How to Lead People Who Know More Than You

July 31st, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Leadership, Management | No Comments »





These words all describe what happens when you manage people who know more about their profession than you do. This happens because most managers try to lead experts the same way they manage people who are more junior.

Let’s face it – every leader who climbs above a first-line manager role will be in this situation. Whether you’re leading seasoned experts in your own field or broadening your scope to include functions in which you’ve never worked, you suddenly have to figure out how to lead people – a lot of people – to whom you seemingly have no value whatsoever to add.

And trust me, because they tell me openly, that is their assumption upon learning someone with less experience or from a different professional background is the new boss. Until you prove otherwise, they’ll just quietly hope you get promoted again or moved to another function, so you’ll soon be out of their way.

So what’s a leader to do when those you manage know more than you? Start with these three guidelines to become the best boss they’ve ever had:

If the employees are in a different profession, learn the basics of their profession and business situation well enough to understand each team member’s needs and concerns — but never, ever kid yourself about your true level of knowledge.

Do your research. It’s your job to understand the gist of what they do so you can understand what they need to produce superior results. Don’t show up for your first round of 1:1’s entirely clueless. You will gain their respect (at least a little) by showing up for these discussions prepared with basic knowledge and lots of good questions.

However, don’t try to show off the fact that you did some homework by making bold statements. You’ll kill your credibility. Your knowledge is the tip of the iceberg compared to theirs.

Share what you understand to be the basics of their situation, goals, and challenges they face, and ask for their feedback, corrections, and additions. Be honest that you understand you’re of little use in personally developing their expertise, but that you are committed to advocating for the resources they need to do their jobs well and to develop their careers with the company.

The greatest general managers recognize that it’s not their job to know everything. It’s their job to set direction, mobilize resources to get results, build the strongest and most productive teams they possibly can, and build a resilient organization for the future. They recognize that they can’t be good at all of these things while also developing deep expertise in every part of the business, and their people respect them for that.

Don’t actively manage anyone over 25 years of age unless there’s evidence they can’t self-manage.

More often than not, the employee who knows more than you also has several more years of professional experience than you, and certainly more years handling the workload unique to his or her job.

The exception to this can be employees who are in their first or second job. You will likely need to be more actively involved in managing their work not only to hit goals and deadlines in high-stakes, complex, and ambiguous situations, but also to help them develop their professional skills in self-management and collaboration. It’s a lot different from school, and they don’t have a great deal of experience, yet.

Granted, the exact age of 25 is a bit arbitrary, since for some highly specialized professions, a 25-year-old still has 3 – 5 more years of education to complete, and for go-getters who are already working in their teens, the age of 25 feels more like 30. Use your best judgment here. Just don’t leave inexperienced employees feeling lost, even if they are super-smart in their areas of expertise.

Assume mid-career professionals are self-managing, unless you see evidence otherwise.

At this stage, they don’t need a boss to personally direct and develop them. What they need is an effective advocate in the organization: someone who builds bridges where needed, sets boundaries where needed, and secures resources needed to get the job done well. Find out what they want to accomplish and the barriers they see in the way, and then double down your efforts to remove the barriers.

Also assume that all late-stage and second-career employees are self-managing. Invest the time to learn their interests and motivations for working in this profession at this stage in their careers and lives. What you learn may surprise you.

Fill the mentor gap by someone better qualified.

Warning! You may have to shove your ego aside to do this. I certainly know I do in these situations, and it’s not always easy.

Find at least one top performer in their profession, inside the company or out, who knows even more than they do. If you share the same profession, but simply have fewer years of experience, the same advice applies. Connect the team with this person as a resource, for those who would like to take advantage of it.

Even if team members don’t want to talk with a mentor for some reason, you will benefit from getting the mentor’s advice, and you’ll gain priceless perspective on the profession or industry.

In short, the biggest complaint I hear from people who work for bosses who know less than they do is that the boss tries too hard to be a boss, and not hard enough to be a leader. If you focus on these three tips, they will be eager to keep you around, instead of quietly cheering when you move on.

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Jennifer Recommends

July 28th, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Jennifer Recommends, MBTI | No Comments »

MBTI User Conference_logo_r6Are you responsible for making business decisions about the MBTI® in your company? If so, be extra smart by attending the first-ever MBTI® Users Conference September 28-30, 2015 in San Francisco.

I’m bringing an all-star panel of business leaders to join me in sharing the secrets to massively increase your MBTI® return on investment by using it in business units and functional areas — in a very different way than you use it in enterprise-wide leadership development.

The publisher of the MBTI is offering a conference discount for my readers only. Use Promo Code SELBY to save $150 off Standard Conference registration.

This is not an affiliate program and I do not receive a commission – I’m recommending the conference because I know you should be there.

Check out the agenda here: – toggle8

CPP’s 2015 MBTI® Users Conference will be filled with exclusive content accessible only in person.

Featuring an impressive array of MBTI experts to help you tackle today’s most pressing issues, learn about growing trends, and apply your takeaway learning, this lineup has something for everyone. You’ll join industry leaders and peers to hear about and discuss:

  • Making the most of your MBTI investment to impact ROI
  • Presenting to a group of all different MBTI types
  • Accelerating business strategic alignment
  • Flexing MBTI type preference to get ahead
  • Delivering global leadership development programs
  • Connecting an organization’s self-awareness to an engaged workforce
  • Boosting collaboration with cross-generational teams
  • And more

Learn more at and remember to use Promo Code SELBY to save $150 off Standard Conference registration.

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In the News

July 26th, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in News | No Comments »

infoworldIf you are responsible for nurturing potential leaders in engineering, or you are interested in breaking in to management, have I got a hot article for you: InfoWorld Programmers Guide to Breaking into Management.

Ace reporter Paul Heltzel interviewed me, along with an impressive line-up of chief software architects, VP’s of Engineering, and technical recruiters, to create his tightly focused and spot-on list of recommendations.

Likewise, if you are one of the Traveling Light readers who isn’t yet in a management role, first of all, congratulations for thinking ahead and reading this newsletter on a regular basis. You are one smart cookie. Read the InfoWorld article so you can take action today to further your career in the future, even if you aren’t a programmer. Much of the advice is applicable to other professions as well.

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In the News: Fast Company

July 1st, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in News | No Comments »


Are you or is someone you know considering changing careers?

If you are even slightly established in your current career, this can be extremely challenging. However, several of my clients have very successfully pulled this off with aplomb.

Check out my tips in this Fast Company article by Gwen Moran:

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Three Unconventional Ways to Get Your Direct Reports to Stop Bickering and Start Working Together Again

June 24th, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Building Relationships, Business | No Comments »

BickeringCoworkers“Jennifer, I’m so fed up with these two guys! I have told them – again and again — they have to stop going to the mat on every little thing.

I gave them your articles on how to give feedback to a coworker and how to engage in active listening, and coached them through both processes.

I sent them to our in-house negotiations training.

Today, I even lost my temper and raised my voice, which was so unprofessional of me, but I was exasperated.

I’m at the end of my rope with them. What’s left for me to try?”

Can you relate?

We’ve all had direct reports who rubbed each other the wrong way.

This is most common after a reorganization or realignment of resources. People you would never have hired to work together wind up working together, and they do it poorly.

Most of the time, it’s enough to simply coach your direct reports in active listening, feedback, and negotiation skills (and reward their progress, of course) to get them working together productively once again.

And then there are the problem children….

O.k., I admit it’s politically incorrect, but more than a few leaders have opened our consultation with, “My problem children are bickering again.” And that’s just what it feels like: you’re a parent of two siblings who don’t get along, and it’s in your face all day every day.

One challenge in today’s job market is that you can hardly threaten to fire them if they don’t work together to your standard. While it’s certainly a viable last resort, the cost and time to find replacements and the disruption to the function make this an undesirable solution.

Enter the Creative Alternatives

I’ve seen three rather creative alternatives work in this situation. The first one you will expect from me. The second and third, well, maybe not.

  1. Reframe it as a clash of styles that blocks productivity and hurts results. Explain in no uncertain terms the consequences to the business, and be specific. Then utilize an MBTI expert to explore their clashing styles with them and find a path forward in which they (perhaps begrudgingly) come to respect one another’s differing styles.
  2. Book a conference room for the whole day and tell them they must not leave until they have figured out the reasons their working relationship is so ineffective, a solution they can both live with, and an execution plan to implement their solution. Be unbending on this requirement, but flexible on the method to get there. It might not be like anything you would have come up with. Drop in from time to time to show you’re serious about this, to coach them over any hurdles, and to make sure they don’t stop talking about their problem and start talking about work or the business in general.
  3. Split them up. While it doesn’t develop their interpersonal and teamwork skills in the least, assigning one of them to a different function that has few or no interdependencies is one way to keep their poor working relationship from further damaging the business. Be clear that they both need to keep dramatically improving their skills, though. In today’s fast-changing business environments, teams form and change frequently, and everyone must be able to quickly figure out how to work well with a wide variety of people.

I hope these three ideas spark many more in your mind. There are as many ways to effectively deal with this challenge as there are people who seemingly just can’t get along.

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In the News

April 27th, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in News | No Comments »


Can we all give it up for the UC-Berkeley Extension certificate program in Leadership and Management? Woot! Woot!

Five years ago, I served on the Advisory Board for this curriculum. With the full encouragement of the program leaders, we recommended dramatic changes to the existing program. The team rolled up their sleeves and set to work creating the new program, which they launched with remarkable speed.

Check out their stats, just five years later:

Enrollment is up 207% (approximately 10x the industry norm)

There are five times as many graduates (and growing)

91% of students are satisfied or very satisfied with the level and quality of instruction

Despite how new it is, 63% of the students say the program has already helped them in their career, with 28% saying it’s too early to tell

In the photo above, you see the smiling faces of the 2015 Advisory Board, who had the great pleasure of hearing this good news and providing guidance on the curriculum for the coming five years.

Eagle-eyed readers might recognize three familiar faces from prior issues of Traveling Light or from working with these fine folks. I’d especially like to thank Program Director Tom McGuire (4th from the left), and my colleagues Don Proctor (3rd from the right) and Han Kim (1st person on the left) for joining us on the board this year. For new readers, I’m right in the middle in that super-snazzy DVF wrap dress.

Interested in learning more about the Leadership and Management Certificate program? Check it out at UC-Berkeley Leadership Certificate.

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The Hardest Assignment I Ever Gave an Executive

April 17th, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Leadership | No Comments »

This week I found myself in a meeting with a client who told me that 15 years ago, I had given him the hardest assignment of his career. This assignment had such a powerful impact that he shared it with others over the years and, in fact, had just recommended it to an entire group of executives during a Q&A session last week. Talk about piquing my interest! Has it piqued yours? O.k., let’s see what it is.

The assignment is to pick just one thing you’ll intentionally get a B on this week, and do it exactly to a B standard.

Yes, seriously. That’s the assignment. What I mean by this is that you must plan to do the work to a level that would get a B grade if you were giving yourself a grade on your work. Don’t target an A, and then settle for a B if you don’t make it. Target a B grade and execute to a B grade.

Sounds easy. Why is it so hard?

It seems counterintuitive that executing B-quality work instead of A-quality work would be harder, not easier. After all, B-quality work takes considerably less time, which should make you a lot more productive, right?

However, this assignment brings up an incredible level of emotional discomfort, even pain. By targeting a B grade, you will be taking all of the following actions either directly or indirectly, and at least one of them is going to be mighty uncomfortable:

  1. Putting a project at risk, admittedly relatively little risk, but if you’ve been burned on a risk you took recently or in a big way, you’re going to feel that nervous, edgy energy come roaring back
  2. Admitting that you can’t do it all
  3. Admitting that you can’t excel at everything in your job
  4. Entering the murky waters of the tough judgment calls that are part and parcel of leading a complex business
  5. Signaling to a person or team that their project is not as important as someone else’s project. (Extra pain points if the person with the B-effort project is a great person to work with, while the person whose project gets your A work is a jerk who will stab you in the back the moment you turn around)

If you really want to take yourself on a white-knuckle ride, include your whole life, not just your work life. If a project for your spouse, child, or parent turns out to be the winner of the B-level effort, you might find yourself thinking twice about how often this has been happening. Ditto that for a project to maintain your mental and physical health.

So, if it’s painful and risky, why do it?

There’s really only one reason to do this executive coaching assignment, and it’s to make more conscious and better-informed decisions. You can only do this by bringing into daylight what you otherwise would keep doing unconsciously in the back of your mind.

The current reality, hard as it may be to accept, is that you’re probably not excelling at everything, someone’s disappointed in you or mad at you, and you’re putting projects at some degree of risk. These are part of the day-to-day reality of being in a leadership role.

But there’s a big difference between consciously and courageously aligning your actions with your real priorities versus assuming you’ll do it all and letting your priorities show after the fact, by what you do well vs. what got your B-level effort.

By actively, consciously deciding what is most important for you to do, and therefore deserving of your Grade A effort, you put a stake in the ground as a leader and gain greater control over your time, your life, and your sanity.

If anything in this article resonates with you, please do this tough assignment this week, and let me know how it goes in the comments below.


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Three Keys to Hiring the Right Cultural Fit

March 2nd, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Building Relationships, Communication, Cultural Fit, Interviewing | No Comments »

businesspeopleshakinghandsHas this ever happened to you? You had a strong team in a great company with a culture you loved. You interviewed diligently to fill an open position, and were fortunate enough to snag someone who was very successful, very talented, and very skilled.

Awesome! You thought you had the right fit, but within months, this individual quit – or perhaps you had to let him or her go – because he or she turned out to be a poor fit with the culture.

You thought you did everything right in posting, reviewing resumes, interviewing, being meticulous, asking great questions, and involving all of the team members. There’s no doubt you hired someone who could have been successful, since he or she had already demonstrated it elsewhere. However, their style didn’t work in your culture – and it gave you a headache just thinking about how much time and money was wasted trying so hard to fit that square peg into a round hole. Ouch.

First of all, don’t feel too bad about this mistake – most managers make at least one hiring decision that turns out to be a misfit. In fact, cultural fit is the area in which I see the greatest number of costly mistakes, because I am asked to provide executive coaching for a struggling new leader who, in fact, would have performed beautifully in a different culture.

Here are the three most common mistakes in interviewing for cultural fit.

Mistake #1: Asking direct questions about culture.

When it comes to assessing cultural fit, don’t use direct questions about culture, such as “Tell me what kind of work culture motivates you” or “Do you like the culture where you work?” Direct questions about culture don’t help you gain insights into the candidate’s fit.

In a typical year, I talk with people in 30 – 40 companies, and because they often talk about their cultures, I see firsthand that almost everyone describes their company’s culture in identical terms, such as “fast-paced.” When it comes to interviewing, this renders the use of words to describe culture meaningless.

Mistake #2: Asking about results they’ve achieved, without listening for cultural clues in their answers.

This is where many interviewers inadvertently shoot themselves in the foot. They perceive questions about results as being (somewhat logically) only about results, so they only listen for results.

I made this mistake myself, and paid the price. Early in my management career, I asked a candidate about the results she had achieved in her current role. I listened carefully and was impressed with what she had accomplished. She was quite a talent.

What I failed to do was listen closely to clues about how she achieved the goals, which turned out to be largely working on her own. She was very independent in nature, and she proved to be a terrible fit with the warm, collaborative culture that was the hallmark of my employer at the time.

People hated coming to her with their questions, which was a real problem since answering their questions was 30% of her job.

But I owned at least half of the responsibility for her failure, because I failed to match the way the candidate worked with styles the culture would embrace, or at least tolerate.

This brings us to Mistake #3…

Mistake #3: Not including a culture interviewer.

Let’s continue with the same example. Six of us interviewed the candidate, but none of us specifically owned the responsibility for a deep dive on cultural fit. Even so, two of the interviewers expressed reservations about “something I can’t put my finger on – she seems a little distant somehow – I’m trying to be open to someone who’s been successful with a different style than I’m used to, but… I’m probably being too close-minded here…”

Had at least one of us been assigned the job of being laser-focused on cultural fit, he or she would have been much more confident and certain about the importance of these concerns, and would have been asking the right questions and listening closely to the answers.

So what are the right questions to ask, and what should you listen for in the answers?

Surprisingly, you may already be asking the right questions, and you may not need to add any others. Isn’t that great?

If you’re already asking for specific stories about how they accomplished results, you’re on the right track.You’ll get much better insights into cultural fit if you ask them to walk you through how they accomplished their results, in the form of a SOAR story:

  1. Situation: What situation did you face?
  2. Obstacles: What obstacles were in your way?
  3. Actions: What actions did you take to solve the problem or achieve the goal?
  4. Results: What results did you get?

As you can see, the results are only 25% of the question, and in the other 75%, you have many opportunities to gain insights into cultural fit.

For example, if your rate of growth is particularly fast compared with other companies in your industry, you probably have a culture that values fast, independent decision-making because there are hundreds or thousands of decisions to be made every day and not enough people to make them. That’s the nature of a company in a very rapid growth stage, such as in the first two years after an IPO.

As we’ve seen, while you can ask the candidate to talk about his or her experience in rapid-growth situations, you’ll probably get a beautiful, convincing answer, but it will be useless.

If you were in the fast-growth situation above, you would listen for evidence that their actions included a lot of fast, independent decisions, and that they used time-consuming collaboration only for complex decisions that required a great deal of buy-in from multiple stakeholders.

If their answer to the question still leaves you uncertain, but the candidate is a good fit in other ways, ask them to think about a time when they had to move very quickly and decisively, and to tell you about it in great detail. Listen for clues about how they handled the situation. Would that approach work in your culture?

Compare notes with the other interviewers, and make sure you give equal voice to the culture-fit interviewer, and you’ll get the right fit.

Enjoy your interviewing, and let me know how it goes in the comments below.

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Jennifer Recommends

December 28th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Jennifer Recommends | No Comments »

Do you sometimes wish you had access to a back issue of Traveling Light? You do!

Many Travelers know that all articles are posted at, including Jennifer Recommends, In the News, and (most importantly?) Just for Fun.

linkedinlogo_132x32_2But did you know that you can also read more recent feature articles on LinkedIn? Travelers (that’s you) receive the articles first, but they typically go up on LinkedIn within two weeks after TL is published.

I also occasionally post short articles on LinkedIn that many of my clients find helpful.

To see all articles, visit Jennifer Selby Long Articles on LinkedIn. To receive a notice when a new article is posted, select any article and click on the Follow button at the top of the screen.

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2014 Relationship Building Challenge

December 18th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Relationship Challenge | No Comments »

coffeeoutsideWe’re coming in for the big finish! On January 3, I recommended making one small change per month this year ( to dramatically improve your skill and confidence in building relationships.
The challenge for October was:

“Be there when it’s tough. Over the course of a career, everyone has ups and downs, and some of them are very dramatic. When one of your Treasured Ten suffers a big blow (professional or personal, or both), many, many people will scatter. Don’t be one of those people. In fact, come in a little closer. Do what you can to help, even if it’s as small as continuing to meet up for coffee. Granted, tough times can come any time, not just in the month of November, but I had to put this somewhere. In the season of Thanksgiving, be thankful you can be there to support them.”

How did you do?

Here’s your final challenge, if you are willing to accept it:

“Think of something you appreciate about this relationship, and share it with the other person. For example, whenever a client is the inspiration for a Traveling Light column, I let him or her know. They often have a great time reading the article and seeing how I’ve disguised their identity. I’ve placed this habit in December because it is when we are most likely to reflect back on the year and think of these moments, but you can also do it as the situation arises.”

Let me know how it’s going, share your thoughts, and ask your questions any time at

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