How to Lead Without Subject Matter Expertise

By Jon Miller Updated on July 31st, 2021

This week, while reading a Wall Street Journal article, I was reminded of something James Womack said at a lean conference about a decade ago. It was during a speech about value stream management. He pointed out a main key difference between how Toyota and most other companies managed product development. Unlike others, he said Toyota did so from a process perspective rather than a product perspective. Whereas traditional product development relied on a leader with deep product expertise, the lean approach de-emphasized this in favor of a leader’s ability to work across various processes and disciplines.

The article’s title is Why Real Coaches Want to Be Ted Lasso and the answer is right there in the tag line that follows He doesn’t know anything about his sport, but he knows how to get the best of his players. This show features a fictional American football coach managing an English football club. Despite the name, these are two very different sports. Hidden within the comedy are some nuggets for modern management.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Apparently the show is growing in popularity with some basketball coaches who find in it lessons for their own profession. Commenting on fictional soccer coach Ted Lasso, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr is quoted, “If there is a lesson on the show, it is that culture beats insights. The guy knows nothing about soccer but he has created a great atmosphere with the club that leads to winning.” Culture, or the understanding of how people work and how things actually get done within an organization, beats product knowledge, content expertise, scheme. and so on. Kerr must have read Drucker.

The best coaches are the best managers of people. One of the show’s creators, Brendan Hunt, puts it this way, “I think it used to be an accepted leadership tactic to essentially abuse people. I’m sure there are people who are, like, Now we’re soft. We’re not soft. We’re just not morons. We see better ways to get the best out of people. Humiliating them in front of their peers is probably not high on the list.”

Ted Lasso knows nothing about association football or soccer. But that doesn’t matter, as the most important part of what he does is how he gets the best out of people by fostering an environment where everyone is capable of doing good work. This takes work, as he has to win over initially skeptical people mired in a losing culture.

Be Curious, Not Judgmental

Another key theme that’s quite applicable to leaders in any context is having the humility to be curious. At one point in the show, Ted Lasso quotes Walt Whitman, “Be curious. Not judgmental.” Leaders who are secure in themselves give power away rather than fight to keep it. They have the humility to admit that they don’t have all of the answers, curiosity to ask for help, and the wisdom to accept it. There are notable episodes when Ted Lasso gets out of the way and allows the people who have good ideas to put them forward.

On the one hand, knowing so little about the story may seem unrealistic, suitable for comedic fiction but not for high-stakes professional sports. On the other hand, in any given professional sports league there are traditional coaches who fail to get the most out of the highest tier talent, year after year. The most humble and curious of these coaches may be watching and learning from Ted Lasso.

Ted Lasso is a process expert rather than a content expert. He doesn’t know the product, but he knows the process. He doesn’t get the game but he gets the best out of people. In many professional fields, the people who get promoted into leadership often have strong technical backgrounds or in-depth knowledge of their fields. This “product” knowledge has helped them meet challenges in the past. However, as leaders rise higher in the organization, have broader scope of responsibility, or face more uncertainty, they must rely more on the expertise of those they lead.

  1. Jon Kavanagh

    September 21, 2021 - 1:37 pm

    This makes sense… and yet doesn’t Toyota believe (if I recall per “The Toyota Way”) that the best leaders are ones with experiential knowledge of the processes? That leaders should have spent time in the trenches, understanding the why instead of the what?

    • Jon Miller

      September 22, 2021 - 9:11 am

      Thanks for your comment Jon. You’re correct, that’s how I understand The Toyota Way also. They prefer to develop leaders from within so it’s more possible to select from people with process knowledge. For many firms, this may be desirable but not as possible.

  2. Bruce Goerss

    September 22, 2021 - 9:45 am

    Proof, Head Coach Sean McDermott of the Buffalo Bills. He follows a CI process (kaizen) to make the Bills a better team. There was an article about this in the Buffalo News. I also think he has an advantage with good Product Knowledge as well. He was a good player and a successful defensive coordinator.

    I want culture and strategy in a leader. Culture is definitely more important than strategy when you recognize you have a capable team (Assistant Coaches and Players) to help you with strategy and you listen to them and let them do their job.

  3. Hugh Alley

    September 22, 2021 - 10:42 am

    I wonder if there is a false opposition here. The responsibilities of leaders are to look after the mission of the organization AND to look after the people. You cannot do just one, or the organization will eventually fail. So too with strategy and culture.

    Kenneth Hare, a geographer who earned acclaim as a meteorologist, once observed that to be a good generalist you have to have, at one point, been an excellent specialist. His point was that only specialists have the gut understanding of how complex systems really are. He observed that once you have seen that complexity somewhere, you never forget that under every general problem there are layers of complexity. This means you don’t get suckered by simple solutions that have unwanted and unanticipated side-effects.

    I think the need for deep practical experience in CI comes from the same fundamental point. Until you have wrestled with the complexity of a particular specialty (product), it’s hard to appreciate the complexities of improving the process.

    • Jon Miller

      September 23, 2021 - 1:40 pm

      That’s a great point Hugh. I certainly agree that leaders need to be able to recognize, appreciate and respond to the complexity of their systems and organizations.

  4. Froi Arevalo

    September 22, 2021 - 11:26 am

    It is true that one can lead with no subject matter expertise experience. But the one leading must have a huge experience in the strategic process approach (Gemba). Be curious and not judgmental about the things you see and curiously ask questions about why it is like that and how can it be improved? I have worked with a company whose way of correcting things is to fire people and get a new one and eventually fire that person again and yet they call themselves a LEAN and ISO9001 certified practitioner. . No wonder until now, for the past nth years, they are still struggling with the same unstable process. Whatever you do, you will never find a perfect person for the job. But with the right strategy, you will eventually improve the process through long-term people investment.

    • Jon Miller

      September 23, 2021 - 1:37 pm

      Great comment. Thanks Froi. I hope your company finds a better way soon!

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