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In-House Subject Matter Experts


What to do when others in your company challenge your qualifications to be an expert (and jealously wish they had your assignment)

Dear Liz,

I am thirty-three and wouldn't say I'm a business babe-in-the-woods in any respect. I've run a marketing department and a publications group, and currently I'm a project manager overseeing a new-product launch for a housewares company. Last month, my boss gave me the plum assignment of putting together a white paper and delivering a presentation to our executive staff at their monthly meeting. I'm going to be talking about the role of social-networking communities in our marketing efforts. My boss gave me the assignment because he knows I'm an avid follower of these tools.

Evidently, a lot of other people in the company are, too. Since I've gotten this assignment, and since my boss announced it in the division newsletter, I've received 16 e-mail messages and calls from people elsewhere in the company, saying things like:

"I'm a published authority on this topic and can contribute the lion's share of the white paper content."

"I am already working on a similar project and can consult with you on your presentation via an interdepartmental budget charge."

"I am dismayed to see a newcomer into this space being charged with educating our senior managers on this important topic. Please contact my assistant to arrange a time to interview me so that I can share key findings with you."

More Rivals to Come?

These reactions took me by surprise, I must say. If 16 indignant people contacted me after one newsletter blast, imagine how many more disgruntled experts are out there who haven't yet heard the news? Imagine how many more enemies I'll make when I actually deliver the presentation?

What is your advice—should I consult with each of these people, ignore them, or do something else? I have plenty of sources for my white paper and my presentation, but I don't want to ruffle any more feathers than have already been ruffled.

Thanks,

Carlton

Dear Carlton,

As much as we talk about organizational politics and their association with budgets, staff sizes, and titles, there's nothing more sacred, more coveted, or more fiercely protected in the Knowledge Economy than one's internal status as a "subject-matter expert" (SME). Your boss gave you a killer assignment, and now you find that other people aren't too happy about it. They understand that the person who compiles the research, writes the white paper, and presents the information to the senior team plants two mighty stakes in the ground:

1) This person (that's you) achieves a rare level of visibility with the executive staff in an area that is high-profile and potentially important to the business; and

2) The same person becomes the de facto go-to guy on the issue, meaning that his contacts and knowledge base will only increase rapidly over time.

So my first piece of advice is this: pat yourself on the back. Your boss thinks highly of you and knows you're up to the job. Don't worry about the miffed messages from the peanut gallery. You will win some of these people over. Others will sneer at you no matter how much energy you expend trying to befriend them. Doesn't matter. Whoever would have gotten the assignment would have been in the same boat you are in. It's not personal.

Give Credit to Each

I'd go talk to as many of these experts as your schedule allows (apart from the departmental-chargeback guy, who can go jump in a lake). Your boss entrusted you with the project, and I'm sure that your 15 other correspondents will more than equip you—given the knowledge you already have and your ability to dig up more—for the task at hand. One great thing you can do is introduce the 15 knowledge-providers to one another, to create an informal in-house council of thought leaders on social networking in marketing. That may help salve a few bruised egos (or may stir up the pot even more—hard to tell). You'll absolutely credit each of your interviewees by name in the finished report. You'll keep the most avid and helpful contributors in the loop with your conclusions and recommendations as you move forward.

Knowledge politics can get nasty, so be prepared to be smeared, besmirched, sneered at, and generally dissed. That will happen no matter what you conclude and what you write or present. Because it's you up on that platform, and not one of your rivals for the spotlight, everything you say is at risk of being denounced. Doesn't matter.

Triumph over adversity is a time-honored ritual, and every great leader can tell you stories of having experienced something similar. Don't be cowed by self-important know-it-alls. And don't forget that the value you're providing to the company and to your own career far outweighs the temporary irritation caused by the horde of Ask-Me! flies buzzing around your head right now.

As for the outright slurs, such as "I am dismayed to see a newcomer to this space…," I'd ignore them. Not rising to the bait is a worthy professional skill in itself.

Cheers,

Liz

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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