Career SkillsCareers

What Makes an Expert?

By Dr. Robert Danielle

Many years ago, there was a long-running national TV commercial showing an operating room with surgeons and nurses gathered around a patient. One person in that room then starts giving orders on what to do next to save the patient, prompting another to ask, “Are you a surgeon?” Without hesitation, that person replies, “No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.” Other variations of the commercial found their way into our collective consciousness as a parody that suggested that one could become an expert without any experience, training or education.

At the time, I must admit I found all of this to be very funny (at least in the beginning), given that many of the scenarios had seemingly ordinary people successfully taking on extraordinary tasks simply by staying at the hotel. The more absurd the claim, the harder I (and others) laughed, but this was the crux of the commercial. It forced you to recognize the improbable, but with a humorous twist and memorable tagline.

Ironically, flashing forward to what’s happening today doesn’t seem to have elongated the time required to be deemed or anointed as an expert in a variety of fields and activities. There are many factors and reasons behind this, but one seems to stand out as the more common approach. Generating significant exposure on social media, on multiple platforms (e.g., TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.), while executing solid and consistent branding strategies, can seemingly transform someone overnight into being viewed as having achieved expertise status — with or without tangible and relevant supporting evidence.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that these types of perceived transformations are all inherently bad or good. I’ve always been an advocate for personal branding and showcasing your skills, abilities and experiences for professional and personal gains. However, what if we looked at this through a different lens, one that looks more closely at the stated expertise, and the impact to the person or persons seeking and receiving it. Does having relevant experience, training or education factor into this? Should any or all of them even matter? Although there are many scenarios that come to mind when thinking about this, I wanted to share two that seem to be brought up more frequently than others — career coaching and leadership development training.

Career Coaching

I think what bothers me the most about this field of expertise is the high number of career coaches out there who have never personally experienced the trials and tribulations of career transitions, especially those across multiple sectors. I’ve even seen situations where a career coach has never had another career other than being a career coach. That said, I’m not suggesting someone without this experience and knowledge cannot be helpful in terms of creating resumes, prepping for interviews, negotiating salaries, cataloging transferrable and other applicable skills, etc. Although plenty of information and resources are available on these topics, for some people, having that one-on-one coach-client relationship provides needed support, and I do see value in that.

However, what I am suggesting is that someone with only coaching credentials and little or no personal, immersive experience in the career transitioning process might not be the best choice to help someone thinking about doing this. Switching careers or starting a new one is more than just getting the job; it’s the change and experiences that go along with that. It’s not only about navigating the professional pieces, but the personal ones as well. While some might argue that you don’t have to know how a car works to drive it, I would argue that having some insightful knowledge of what to look out for and expect can be very beneficial when dealing with downstream issues. Put another way, would you rather learn something that could change your life from someone who has never experienced it or from someone who has had success (or even failure) after experiencing it?

An interesting twist on this is that a good number of colleges and universities now highlight their career services offerings as a perk to students to help offset the lower perceived value of a college degree. The downfall with this is that some institutions seek out career services staff candidates with more emphasis on coaching credentials and less on professional experiences. Although this might work for the 18- to 22-year-old, how much added value can this bring to the growing demographic of older students thinking about changing careers, when the person coaching them has never done it before?

Leadership Development Training

Very similar to what I expressed above about career coaching, I continue to be amazed by those involved in leadership training who have never led or even been a manager. While I agree that there are many leadership theories and best practices that can help shape an individual or organization, my concerns really center around one’s ability to adequately address and educate others on the complex and multifaceted landscape of workplace leadership and all that it involves.

Knowing and understanding the different leadership styles, skills needed (e.g., communication, conflict resolution, engagement, etc.), and various responsibilities, accountabilities, etc. are great foundational pieces, but is this enough? Conflict resolution and communicating effectively are great skills, but what does it feel like when you’re talking to an employee about their diminished performance? What can you expect after layoffs or when you cannot hire enough people to keep up with the amount of work needed to get done each day, week or month? Textbook knowledge might offer some help, but the real nectar of leadership wisdom should come from those who have experienced it and can effectively convey that learning to others.

However, what bothers me the most is the notion that you can easily microwave leadership the same way as popcorn. Put together a few sessions and workshops (in some cases, all in one day) and POOF, you’re now an effective leader. Even worse is having someone conduct them with little or no relevant leadership experience. I used to joke that if Johnson & Johnson could create a Leadership Pill, they would probably have more than enough customers to buy it, given the numbers of those who continue to take shortcuts in developing leaders.

Given that this is all subjective, with opinions from someone you don’t know, I’m curious about what you think? How do you feel about the concept and importance of expertise when learning about things that are important to you? Looking at these scenarios and others not listed, what criteria should quantify someone as an expert? Does any of this even matter? I admit I don’t have all the answers, but perhaps staying at a Holiday Inn Express really could help me find them.

Robert Danielle

Dr. Robert Danielle has considerable expertise in the areas of career transitioning, leadership development, and change management. Bob has held strategic roles in the media, technology, government/military, higher education and e-commerce sectors, and he possesses the ability to bring together seemingly unrelated ideas to create new possibilities that result in successful outcomes. Bob holds a Doctorate in Higher Education and Organizational Change, and a Master’s in Information Systems Management, which were completed as an adult learner, with a family, and demanding full-time positions. He has authored two eBooks for the IEEE and currently works as Manager, Learning Solutions for Amazon Mechatronics. Bob is certified as a Performance and Career Coach. He has also worked as a consultant for large and small organizations.

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One Comment

  1. Really enjoyed this article and it’s so true that we seem to grant some the title of “expert” whether they earned it or not.

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