Technical specialists keep your organisation functioning, but managing, motivating and retaining them can be challenging. By Alistair Gordon.

Whatever field they’re in, technical experts are critical. They’re also hard to hire, expensive and hard to retain. Worse, they have an underserved reputation for being bad with business and soft skills – with negotiation, stakeholder engagement, commercial acumen and knowledge transfer.

But what if the problem isn’t nature, but nurture? Most organisations frame their idea of a “high-potential employee” in a manner that excludes experts – yet these are the people you probably rely on most to change the way your organisation works or approaches difficult problems.

Organisations know what to do when they see a high-potential people leader – they roll out the red carpet. Emerging people leaders get coaching to polish business skills. They have well-developed career ladders and an appraisal process. People leaders enjoy all the encouragement of traditional leadership development. They’re seen as high potential because they can lead a team, and maybe even become CEO one day.

Experts, meanwhile, don’t want to manage teams or be CEO. So they aren’t offered the same “high-potential training” in business and people skills. (Or they’re sent on the same training as people leaders, which isn’t so relevant to the challenges they face.)

The problem then compounds. Without development, it’s assumed experts were “born that way” – that they were never capable of developing soft skills in the first place. And as a result, they don’t get promotion or movement. They stay in the same roles for a long time – far beyond the time where the role is rewarding or motivating. They’re stuck. They’re probably not happy, and eventually they leave. To get them unstuck, rethink your idea of potential.

Ask your head of data science or the head of policy to define “high-potential”. They’ll say that in a technical team, it’s not only about people leadership. Instead, they want experts to use domain knowledge to create competitive advantage, or solve problems that threaten your business. They’ll agree that talented experts need to master a broad range of enterprise skills – not just soft skills, but coaching to understand risk and reward, the creation and maintenance of business relationships, and your organisation’s commercials.

Here are five ways experts can gain job satisfaction – while adding value to your marketing and organisational strategy.

  1. Redefine “high-performing” to reflect the value added to your business, not just people leadership potential. Experts create competitive advantage, but only if you support and encourage their presence.
  2. Frame enterprise skills as part of an expert’s day to day role. People leaders are told from day one that commercial acumen and soft skills are critical to their long-term career. Tell experts the same.
  3. Create an expert capability framework. Do your experts understand which non-technical skills you want them to acquire? It helps to define what mastery looks like.
  4. Consider where you need to shift focus to “expertship” rather than “leadership”. Expertship develops the skills needed to lead ideas, projects and innovation, where Leadership coaches the skills needed to lead teams. Experts welcome ideas to become better experts.
  5. Ask leaders of technical teams to identify “stuck” experts, who have potential to add greater value than you may have realised. Most employers look the same to experts. They’re not so aware of expert challenges, not so interested in expert ideas. Hiring is simplified and retention increased when experts understand you encourage their work and ideas. You’re also improving expert happiness and creativity and effectiveness.

Alistair Gordon is the CEO of Expertunity, and an expert coach, speaker and author.