Getting the best out of your technical experts: developing experts policies

Written by
Hervé Borensztejn, regional leader, Heidrick Consulting in Europe

14 Mar 2019

14 Mar 2019 • by Hervé Borensztejn, regional leader, Heidrick Consulting in Europe

In a knowledge-based economy, leaders must align the insights and interests of highly skilled experts with the goals of the organisation. In the first of a three-part series, Hervé Borensztejn, regional leader of Heidrick Consulting in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, explains the benefits of developing experts policies.

Although they often make up no more than 10% of an organisation’s workforce, technical experts (be they programmers, data scientists, nanotechnologists or others) have an outsize effect on its performance; without them, companies would lose their competitive edge. Therefore, optimising these experts’ time and development must be an organisational priority.

However, the experts who create the most business value vary by industry and company, and expertise is not static. Today’s strategic advantage might become tomorrow’s necessary commodity or fall out of favour entirely.

In our experience, companies across the board struggle to attract, retain, and develop expert employees. With no clear career path for promotion, many experts languish and become frustrated, and those who wish to climb the ranks may choose to transition from their area of expertise to management, or simply become disengaged.

The latter scenario presents a real risk of weakening the value of the company’s intellectual property. Beyond the potential for lost revenue, word travels fast among experts and their peers: a company known for stagnation is not seen as a desirable place to work.

To attract and retain the best experts, companies must adopt a new mindset on managing these employees and the HR policies that support them. To that end, some of the knowledge-driven companies we’ve worked with have developed ‘experts’ policies’, to acknowledge and define efforts to maximise the development and continuous nurturing of staff who create scientific and technical value, which we have used as benchmarks.

These effectively shift incentives and structures to better match the needs of their experts and may define opportunities for experts’ professional development parallel to their peers on more traditional managerial or leadership tracks.

Such development can improve an expert’s ability to focus on his or her work, creating new knowledge, and transforming the organisation through collective expertise. HR departments can play a crucial role, helping to define the values of the company and craft effective strategies to keep experts on a value-creating path. The result is a more agile organisation better able to foresee and adapt to industry trends.

The need for an experts policy

A key objective of an experts policy is to align an organisation’s technological competency portfolio with its overall strategic goals – not only for today’s direction but also in the years to come. This task sounds simple but can be challenging in practice, as experts tend to value technical accomplishments or conquering self-imposed goals.

As a result, they are often less invested in adding value to strategic objectives. In some cases, experts feel their specific expertise holds the most value in itself, whereas a strategic perspective should assess the usefulness of that expertise within a business context. Therefore, as technology evolves and industry trends shift, knowledge-based companies often struggle to define the expertise needed in the future.

Another objective of an experts policy is to help companies attract and retain a valuable expert workforce. To do so, companies will need to develop a reputation as a place where suitable candidates from academic and technical circles want to work. This requires fostering existing talented employees as well as paving the way for subsequent generations of experts.

An experts policy should also create room for unique growth paths. Experts are often summoned as emergency technicians to solve problems encountered during a project, but these assignments can detract from their other, more valuable responsibilities.

Rather than tackling long-term goals related to strategy or innovation, the expert is relegated to putting out fires. This can be particularly frustrating when a project goes in a direction that experts would have initially advised against. The best-case scenario is to find middle ground between short- and long-term responsibilities.

Building trust and encouraging collaboration

Finally, an experts policy can help overcome feelings of territoriality by building trust between disparate departments. In pharmaceuticals, for instance, there are chemists who have been leading research in new treatments for years, if not decades. Now, after the game-changing rise of biology as an input in pharma, breaking down the silos between the disciplines has led to biochemist solutions, which are promising options for new medications.

To initiate such collaboration, leading pharma companies have encouraged biology and chemistry departments to share both successes and failures and assembled multidisciplinary teams to look for new, potentially overlooked, disruptive solutions.

Corporate leaders and experts will need to share a sense of ownership of valuable knowledge. It is the responsibility of leaders to ensure that experts know and are contributing to the organisational strategy. For example, in healthcare, experts have been integral in the move from chemical to biological materials, completely reshaping the business in the process.

In electrical engineering, experts who discovered how to build permanent magnets with rare-earth minerals have transformed the business model of renewable energy with cheaper windmills. And in the aerospace industry, the fly-by-wire technology developed by experts at one company has replaced manual flight controls with a more automated interface.

Ultimately experts policies help ensure that the company has a continuing supply of the right people in the right places at the right time, for today and for tomorrow. These policies help map the strategic capabilities of the organisation by answering questions about where it possesses the most and least expertise, where it is in danger of losing valuable knowledge, and what competencies missing from the group’s portfolio are likely to be needed in the future.

In the second part of the series, we explain how to develop strategies that develop and motivate your expert employees.


  • This article has been provided by Changeboard’s Future Talent 2019 partners, Heidrick & Struggles. You can see Heidrick & Struggles Partner Scott Snyder in conversation with Avon CEO Jan Zijderveld at Changeboard's Future Talent Conference on 21 March.