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Stop Being the Expert and Be a Coach

By Steve Kane Updated on October 22nd, 2020

I wrote the article below a few years ago and wanted to revisit it and include some thoughts on how this relates to coaching.

“If I am wiser. . . it is because I know that I do not know.” ~ Socrates

Is it possible that expertise on a particular subject can become an obstacle to learning and growth?

There comes a point when a person is more apt to be asked for knowledge or advice on a particular subject than to ask for it.  In the context of work, this person is the resident expert.  This is the person others go to to find out how something is done.  This person is certainly an asset in some respects.  But, can this person be a liability in others?

Of course, we could go on about the importance of standard work.  I’ll leave that for another article.  Instead I’d like to discuss the risk of being an expert.

The process stagnates with the knowledge of the expert.

The expert has “been there and done that” more times than one can imagine.  This person knows the job and knows that he knows the job.  This is why others go to him for knowledge and advice.  The learner might improve by going to the expert for coaching.  The process, though, doesn’t.  The process stagnates with the knowledge of the expert.

It seems that processes improve when we are humble and look with new eyes.  Standing in the Ohno circle with the mind of the expert leads to aching feet.  It is when we stand in the circle with the mind of a novice that we begin to open ourselves to learning.

Is expertise enough, or should more emphasis be placed on wisdom?

Simply giving information can hinder the learning process and weaken the skills of the learner.  Learning how to learn is more important than the subject matter to be learned.  We certainly want the learner to be able to do the job.  We also want the learner to think of a way to improve the process.

Instilling the belief that the method taught is the best could impede improvement thinking.  If the learner meets expectations by performing a skill as taught, improvement stops.  The expectation must be to find a way to improve upon the way being taught.

Sometimes the best wisdom to share with the learner is “I don’t know.”

We want people thinking for themselves.  In my role as a lean leader, I gave up trying to be the expert on everything.  Instead I embraced my ignorance.  People often came to me for direction or instruction.  It was when I answered questions with “I don’t know. What do you think?” that things really started to improve.

The universe abhors a vacuum.  Creating a void in expertise with “I don’t know” invites greater expertise.  This is when ideas are shared and explored.

Is there a better way?

I don’t know.  What do you think?

I’ve become a certified professional coach since this article was originally posted. In my training I had a bit of an “a-ha” moment. This was when the instructor talked about the value of expertise as a coach.

Coaching vs. Teaching

Coaching is the practice of engaging with clients in a thought provoking manner to help them get from where they are to where they want to be. Teaching, on the other hand, is the practice of conveying knowledge.

The “a-ha” moment was during an exercise to complete a coaching session without making any statements. I was free to ask as many questions as I wanted, just no statements. This exercise taught me that I make a lot of statements. Overcoming my desire to impart my knowledge or experience was difficult–very difficult.

One of the reasons coaches should ask and not tell is that people learn through the process of finding their own way. Coaches aid in this process by asking meaningful questions and giving the client the space to think and decide.

For the subject matter experts who are also coaches, the challenge is to coach as though they do not have the expertise to give. Discovery and learning stop when information is simply given. Becoming informed is not the same as becoming knowledgable. Help people become knowledgable by asking the right questions and letting the client struggle through the answer. This struggle is learning process.

  1. Steve Kane

    October 23, 2020 - 8:57 am

    Thanks very much, James!

  2. Chuck McCarthy

    October 26, 2020 - 6:27 am

    Thank you for reminding us of the power questions have in the learning process.

  3. Pooja

    November 4, 2020 - 3:47 am

    This is so so important, be a Coach always! Thank you for sharing this article.

  4. keiko fuchioka

    January 6, 2021 - 10:51 am

    The importance of Humble Inquiry … thank you for reminding us, I love this article!

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