Years ago I served as a consultant to two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that worked closely together. At one, the head accountant was a friendly woman who very much enjoyed her job. But on several occasions, there were questions regarding the way the numbers added up and we had to work together to find and fix the errors. One day the president of the other NGO expressed a need for a new accountant and I casually suggested he consider the accountant from the first NGO. He rolled his eyes and commented that her lack of expertise would be a liability on his team.
I’ve thought about that scenario quite a few times since then. There have been occasions where I was clearly out of my league at work. As a young consultant, I struggled so much with the ambiguity of my role that I was frequently unable to sleep at night. I didn’t know what I didn’t know – and worse, I didn’t know who I could ask for help since I was expected to perform anyway. I didn’t want to be like the woman in the first NGO: a friendly and enthusiastic person who couldn’t be taken seriously as a professional.
Expertise isn’t the only critical factor in getting a job done, but it certainly is one of them. In its absence, ideas can’t “tip,” planning gets skewed and results suffer.
Not all of us are required to be the ultimate expert on any given day, but some of us are. Regardless, any expertise you can acquire will go a long way. Here are six ways to build your expertise – regardless of your field.
Learn from the True Experts
The ideal source of expertise is the people who already possess it. An old proverb states, “Walk with the wise and become wise.” If you are proactive, you may be able to find an opportunity to work or partner with an expert. Otherwise, learn all you can from their thought leadership.
Learn from Best Practice
For virtually every process or function, there are many accessible best practices – for things as simple as leading meetings or as complicated as evaluating learning programs. For critical items, never start from scratch when you have access to existing best practices from people who have already been where you’re trying to go.
Learn from Experience
If you don’t accumulate new experiences, your expertise will grow stale. Try new things – and be careful to evaluate as you go. Soon you’ll be able to articulate your own best practices that can serve as a guide for the future.
Learn from Experimentation
It’s not enough to try new things, we also need to try old things in new ways. Otherwise we operate only from memory instead of curiosity. As author and businessman Bob Buford says, “As long as we breathe, it is never too late in life to discover a better way.”
Enlist Your Team
I’m convinced that teamwork is the greatest untapped competitive advantage of the 21st century. That’s another discussion, but in terms of expertise, be careful to include the thoughts, insights and feedback of others in any important endeavor – regardless if they are superiors, peers or subordinates. Even if everyone lacks true expertise, multiple sources of input can make a solution better than it otherwise would have been.
Pass it On
One of the best ways to hone expertise is to pass it on. In fact, some have made the case that you don’t truly understand something until you can teach it to others. Don’t wait until you’re a full-blown expert to teach someone else – start where you are.
At the end of the day, there’s some good news. You are almost assuredly already to expert to someone else. That means you have a meaningful opportunity to contribute what you know. Just don’t stop there. There are so many more opportunities to learn, grow and share.
Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader. Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or follow him on Twitter.