This Pivot: We look at research claiming that managers with a deep and ‘expert’ knowledge of their field get better results from their staff.
(Next week we’ll look at the opposing viewpoint.)
Our early childhood centre can run for a day without us.
True, there might be things that don’t get done - and it isn’t the best option - but the centre can run without a manager.
It can’t run without teachers.
Our centre exists to provide care and a positive learning environment for preschool-age children. It’s what we do. An indispensable part of the ‘doing’ is our staff of well-trained teachers – our experts. They ARE the service we provide; they perform the most essential function in the centre. But to manage them well, do we need to be a trained teacher too?
Do we need to be able to do a job ourselves before we can properly understand the trials and tribulations of the people in that role, and therefore manage them efficiently and with understanding?
The Argument in Favour
I have never had a manager who understands what I do. I often joke that half of my job involves explaining my job to my manager!
Working for a boss who doesn’t understand my job means that I have the extra duty of proactively ‘selling’ myself and my job, and trying to manage up(wards).
I think this mostly becomes an issue for people when bosses make wrong assumptions about your job (that you’re doing it wrong when you’re not).
It makes it hard to take a manager’s feedback on the day-to-day execution of your job seriously when they have what you view as unrealistic expectations and they’ve never been in the position themselves to understand what they’re asking of you.
While I don’t expect them to be able to do every little thing, they need to know enough about the process to tell reality from fantasy.
Leaders are the final arbiters of quality. Therefore, it is right to expect the standard bearer to first bear the standard. - Should Your Manager Know How to do Your Job?
In 2009, Amanda H. Goodall published research into the performance of 26 research universities in the UK and USA. She wanted to find out if the level of scholarly expertise a university president or vice chancellor had accumulated over their careers had any impact on the subsequent research quality of the university.
The core business of a university is research and teaching, but research quality is what separates top universities from their competitors.
Goodall found that leaders who were better scholars did improve the later research performance of their universities. She suggested four explanations:
- Scholars are seen as more credible leaders. A president who is a researcher gains greater respect from academic colleagues and appears more legitimate. This gives them more power and influence.
- Being a top scholar provides a leader with a deep understanding (or expert knowledge) about the core business of the university. This aids their decision-making and their priorities.
- It is the president who sets the quality threshold in a university, and, therefore, that the bar is raised when an accomplished scholar is hired. The standard bearer has already set the standard that is to be enforced.
- A president who is a researcher sends a signal to the faculty that the leader shares their scholarly values, and that research success in the institution is important.
Her recommendation: in settings where expert knowledge is a key factor in an organisation’s core business, expert knowledge should be a key factor in the selection of its leader.
Earlier, in 2008, Goodall researched coaches in the professional basketball industry in the USA, and the subsequent success of their teams. She concluded that:
The paper provides evidence of the importance of what might be termed ‘expert leaders’. Our analysis finds that one predictor of a leader’s success in year T is that person’s level of attainment (their ‘expert knowledge’), in the underlying activity, in approximately year T-15 to T-20.
Again, Goodall put it down to three factors:
- Great former players have a deep knowledge of the game and can impart that to the players they coach (and allows them to devise winning strategies since they may be able to ‘see’ the game in ways that others cannot).
- Former great players may provide more credible leadership than coaches who were not great players. (This factor may be particularly important in the NBA where players command huge salaries and have large egos; it may take a former expert player to coax out the high levels of effort required.)
- Hiring a coach who was a great player signals to current players that the owner is serious about performance. (Having a coach who was a great player may also make it easier to recruit great players from other teams.)
In 2014, Amanda Goodall and Ganna Pogrebna published the results of their research into Formula One motor racing teams. They looked at every team in every Grand Prix season since the industry began, and their study’s findings again supported the idea that an ‘expert leader’ got better results.
They found that the most successful leaders in Formula One were disproportionately people who started their careers as drivers. Interestingly, when looking at the former drivers, those who had the longest driving careers were the ones who went on to become the most effective leaders (the research measured effectiveness as a leader by the number of podium finishes their team achieved).
Remarkably, the leader’s former experience in competitive racing is a better predictor of current organizational performance than the driving experience of the person who is actually racing for the team.
The researchers suggested the following explanations:
- Having specialised knowledge about racing might help a leader to use their superior strategic knowledge to make better strategic choices.
- They may also act as role models, and better understand how to coax high performance out of others. Leaders need technical expertise to fully evaluate the ideas of other creative people and provide appropriate feedback.
- Because of their proven track record, former drivers may command more respect; they may be viewed as intrinsically credible since they have ‘walked the walk’. Credibility legitimises their authority and extends their influence.
- The credibility generated by having driven successfully may also help to attract new talented personnel. A leader who has raced successfully and has been in the industry for many years might make more informed hiring decisions. They may also be hooked into important networks.
In January 2015, Goodall, Artz and Oswald reported their research into 35,000 randomly selected employees and workplaces in both the USA and Britain.
They found that a manager’s technical competence was a “powerful and little appreciated effect” on well-being at work.
Our results show that the size of your pay packet or where you work is far less important than whether your boss actually knows what he or she is talking about. – Dr Amanda Goodall
The research revealed three decisive influences on worker's well-being:
- Whether the supervisor could do the employee’s job;
- Whether the supervisor worked his or her way up inside the organisation; and
- The supervisor’s level of technical competence.
Using these three measures of supervisor competence, we found that employees are far happier when they are led by people with deep expertise in the core activity of the business. This suggests that received wisdom about what makes a good boss may need some rethinking. It’s not uncommon to hear people assert that it’s a bad idea to promote an engineer to lead other engineers, or an editor to lead other editors. A good manager doesn’t need technical expertise, this argument goes, but rather, a mix of qualities like charisma, organizational skills, and emotional intelligence. Those qualities do matter, but what our research suggests is that the oft-overlooked quality of having technical expertise also matters enormously.” – HBR
The results remained unchanged even when the researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect job satisfaction, including salary and education level.
On the face of it, university chancellors, NBA coaches, Formula One team managers, and 35,000 employees in the USA and UK all make a strong and persuasive case that ‘expert’ leaders will get better results.
Therefore, early childhood centres should be managed by teachers who have had a long and talented career. The better the teacher, the better the manager.
Or are we missing something?
(Continued next week…)