What Does It Really Mean to Be an Expert?

employee explaining something to a coworker

The third stage of vertical development, the Expert, focuses on perfecting skills and being really good in their domain. These are key players for many organizations but face their own limitations.

Key Takeaways

  • An Expert is the master of one specific area, and 40% of adults reside in this stage
  • They’re really good in their area of expertise and at getting things done
  • They may face challenges with collaboration, delegation and seeing points of view outside of their area of expertise

The seven stages of vertical development tell us a lot about what motivates people at work, where their strengths and challenges are and how they might view the world and their place in it.

In a previous post, we discussed the first two stages: the Opportunist and the Conformer. These initial stages aren’t where most adults stand most of the time, but they’re helpful in understanding how the personal and professional journey looks and how the later stages are formed.

The Expert is the next stage, stage three, which builds upon the first two and brings its own set of strengths and limitations. Here is a deep dive into what it means to be an Expert.

What is an Expert?

Experts’ identity is driven by what they know. They lean on their specific area of expertise and what they’ve learned at work or been educated in. They know how to become an expert in their field. 

They derive their self-esteem and self-worth from what they can do or produce. They are what they can solve. This is the most populous of all the stages, as 40% of adults reside here.

The second stage – the Conformer – is almost the opposite of being an Expert. They are followers who hold the team together. The Expert breaks from that mindset when they start to want to stand out. They’re driven by a desire to be an individual and different. They really start to come away from that group identity and become more self-motivated. 

The limitation of the Conformer is over-identification with the group, and the Expert solves for that with the desire to feel special and different. They start to identify themselves in the third person – no longer subsumed by the group. 

The feedback they do desire and seek out from others is from thought leaders from whom they derive their knowledge and education. They absorb that information and make it their own. 

In the Expert stage, people start to have a lot more capacity. They can see more. Their world starts to get bigger, and they see there are other sources of information out there that are worth pursuing. 

They start comparing themselves to other people in a way they didn’t before. They want to be better and do better than others. Their goals are typically set by an outside source, not themselves, since they start adhering to external standards.

You might hear Experts say things like, “In my opinion,” “The research says,” “I know best,” or “Pay attention to me, I have something to say.”

Strengths of Experts

Experts are really great at the individual contributor level – the frontline level of every organization. This is where most of the work happens. Companies really need people who understand how things work and how to troubleshoot problems. 

Experts are in a lane with a defined scope of work and usually operate independently. They follow established processes and procedures, believing there are right answers and best ways to do things in their role. 

They’re concerned with learning how to do their jobs better and improving craftsmanship. So, they do what they do really well – they care about perfecting it.

Humans naturally crave control. We like to know what’s going to happen and when. This is why so many people reside in the Expert stage. They are the workhorses of organizations and hugely valuable for their contributions.  

Limitations of Experts

Experts are known for insisting there’s only one answer, and that they have the right answers in their sphere. It’s not the best stage for teamwork because they tend to think they know better than everyone else due to the work they’ve put in learning and perfecting their knowledge. Collaboration is low and they may not respect other people’s perspectives. 

They have a hard time making space for other points of view. They want to have total control over the work product and always want to know the answer. Experts are also not great at prioritization. Everything is important to them, so they struggle to prioritize tasks in the order that will best support organizational goals. 

Experts get uncomfortable on an identity level when they don’t know the answer to something. A lot of experts believe they have to know the answer, and they can thus hold tightly to too many responsibilities.

This is why Experts tend not to manage other people well. They can become micromanagers and may overly criticize the people who work for them. They don’t trust people to do the work right, so they’re bad at delegation.

Giving feedback to Experts can be a challenge, too, since criticism can be threatening to them. They’re learning about themselves in this stage, but they prefer positive feedback about it, like Myers-Briggs personality testing. They mostly want to learn about their good traits and abilities.

Does everyone move on from the Expert stage?

Some people grow out of the Expert stage as a matter of course, but many don’t. They might feel comfortable there, it might be a really good fit or there isn’t a lot of invitation for them to grow. They’re satisfied with having their own space at work with set boundaries of what they control. They’re the master of their castle and have lots of confidence about their work. 

It’s important for managers to be able to see who is growing and who will be able to succeed in a leadership position or collaborative cross-functional position. Just because someone is really technically advanced in their role doesn’t necessarily mean they can do more. Supervisors should ask if this person can work with other people before changing their responsibilities. 

Experts want to be right. Achievers, the fourth stage, want to accomplish more advanced goals. That small distinction can trip up a manager when they think an Expert is ready for the next level and they’re not. 

How can leaders help Experts grow?

If someone is really stuck in their rightness and that they have the only right answers, it may help to have that person examine the outcomes they’re seeing. Leaders can help pivot their perspectives from perfectionism to outcomes. 

Could they do more if they worked with other people better? This question helps people grow developmentally. They realize that, if they collaborated better or invited other peoples’ perspectives more, they’d have a bigger impact. That’s the pivotal moment. 

The hold on perfectionism and craftsmanship loosens up in the Achiever stage. The concern shifts from expertise to outcomes, from craftsmanship to good enough for the sake of efficiency.

Work with The Sparks Group on Vertical Development

Getting to know the strengths and limitations of the Expert stage is important to assessing where leaders are on their journey and where their employees might reside. Experts are essential components of successful organizations, but they do have many limitations that the next stage solves for, should they reach it.

The Sparks Group is ready to help individuals, organizations and teams harness vertical development. Get in touch with us today to schedule a 30-minute discovery call or learn about our coaching services.