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Business Insights from Andrea Hill

Expertise, Hubris, and Success

18 November 2019
How do you balance the requirement for expertise with the hubris that sometimes accompanies it? In this video, Andrea Hill explores this topic and makes to important suggestions.


 When I was a really young adult I set a goal of becoming the president or CEO of some significant sized organization by the time I was 30. And I achieved that goal. And then the first day in my brand new office at my brand new desk, when I should have been feeling flush with accomplishment. The feeling of responsibility for that accomplishment hit me like a buss. And I felt not only responsible for the organization's health, but also for the 200 plus people who worked for me, and the families that depended on them. So I began the process of figuring out what it takes to be responsible for a company. And over time, I've discovered three really important things. The thing I started with, the thing that got me to that 30 year old goal, was appreciation for the importance of expertise. We have to invest ourselves every single day in being an expert. And being an expert in running a business is different than being an expert in marketing or in selling or in being a doctor. Being an expert in business means that you have to have sufficient expertise in all of the areas that the business depends on to be successful. You don't have to be the biggest subject matter expert in those things. In fact, it's wise to bring people to work with you that are the biggest subject matter expert in each of those areas. But you have to have enough expertise in selling, in marketing, in product development or product acquisition or product manufacturing, or finance, and management and leadership 0151 all of the moving parts that make a business work. You have to have enough expertise in each of those areas, to be able to listen to and appreciate and support the true subject matter experts that you assemble to help you achieve your goals. So, expertise is really important.

There's also never a point at which you get to stop developing that expertise.There's no such thing as achieving all the expertise necessary to be the successful business person you want to be, because the world keeps changing, and as we've seen in the last 25-30 years, technology keeps changing. So what it takes to be successful keeps changing. And when I say this I'm sure you're thinking, Well, duh. But I keep encountering people running businesses who stopped developing. Maybe they stopped in 1982, or maybe they stopped in 1992, or maybe they only stopped in 2006, but business has changed so much even since 2006, that these people are now operating at a disadvantage, and so are their businesses, and the people that depend on them to keep that business going so that they can earn a livelihood - and their customers and their vendors because all of these people are partners in your business. So there's never a point at which you get to stop developing expertise. The older we get, the tireder  we get and the more we think "I just kind of like to chill out a little bit," the easier it is to give up the knowledge development, part of our work.

So, we show up every morning and we we do the work that needs to be done that day. And the thing that gets sacrificed is the constant investment in new learning. In fact, I had a friend who told me, and this is like 10 years ago now, "I'm tired of learning new stuff. I just want a year when I don't have to learn a bunch of new stuff." But that's not a living goal. That that's not something that people who are alive to decide to do. So, you have to keep learning, and you have to recognize that if you're going to sacrifice anything, because we are busy and we're raising kids, and then we get a brief break and then we're taking care of parents and the business demands so much of us and blah blah blah blah blah. The thing you cannot sacrifice is the professional and personal development. That doesn't get to happen.

So, we need to have expertise, and then we need to keep developing that expertise, because we realize that the world is going to change. And we need to keep changing with it. And then at some point, that expertise actually gets in our way. It got in mine, and I see a lot of other people for whom this is true. So I think it's something we have to watch out for. There is a hubris that comes with expertise, the sense that "I already know what needs to be done. I've done it well already, have done it well for years, I've had some crazy success stories so obviously my expertise is the answer."

But it's not, it never is or it might be enough of an answer but not the best answer. So the other thing we have to do is surround ourselves with people who are more innovative than us, or more intuitive than us, or more technical than us. We need to surround ourselves with people who have different types of deep subject matter expertise. But it's not enough to just surround ourselves with them. It's not enough to just have fun meetings with them and do brainstorming with them. Because if we walk away and do our own thing based on our comfort with our own expertise, then we're just wasting everybody's time. So we also have to make it safe and possible for those people that we surrounded ourselves with to actually have an impact. We have to listen to them, we have to try their ideas.

So there are two things that most of us have to get past in order to successfully do this. Well first,, there's these three things we need to do. 1) We need to get to a level of deep expertise, 2) we need to commit to never stopping developing that expertise, and then 3) we have to surround ourselves with people who have different types of intelligence in greater doses than our own, and we have to listen to them.

So what are the two barriers that get in the way of that? Well, the first is the resistance to learning. Most everything you need to know to learn to run a business is entirely within your grasp. So it's not like acquiring new knowledge is outside your ability. But when we're faced with learning something new, and technology is a good example, a lot of business leaders don't want to figure out how the technology in their business works. Or, they may be totally comfortable with understanding how the technology in their manufacturing environment works, but they don't want to have to learn how the technology in their marketing environment works. So technology is a good example.  We have this resistance to learning something new, and it's based on fear. We're usually intimidated by the idea that we have to learn this new thing, or it's based on just feeling like it's going to take more energy than we have. I mean, the truth is if you can get up and get in the car every morning and go to the office, or if you can get up and work at your bench, or if you can get up and jump on a plane and go visit customers, you're exerting the same level of energy that's needed for learning. You're just exerting it in a different area. We can get past our resistance to learning, if we can stop and say, "I need to learn this new thing, and I can."  Then that breaks through one of the two major barriers to be successful with 1) developing expertise, 2) continuing to develop our expertise and 3) inviting opposing and challenging viewpoints.

The second thing we have to do is to resist our own tendency to feel threatened by somebody who knows more than us. I thought this issue was only true for people in corporations, where everybody's climbing up the ladder and everybody wants their manager's job and the manager wants the next manager's job. So there can be a real tendency to feel threatened by people coming along who know more than you do or who are more organized than you are or who are more charismatic than you. In the corporate world we started talking 20 years ago about the fact that if you didn't prepare the person behind you to take your place, that you couldn't go anywhere. I'm sure that seems like it should have just been really rational, and I'm sure there were business leaders going back 200 years ago that understood that. But about 20 years ago we really started trying to push this, because corporate politics being what they are, people were being held back instead of moved forward. So we were trying to introduce this idea of self interest, that if you don't prepare the people around you to replace you, then you can't go anywhere else either. And I thought that was going to be mostly a corporate type of behavior - that the politics of corporations lead to managers feeling threatened by strong people around them. But I found out that's not true. The more I work with independent business owners, the more I've discovered that it's a human trait, not a corporate/political trait. And I recognize it in myself. It's something that I've had to always work to make sure it didn't play an important role in my decision making.

It's really importan to challenge our tendency to feel threatened by people presenting new ideas and challenging the ideas we have, and it's probably because ideas and expertise and our thought processes, they're very personal to us. So there's a, an underlying threat to having the things we're comfortable with get shaken up. But if we can do those two things, if we can resist the resistance to learning, no matter how old we are, and if we can resist the tendency to feel threatened by others that bring different types of intelligence to the experience, then we have a really good shot at running a successful business, no matter what size it is.