Beyond Expertise

by Alan Berrey

How Trust, Vision, and Delivery Will Redefine Your Relationships with Customers and Colleagues


Many years ago, I attended a high-level executive briefing at Ford Motor Company headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford had a strategic project underway to move all supplier-facing communications from fax, paper, and phone to the web. The initiative would impact the entire supply chain of more than 100,000 companies. As you can imagine, Ford’s corporate leadership was extremely interested in the project.

Since I was intimately involved, the division director, Teri Takai (who would later become the chief information officer for the US Department of Defense), asked me to attend. At that time in my career, it was unusual to get that kind of executive-level visibility. I was young, new to the company, and inexperienced. Nevertheless, Teri requested my presence and I was happy to oblige.

Teri was allocated five minutes on the crowded agenda, and she asked me to present our progress and attempt to answer any questions. “But be prepared to be cut short,” she warned, “or be skipped altogether if the meeting takes an unexpected turn.”

Despite my junior status, I felt prepared. I knew the teams, the technologies, the schedules, the budgets, and the risks. I knew dozens of financial justifications for the massive investment the company was making. I knew what issues had been resolved and what barriers still lay ahead. I was confident I could answer any question.

Initially, the executives were patient with me. However, they quickly realized that my focus was too narrow for their needs and they started firing questions at me. Questions I could not answer. “How long will it take to replicate the technology and processes in Japan?” they asked. “Which key suppliers will be resistant?” they added. “We are facing a patent battle in Germany. How will this project complicate that case?” And on and on.

The five-minute presentation stretched past thirty minutes. Fortunately, Teri rescued me multiple times. She helped answer many of the questions, calm executive concerns, and gracefully deflect irrelevant issues. She focused the executives on the most urgent matters and created a feeling of excitement and optimism.

When the meeting ended, it was clear to all in attendance that Teri was the expert, not me. I was blindsided and flustered. Yet, how could that be? I knew more about this project than anyone in the company, including Teri, yet she came across as credible and trustworthy, not me. I wanted to know: What was I missing? How had I failed?

After that experience I began studying subject matter experts (SMEs) and taking notes. What do great experts do? How do some SMEs quickly establish trusting relationships? Why do people heed some experts but ignore others? What should I emulate and what should I ignore?

This book is the result of my decades of study and observations of SMEs. I believe SMEs are the most valuable members of any organization—period. They create vision, forge paths, create products, solve problems, sell customers, create policies, and cure ailments. Companies cannot prosper without them, and unlike non-experts, they provide the scaffolding upon which all other functions of the organization depend.

SMEs often hold top positions in their organizations. The chief executive officer of a start-up company is a subject matter expert. The chief technology officer of a multinational corporation is a subject matter expert. The head surgeon at an orthopedic practice is also a subject matter expert. But SMEs are not just the high-ranking professionals; they are often engineers, technicians, controllers, marketers, attorneys, doctors, therapists, and more. They hold the jewels of knowledge in their organizations and are typically the top performers in their fields.

Sometimes SMEs are assigned complimentary or flamboyant titles like “Sales Engineer,” “Consultant,” or even “Evangelist.” But, more often, they are indistinguishable by title, rank, class, or pay scale.

Collectively, SMEs define the very pinnacle of organizational capability. They determine what can and cannot be done by their companies. SMEs also determine the economic prosperity and growth of their nations. They are the ones who get stuff done—if it can be done—and the ones who push the boundaries of accomplishment and creation. Despite their universal value, few organizations fully appreciate the impact of these important people, nor do they establish procedures to magnify their influence. Instead, organizations often do not even know who their SMEs are, much less know how to help them. Even when organizations do acknowledge that key employees make disproportionately high contributions, they leave their effectiveness to chance.

Most executives genuinely believe that employees are their company’s most valuable resources, yet few leaders take steps to develop SMEs comprehensively. Companies spend valuable time and money training employees on everything except the way to develop expertise and expert performance. They teach their employees about policies and technologies, for example, but they fail to fully develop their SMEs as experts. They fail to develop people in the very roles where they can make the greatest impact. Effective SMEs are urgently needed in all industries and disciplines. Today’s products are growing in sophistication, and markets are becoming increasingly complicated. Customers have become fickle, with increasing expectations and decreasing patience. Customer acquisition costs are high. Barriers to competitive entry are low. The global regulatory environments are fluid and onerous. Information, both true and false, abounds. At no time have effective SMEs been more necessary.

Ironically, although there is an urgent need for robust SMEs, public sentiment is shifting away from the wisdom of the experts. Technologies are encroaching on every expert domain. Global boundaries are opening to specialized competitors. Fakers are everywhere. SMEs now operate in a “post-truth” era where facts are depreciating in value and emotional sensitivities are amplified. The climate for SMEs is daunting.

After my decades of observation and study, I have identified many of the key ingredients that make a great SME. I wish someone had given me this book years ago, before I floundered trying to learn how to apply expertise in effective ways. It might have pointed me in a better direction, answered some of my questions, and spared my colleagues hundreds of hours of frustration.

This book is about the craft of the expert, or the artful application of expertise. It is about bringing your expertise out of the dark and maximizing your impact. It is about honing your influence with clients and boosting your authority with colleagues. In short, it is about becoming a compelling agent of change in any environment and with any audience.

In this book, I explore the techniques of the top experts. I examine what they do, and just as importantly, what they don’t do to apply their expertise.
Organizations depend on subject matter experts for broad and diverse purposes. Typically, SMEs are the keepers of collective corporate knowledge and the visionaries of product potential. Sometimes, they serve as company spokespersons or litigators. SMEs are routinely expected to identify the sources of vexing problems, implement solutions to those problems, and mitigate damages. They are expected to know things other people do not know, and they are expected to do things other people cannot do. Whether they are in engineering, law, medicine, finance, or some other field, SMEs must either know things well or be able to do things well (or most commonly, both at once). Even when knowledge and competence are established, however, an SME’s purpose is not accomplished. To the contrary, knowledge and competence are just the beginning of an SME’s job, not the end. Once knowledge and competence are firmly in hand, an SME can begin to deliver what is most needed: trust, vision, and delivery.

Establish Trust. SMEs must be masters at building and maintaining trust. No one in a corporation is better positioned than an SME to establish trust, and no one should be more capable of obtaining it. Top SMEs trust themselves and others. They don’t display fear or discouragement. They are calm and confident.

Determine Mutual Vision. SMEs see and share a vision for the future. They recognize opportunities quickly and craft compelling solutions. They articulate the beginning, the end, and the path that connects the two. All great SMEs have vision, and they plant that vision in the hearts and minds of their audience.

Ensure Delivery. Experienced SMEs deliver desired results with a grace and consistency that others cannot match. Repeatable, flawless execution is the valuable feature that distinguishes great SMEs from average professionals.

The rest of this book is built around these three important objectives. Of course, other things are important to SMEs, but these three things matter most. If I worked with or managed SMEs in any capacity, I would remind them frequently of the importance of establishing trust, determining mutual vision, and ensuring delivery. For SMEs, everything fits within one of these three categories, or it must be relegated to second place.
Experts must give their audience reason to believe they are experts. It seems so obvious that it shouldn’t require discussion, but it is too often missed. Every time you interact with an audience, whether an audience of one or an audience of many, that interaction will include an assessment of your expertise. Your audience will be performing a mini-interview, of sorts. And as a result, their faith in you will either grow or diminish. They will either trust your expertise a little more or a little less. Expert interactions rarely end with a neutral assessment.

During those interactions, your audience will be using a simplemethod to test your expertise. They will be unconsciously asking themselves if the things you espouse as truth reconcile with their opinions: “Given what I know about this subject, can I believe this person?” Their assessment will always start and end from their own point of reference.

It does not matter if your audience has opinions that are right or wrong. They will always assume their starting position is correct. From there, they will attempt to reconcile your words and actions with their own position. If your position does not square with theirs, they will try to reject you rather than rejecting their own preconceived opinion.

Because your audience is always starting and ending the dialogue from their own prejudiced position, you need to quickly position your expertise inside their world. As an expert, your job is to discover where your audience lives mentally and then expand that living space to include the benefits you can provide.

To better understand your audience’s perspective, you should speak only after listening to them first. Once you do, you will have greater clarity and fluency in your thoughts and speech, and you will have more power to persuade and convince. When you artfully persuade and convince people about things they did not already know, but which align with their previous knowledge, you will be recognized by them as an expert.
Alan Berrey: Author, Trainer, Entrepreneur


Alan Berrey

Experienced business professional, entrepreneur, & SME
Researcher of expertise since 1995
More about Alan
Online Courses: Solution Engineering Mastery Series
expert \'ek-spərt\
adjective: having or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience
dig \'dig\
verb: to unearth
verb: to like or enjoy
noun: a sarcastic remark
noun: archaeological site undergoing excavation