Do You Need to be a Subject Matter Expert to be an Effective Manager? (Spoiler: No)

Quick side note: this is a longer newsletter than usual today, if you’d prefer to read it online or bookmark it for later, you can do so here.

To cut to the chase, the short answer to this question is:

No, you don’t have to be a subject matter expert in order to be a great and effective manager. Of course, it can help a lot, but I’ve also seen it be a hindrance. So it’s far from a simple answer.

Let’s take a step back and go into the longer version of this answer, before we talk about how to be an effective manager even if you’re not a subject matter expert.

The benefits of being a subject matter expert and manager

Let’s say that you work in digital marketing and you manage a team that contains specialists in content marketing, SEO and paid media. Do you need to be a subject matter expert in content marketing, SEO and paid media in order to effectively manage them?

In an ideal world, yes, because there are a lot of benefits. Below are a few of them.

You can support on day-to-day problems

This is probably the most obvious benefit and one that has the most impact on your team. Simply put, if they encounter a problem in their day-to-day role, they can raise it with you and you can work through it with them. For example, if they are building a Google Ads account and hit a technical problem, the chances are that you’ve got the experience to solve the issue or at the very least, know how to find the solution quickly.

Without this kind of skills-based experience, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to help with these kinds of problems and almost certainly need to default to another senior team member. This isn’t exactly a disaster, but can still cause issues.

You can carry out skills-led training yourself

Leading on from this, you can get very hands-on with training your team on the day-to-day skills that they need to develop in their role. For example, if you lead a content marketing team, you can run training sessions yourself on things such as how to do competitor content analysis or how to create a content strategy.

Without this skill set or experience personally, the training that you carry out will be limited to soft skill development and training, such as managing workloads, productivity and giving feedback.

You can empathise with challenges of their role

When you have carried out the same role as your team members, then you’ll know what the most common challenges, problems and roadblocks along the way are going to be. This means that you can help your team overcome these things or even avoid them altogether. 

Not just that, but knowing that you’ve been in their shoes can help build respect and trust from your team members.

The drawbacks of being a subject matter expert and a manager

But it can also be a hindrance for you as a manager. More specifically, it can be a huge hindrance in the development of your team.

You may attempt to stay ahead of your team’s skills and experience

I felt this challenge personally early on in my career and it definitely held me (and my team) back for a little while. I was managing three team members, all of whom were more junior than me and far less experienced – by a number of years. The thing was, they were all super, super smart and developing their skills very, very fast. It didn’t take long for them to be working together to solve problems that I’d never come across myself before and this left me feeling very insecure.

This insecurity meant that I felt a need to “stay ahead” of my team and to still be the smartest, most experienced person in the room.  Naturally, I couldn’t do this – partly because they were developing so quickly but mostly because a big part of my job at that point wasn’t actually to be developing the same hard skills as them.

Instead, my job was to get the most out of them and to help them with challenges that lent more on my experience, rather than hard skills.

You’re not actually as cutting edge as you may think

Leading on from the problem above and again, something that I experienced myself – you start to fall behind your team’s skills and knowledge. This is actually natural and completely normal for most managers. This is because as you become more and more senior, leading to more promotions, the irony is that you end up spending less time doing the job that got you to where you are now.

What got you here, won’t get you there.

Essentially, you spend more time on being a manager than you do on your subject matter expertise.

This means that you may not actually be the best person to be leading day-to-day work anyway and your team should actually be leading this instead. Afterall, they’re the ones spending the majority of their time in this area.

You don’t delegate effectively or trust your team fully

This is a big one. I’ve seen managers hold their team back by holding onto tasks or projects themselves – simply by not delegating. They don’t necessarily mean to do this, but it happens for a few reasons:

  • They are technically speaking, the most skilled person who can do the job, so they do it themselves or at least lead it themselves.
  • They think that leaving the task to someone else will take much longer than them doing it themselves, so they keep it.
  • They struggle to trust their team to make (and learn from) mistakes which are almost inevitable. Instead, would rather avoid mistakes altogether by doing things themselves.

There are more, but the combination of positives and negatives in this situation should help you understand how nuanced things are and how the answer to the question is far from a simple one.

As a result, I’m very much in favour of the answer that a manager doesn’t necessarily have to be a subject matter expert in order to be effective. However, they need to take some steps to mitigate this scenario.

How to mitigate not being a subject matter expert and a manager

Now, let’s be clear – I’m not saying that you don’t need to worry about the skills and knowledge that are required to run your team! Remember, there are benefits as well as drawbacks to this. However, if you do find yourself in this position, you need to mitigate things as much as possible so that you can still be effective.

Let’s look at a few ways that you can do that.

Know (and admit) what you don’t know

The first thing to do is to understand where your knowledge and skill gaps are, then acknowledge them. Don’t make the mistake of trying to cover this up or pretend that you know everything – your team will quickly figure this out. 

Figure out what you actually need to know (and how much)

Now, you can’t just not bother learning new things or keeping up to date on the latest skills/developments as they relate to your team! But given that it’s not realistic to spend as much time on this as your team, you need to find ways to prioritise and be as effective as possible when learning. This means that you should map out what skills you need to learn and the extent to which you need to learn them.

Chances are, you don’t need to go to 100% of each skill and can afford to know just beyond the basics. With a good level of experience, you can get a feel for this quite easily and learn pretty quickly without feeling like you need to know everything.

Show that you’re prepared to learn

Your team won’t actually expect you to be an expert in everything, particularly those who are a little more experienced because they understand the bigger picture of your role. All you need to do instead is to show that you’re prepared to get your hands dirty and fill those knowledge gaps when you need to. 

Lean into the value that you can add to problems or challenges

If you aren’t always able to get hands-on with technical problems, then you need to find ways of bringing value in other ways. For example, your experience may mean that you’re able to do things such as:

  • Not panicking when unexpected problems occur.
  • Keeping the team focused on the bigger picture of the problem they’re trying to solve.
  • Helping to talk through solutions and the pros/cons of each one.

Whilst your team may be very good at their day-to-day job, a lack of experience can sometimes lead to them not being as good at the items above which is exactly where you can add value.

Focus on the bigger picture (and be clear that this is your focus)

Your job as a team manager isn’t to focus on day-to-day delivery of work. It’s to get the most out of your team and hit your team objectives. In order to do this, you need to always be looking at and thinking about the bigger picture. This means that you need to be focused on a combination of:

  • The short and long-term personal development plans for your team members.
  • Understanding, relaying and tracking team objectives and the actions that drive towards you hitting them.
  • Removing blockers and enabling your team to work as effectively as possible (both as a team and as individuals).

And finally, you should be clear with your team that these kinds of things are where you focus your time and energy – along with anything else that you want to focus on as a manager.

Scroll to Top