The Expert Conundrum or How to Spot a Blowhard



What is one of the biggest differences between the CEO role and other jobs in a company? It’s the responsibility to make decisions about a huge breadth of issues. If you have spent your whole prior career working in sales, then you have likely acquired enough knowledge to make informed decisions in that area. However, CEOs must make decisions across the whole spectrum of business issues. As a result, they often confront problems where they have little background or expertise. Here’s how to handle it.

Step 1: Admit You Don’t Know Everything

In this situation it is important that a CEO be self-aware enough to recognize that he or she is not the expert. I think most recognize their limited knowledge. However, some CEOs feel they always have to be the smartest person in the room. They fear losing the respect of their team by admitting they don’t know the answer. This is a big mistake that can backfire. Employees will inevitably uncover their deficiencies and lose confidence in their leadership.

Step 2: Seek Advice from Experts

CEOs who are aware of and open about their limitations must seek input from experts. The question then becomes how to effectively determine whether someone is actually an expert. As CEO there will be no shortage of people who will approach you to give advice. Many will be easy to dismiss as people who simply have an over-inflated opinion of their own knowledge. However, there will be another group that is not so easy to dismiss. Since you as CEO don’t have expertise in the area under discussion, you might be fooled by anyone knowledgeable and sophisticated enough to pass a basic BS test. You need a way to directly evaluate their advice.

Step 3: Administer the Test

One of the things I have observed through the years is that the true experts have the same self-awareness that I find in good CEOs. These experts know what they know and just as importantly know what they don’t know. One way to test for this is to ask the “expert” questions in areas where you have strong knowledge and then evaluate their answers. The true experts will either not answer or preface their answer with a disclaimer about it not being their area of expertise. The fake experts will pontificate on any area with the same level of confidence.

If they don’t know what they don’t know, it is hard for them to be trusted advisors. Once you see this behavior, you can write them off. So next time you are confronted by an expert offering assistance, ask them questions in areas where you have special expertise and listen to what they say. You might learn all you need to know.


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