we had to do in our research was to establish that the experts were genuinely better leaders by looking at organizational performance. Once we’d found this pattern in hospitals, in universities, in sports areas like in, in basketball and F1 racing, we then had to try and look at the why, so what, what’s going on? Try and look at what we call the kind of transmission mechanisms, if you like, the way that this happens, the black box area. So, the first thing we found, and we looked at data with 35,000 U.S. and U.K. employees who were matched with their employers. And we found that if people responded in three different ways about their bosses — so if their boss had worked their way up through the organization or started the organization, if that boss was capable of doing the job of an employee, and if the employee considered their boss to be competent — that these were incredibly strong predictors of high job satisfaction among employees. So, to put it another way, if your boss really understands the nature of your work, then that predicts your job satisfaction.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, what is it exactly about managers who are experts that make them better leaders?
AMANDA GOODALL: What we have found is that actually they communicate better, they can assess someone better. And let’s just stop there for one second. Imagine if you’re being assessed by a manager who has no idea about the kind of job that you’re doing, doesn’t really understand it, hasn’t walked the proverbial walk before you. For them to assess what you’re doing and to help you advance in your career, it becomes very, very difficult. And this is a major, major finding, is that we find that if your boss understands the nature of the work, then they can actually help you. They can assess you well, and they can encourage you in the right direction to advance in your career, and that is a very important element for job satisfaction.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, it’s interesting that you mentioned something like communication because that’s a skill that is often considered a transferable skill. You’re a good communicator, you can communicate about anything. But it sounds like what you’re saying is that’s not necessarily true.
AMANDA GOODALL: Well, obviously, when I talk about experts, I’m holding constant the need to be trained in leadership and management. We’re not suggesting you pull someone randomly out of an operating theater or out of a sales room and put them on top of their organization. So, they need to learn a lot of those skills. So, put that aside though, for now. If you think about communicating, the way that I might communicate to someone that in a job that I have done myself and that I really understand the nuances, all the deep kind of understanding of the processes that go on, I might use words, terms, language, judgment that has come out of that, all that deep knowledge. And I could have had all sorts of training. I could be a great communicator. I could be — I could have a radio program, but if I don’t know how to get through to someone in their language, then in a sense all those communication skills are just surface; they’re irrelevant.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, I want to ask if those expert leaders have to be truly outstanding, or do they just kind of have to have enough knowledge to understand the work in a deeper way?
AMANDA GOODALL: In the university study, so, the 400 presidents in my study, they were all academics bar seven. It was the ones that left research early on in their career that went on to be associated with the least well-performing universities. Similarly, we found that pattern — so, if you look at basketball, it was the most outstanding basketball players that went on to make the best coaches. Now, that doesn’t mean every single doctor or every single basketball player, etc., is going to make a great leader. Not at all. It doesn’t mean that every manager isn’t going to make a great leader, but this is a pattern that I have found on average across a number of organizations.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, tell us a little bit about what you found with the basketball study specifically.
AMANDA GOODALL: This is work done with Larry Kahn at Cornell University and Andrew Oswald at Warwick. And we looked at 15,000 games, and we found that coaches who had had long playing careers in the NBA or who had been All Stars were associated with winning teams. In essence, we found that players who were really outstanding basketball players were more likely to go on to make outstanding basketball coaches. And those also that had long playing careers.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Yeah, it’s interesting to think about that in a field like basketball because in a field like being a doctor or being a scholar, you can do that for your whole life. You don’t even have to retire. You can do that into your 80s or 90s. But as a basketball player, you only really have a few years as a player, and then you have to do something else. And so, I’m curious to know kind of how you think your basketball fit with, or don’t fit with, maybe, some of the other fields you’ve studied.
AMANDA GOODALL: Well, yes, it’s interesting: different people have different lifespans in their careers. But to be honest, I think that’s an issue for all of the groups that we talk about. Maybe someone likes — does sales and really likes sales and could carry on selling for the whole of their career. Maybe someone — being a lawyer, for example, they love the detailed work of law, but they don’t want to become a leader, and they don’t want to become a manager. So, it’s true that some people have got natural ends to their careers. But, again, they may have made so much money in basketball that they don’t need to do it; that’s certainly the case in football. Some people make so much money they don’t need to go into it. I think, again, there will be some people who just don’t want to go into this route. This is why I think incentivizing experts is so important.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That makes sense. I guess what I’m kind of picking up on is that if you are really an expert at your job, you might enjoy it very much. And as you’ve kind of pointed out there are some downsides to throwing your hat in the ring for leadership. It can be pretty punishing. Parts of it can be pretty boring. It’s a lot of meetings that kind of takes you away from the immediacy of the work. And there is a transition period that feels, just can be overwhelming. So, I feel a little bit like the basketball players kind of get pushed out of their expertise because they get older and they have to stop playing, and then it’s a natural thing to say, well, now I’m going to coach. Whereas if you are a scholar, you might say, you know, I’m perfectly happy being the best professor at Harvard University or wherever, and like I am never like never going to throw my hat in the ring for that top job that I might — like the university might need me to do that, but I might not want to do that.
AMANDA GOODALL: Well, that’s absolutely right. That is a big problem. Some of these experts, you might not want them to come in because they, they, they may lack other skills. They may like self-reflection and all of those. But this is why it’s the kind of issue that we need to be looking at as a society. I’ve given talks all around the world, and one of the things that I say is if you don’t take control of these organizations and throw your hat in the ring and become a leader, then you’re going to deserve what you get. If someone takes over and runs this place in a way that really is uncomfortable for you, they’ve created lots of managerial processes. Imagine you’re a journalist, and your boss comes in, and your boss is a manager from another sector. And you’re off running around the streets. You’re barely coming into the office. You’re just getting on with your job. Imagine that manager who doesn’t really know what you’re doing starts to think, well, maybe she’s lying on the Santa Monica beach instead of doing the job that she should be doing. So, then the manager thinks, I need to make sure I control these people more. So, they put a process in. They said they start to put processes in, and then they put more and more processes, and you have to start ticking boxes, and you have to start reporting back in, and the trust goes completely, and you get upset. Your job satisfaction goes, and you leave. This is a process that we have found in many organizations around the world, especially ones that are linked, say, to public sector or where government is involved. If your boss has done your job, they know that you’re not lying on the Santa Monica beach when they don’t hear from you for days; you’re actually working hard.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: I would love to hear a little bit more about what you studied in healthcare because I think it seems like hospitals run by doctors might be a little bit different than those that are run by people who don’t have that clinical experience.
AMANDA GOODALL: Well, there was a lot written about physician leadership. A lot of articles were talking about the important of it and chatting about a feeling in a sense that they felt — and this was in many medical journals, had written about physician leadership, but there had been very little, very simple empirical evidence at all to show, well, are they running hospitals at the moment, and are those hospitals working — is it working out quite well. So, when I did this, I had already replicated the finding in basketball and in Formula One, in hospitals, in various other settings. I started off just looking at the U.S. News & World Report best hospital ranking, and I looked at the top 100 hospitals across three specialisms. I separated the CEOs out from the manager CEOs and the M.D. CEOs, so, a very, very simple relationship, and just looked at the hospitals that were ranked, and I found that in all cases, hospitals that were ranked higher were more likely to be led by physicians than they were by non-physician managers. And it was about 25% higher performance scores in those hospitals. Now, since then, and it was a very simple start — and I should say that empirically, we’re all aware that correlations don’t mean causality — but another study has replicated my finding; in fact, an American-based research group, and they have looked at the U.S. News finding again, and they’ve looked across the specialisms — I think there’s about 12 — and they’ve found exactly the same relationship. They’ve actually gone on, and they’ve looked at the financial management, and they’ve found that between managers and doctors, there is no different in the financial performance of hospitals, but there is a difference in the operating performance and in the ranked position.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: It seems like we’ve been on this track of valuing general managerial skill for so long that there could really be some profound changes to shifting to a new way of thinking about leadership. Even MBA programs are all sort of predicated on the idea that you come in as a technical expert, and then you learn a bunch of leadership stuff, and then you can basically go anywhere and do that thing. What are some of the implications of thinking about leadership in the way that we’ve been talking about it?
AMANDA GOODALL: I think it’s all about understanding the context into which management and leadership is going to happen. I’ve just set up a degree for doctors in leadership and management at Cass, and what we do is we give them like a drip, drip training, and then they go back. So, each time they come to us, they then return and go back into the organization, and they can use those skills immediately. I think the problem with taking people away, say, for a year or two degree right away from their context is that then they begin to forget about their context, and their management and their leadership stuff is learned sort of in a context-free environment almost. And I think that that can be problematic. That’s why I feel that doing really good outcomes-measured leadership and management within context is an important path. Now, if someone’s got to a certain level, and they are looking at becoming a CEO, say in a hospital, I think it’s great to do an MBA then and to mix with people from other settings, other organizations, and all the rest of it. Then you can bring that knowledge, that extra knowledge on top of all the context-specific knowledge that you’ve, you’ve had in the run up to that, but I think the, the proceeding years you should be doing leadership and training that really keeps you in your context and you keep looking back to that context and wondering how does this, how does this relate to that?
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, let’s take another scenario: say that you are managing a bunch of experts. You’re not an expert. What advice would you give to someone who finds themselves in that situation?
AMANDA GOODALL: So, first and foremost, I think you have to self-reflect. So, that means you need to psychologically face up to what you know and what you don’t know, head on. Don’t be defensive. Don’t be aggressive. Know and accept what you don’t know. I think that is step one. I think all leaders have to do that, but particularly someone who is managing experts and who they themselves are not one. I think second you have to choose a trusted expert lieutenant and then listen to what they say. You need humility, and you really need listening skills, I believe. I also think when it comes to things like hiring — so, say you were going to hire somebody else into your team, and you don’t really know what good looks like because your expertise doesn’t extend that far, again, in any hiring, if you want to hire the best expert, you’ve got to make sure that experts in that field are on that hiring panel, and you’ve put them on that hiring panel to work with you to help you identify the best expert. One of the interesting things that happens in both the United States and in the United Kingdom is that we have people like politicians or successful business people who often are put in positions of leadership in, say, universities or areas completely outside their domain. And the problem with them often is that they do suffer from hubris. They’re not great at listening. And I think one of the reasons that some of these things fail and one of the reasons that they succeed is when those people who are somewhat overconfident don’t then listen and understand where they are weak. Because they’ve been told for much of their life that they’re great politicians; they’ve run successful businesses; they don’t need to listen to anybody. So, one of the most important things is having humility and knowing when to listen.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, let’s put ourselves now in the shoes of someone who was working for a manager who is not an expert and who is not a kind of enlightened, humble listening kind of manager. If you’re working for someone who really doesn’t understand the work you do, is there something you can do about it to make your own situation better? How can you manage up in that kind of situation?
AMANDA GOODALL: Yeah, I guess it depends. There’s lots of ways you can do this. If you, if you can’t communicate with them yourself, if they’re really not open to listening to you, I guess where I might step is just say, You are my manager. Can you put yourself into my shoes, and this is the kind of world this is the world that I function in. Can you understand that? I mean, it’s very difficult if people really, if, if any leader or manager has no ability to self-reflect, and I think increasingly this is becoming the core competency that’s been recognized, as being able to hold a mirror up to ourselves. If they can’t do that and they don’t understand the world that you work in, then I think you’re somewhat screwed, actually. And I would say start looking for another job.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: You know, we alluded to it a little bit before, but I want to make sure we really put a fine point on it. In your view, how should your findings change the way organizations pick their leaders?
AMANDA GOODALL: What often happens in organizations is leaders end up being the people that throw their hat in the ring. They’re the keen ones, the ones that want to do it. They’re the ones who think, actually, I’m never going to be very good at this expertise core business, so, I might as well just dump that and go into management. And I think we have to be minded that we, that organizations should be picking and thinking about succession of their experts into leadership, that the people who want to be leaders aren’t necessarily always the ones that should be leaders. So, for example, we have fast-track programs in many organizations. Do we know that that’s always right? Do we not think that maybe 10 years of doing that job before they get they get pushed upwards is possibly more sensible? Do we think that that way they will really understand the way that their colleagues work, and then you could think about pushing them up? I think organizations have really got to think also all the way through, that you want expertise on in the boardroom, you want expertise in the C suite, and you want it running all the way through the organization. Maybe not everyone, obviously, this isn’t a black and white rule, but on average that’s the way you want. You want to think about the expertise dropping like a fountain through the organization. If we look at the best places to work, for example, then you can see that those bosses in those organizations on average, because I’ve done some recent research in them, they have been in those organizations for a long time, or they started those organizations. You can see it. It’s an amazingly strong pattern. These people are often been in for a long time as well. This is another factor: when we have CEOs that move around organizations all the time, I think that’s a big, big problem also. Again, I think the experts are much more likely to take the long view. I think they’re more likely to think about succession and about staying somewhere for awhile. So, it’s sort of, it’s bedding down a little bit more. And that doesn’t mean that you’re not open to innovation. This is another thing that gets chucked at experts: oh, well they’re not open to innovation; they get stifled. But that’s not necessarily true. If you continue to hire the best people in that field, you’re going to be bringing innovation in through the ground up if you continue to do that.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, you’ve studied expert leadership in basketball teams, Formula One, hospitals, academia. I’m wondering, what are you working on now? What’s coming next? Is there a field you really would like to study that you sort of have on your radar but you know, haven’t studied yet? You know, what’s coming next?
AMANDA GOODALL: I’m still doing a lot of work with hospitals, actually. I’m thinking, funnily enough about things like succession. We’re still doing studies around succession planning, but also the other side of it is trying to understand more about these transfer processes: what exactly is going on in the black box. And then beyond that, I’m looking further afield at other organizations more widely just to keep trying to replicate this pattern. And I think looking at the study that we did where we established that job satisfaction is one of the key variables that’s bringing the effect from expert leaders, that’s in organizations across every kind of setting you can imagine. It’s still quite an unfashionable thing, what I’m arguing. I remember one leadership researcher and once saying to me, gosh, it’s really counter intuitive, and I’d say, really, wanting a boss that knows something about the business is counter-intuitive? Now the fact that that prevails, the fact that people can say to me, this is counter-intuitive, that shows that I still got some way to go.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Well, Amanda, this has been really interesting. Thank you for spending some time with us today.
AMANDA GOODALL: Thank you.
HANNAH BATES: That was Amanda Goodall – in conversation with Sarah Green Carmichael on the HBR IdeaCast. Goodall is a professor of leadership at Bayes Business School at the City University of London. If you liked this episode, check out HBR IdeaCast wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. We’re a production of the Harvard Business Review – if you want more articles, case studies, books, and videos like this, be sure to subscribe to HBR at HBR.org. This episode was produced by Anne Saini, Ian Fox, and me, Hannah Bates. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.