From being the expert to leading the experts

Many of the best, most innovative, disruptive, creative, successful companies are founded and run by people who are really good at what they do. People who have spent a long time honing their craft and becoming the ‘expert’ in their field.

However, as their businesses grow, they have to shape-shift to meet the changing needs of their organisations. Doing it all and micromanaging the details is not compatible with scale and growth.

There are plenty of books, frameworks and advisers out there who will tell you all about the skills you need to learn, the challenges of leading ever-growing teams, of structuring medium/large organisations, of recruiting well, of facilitating collaboration, of establishing systems and processes, etc.

What is lacking is the deeper conversation about the emotional transition of moving from being the expert to being the one leading the experts.

A fellow founder coach, Rebecca Morley, and I see this with our clients all the time. Sure, the need to learn new skills is important. But what really gets in the way for the large majority of founders who are scaling their businesses is the belief system that sits underneath their sense of identity.

Before you are able to fully transition to your new identity as CEO of a medium/large organisation, you might experience:

  • Grief - the loss of doing what you are great at every day and watching others do it for you.
  • Loss of control - having to rely on others to do and lead the work can feel very uncomfortable when you pride yourself on your craft.
  • Regret - it was so much easier and simpler when it was just you, doing what you love, day in and day out.

Taken together, these can feel like a loss of sense of self. Before, what I did matched who I was: a developer, a product manager, a designer, etc. But now, as a leader of experts, who am I?

What previously defined your value as an expert disappears and you judge yourself (and others may judge you) against a whole new set of metrics, most of which you are only just starting to learn. You become a beginner again, you make mistakes, you don’t immediately know the answer to all the questions thrown at you day in and day out, you rely on others rather than being the one who is relied upon. You’re not the best anymore!

It’s hard. The pull back into your comfort zone can be so strong that you don’t really step into your new shoes. It can have devastating consequences for your business and your team as you seek to micromanage, avoid delegating, disempower staff, ruminate & worry, delay or avoid decision-making, overwork and burnout, etc.

The transition requires you to let go of who you used to be and embrace who you are becoming.

The key to a successful emotional transition is awareness. When we know what is at play, where our emotions are coming from and what they are driving us to do, we can consciously choose our response. We can offer ourselves compassion, we can fill our cups in ways that nourish us and we can focus our attention on building our new identity and away from languishing our old one.

There are several ways you can invest in your own successful emotional transition.

  • Journalling - getting your thoughts and feelings down on paper can help you make sense of your inner world in private and in your own time. It can help you notice patterns and keep track of all the progress you are making. This is particularly important when our focus tends to be exclusively on the next milestone, the next mountain to climb.
  • Speaking to peers - knowing that you are not alone with your feelings and emotions can help you feel less lonely and allow you to give and receive the compassion that you need to feel seen.
  • Sharing publicly - the process of thinking through your experience in order to share it with others helps you make sense of it for yourself. You learn to distil what’s going on, get to the root of your feelings and help others on their journey. It can feel good to take off the mask and the armour and be authentic with a wider audience.
  • Working with a coach - coaching is one of the most powerful forms of support for leaders going through transitions, such as scaling a business. Professional, executive coaches create a safe, nurturing, challenging space for you to explore whatever is on your mind. They have your back with no other agenda but to support you to do your best quality thinking for yourself.
  • Working with a mentor - mentors can offer valuable advice and guidance based on their own experience. Mentoring is best if you are looking for someone to show you the way and give you their perspective.

The key is to connect deeply with your lived experience and find healthy ways to process it - whatever that looks like for you!