How to develop and motivate your expert employees

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 the second of a three-part series on technical experts, Hervé Borensztejn, regional leader of Heidrick Consulting in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, outlines how to incentivise, reward and develop these valuable employees.

One of the thorniest issues for leaders to navigate when developing an experts’ policy is deciding what to do with who they have. Indeed, how leaders choose to incentivise, reward, and develop experts will determine the future of the organisation. The difference could mean setting industry trends or merely trying to adapt to them.

Typically, talented non-technical employees are given a clear path to move up in an organisation, taking on the responsibilities of management and executive leadership. Yet experts are usually offered no such path that allows them to continue to deliver value through their expertise; in fact, they may “defect” to leadership for this very reason, enticed by the organisational chart or compensation packages.

The primary element of a successful experts policy is that it defines a distinct upward mobility track to ensure experts direct their knowledge to where their strategic value is highest. Such paths can offer experts other options, including roles as specialists, advisers, or even managers of other experts.

Of course, how individuals move up through these roles and find their path at the company is paramount.

The promotion process

The promotion process provides both hard and soft business benefits. On the one hand, it provides motivation and attractive career prospects for professionals who otherwise might advance only by entering management. On the other, by creating a development model with as much influence as a career in management, it builds an important relationship between business context and expertise.

While the majority of promotion processes are influenced by managers and overseen by HR, the promotion of experts must also involve the experts themselves, as peers. One way of successfully determining candidates for expert roles, which we have seen benefit organisations time and time again, is to ask them to submit an application comprising three sections that cover different areas of performance:

Person: This section details the candidate’s knowledge, experience, and potential. The individual must have earned recognition for extraordinary competency throughout the company and beyond.

Position: This section assesses how well the individual adheres to the organisation’s overall strategy and goals. What is the value of his or her area of specific expertise for the company value creation? Could the expertise become obsolete? Is it possible to foresee how this expertise will continue to create competitive advantage? What are the mid- and long-term needs (qualitative and quantitative)?

Performance: This section examines the candidate’s contributions to the group of experts he or she will join. How many patents does the applicant have to his or her name? Has the candidate given internal or external conferences? How active is he or she in the field? Has the candidate taken steps to transfer his or her knowledge?

With experts on the right track professionally, the experts’ policy should help keep the roles rewarding, both financially and professionally. This can be done with expert-specific versions of common retention and development initiatives, including compensation schemes, soft skills training, networking, and the flexibility to pursue research interests.

Compensation schemes

Companies tend to reward employees for superior performance using a standard set of key performance indicators (meeting sales goals, reducing costs, and so forth). Expert performance is harder to measure, given its nature of long-term research and development. Management can’t very well penalise experts who have not yet made a breakthrough discovery.

What companies can do, however, is define and assess the right accountabilities, such as expertise (using the number of patent applications and publications as a measurement, for example); advisory capabilities (especially as they relate to advising top management); innovation (moving from expertise to value creation ­– such as the mathematicians who study the behaviour of propellant smoke after an Ariane 5 rocket launches, aiming to make future launches safer by reducing turbulence); reputation and visibility within scientific communities, and management of knowledge and intellectual property; and involvement in specific projects.

Soft skills training

Leaders often mistakenly believe that experts don’t need further training, but given their deep integration in their fields, experts tend to communicate in technical jargon, which can be confusing or off-putting. Soft-skills training, focused on improving communication, can help experts become more convincing, more impactful, and more interesting, both for their colleagues and for clients or customers.

At a higher level, bridging this gap can help experts become more persuasive, and therefore more influential within the organisation, enhancing communication between departments and enabling experts to be more effective advisers on company strategy.


Networking is a crucial aspect of supporting experts’ professional development, perhaps even more so than for other employees, given experts’ tight-knit technical communities. Connecting with external universities, research institutions, and think tanks can keep experts energised and informed about current trends.

Experts policies can facilitate these connections by providing experts with leeway to attend or speak at conferences and co-author research papers, all of which may require time away from their day jobs. However, the experts are enabled to participate fully in the community in which they seek renown, and the company’s profile is raised thanks to the experts’ participation.

Flexibility to pursue research interests

Institutional support to innovate new concepts and products can be a game-changing incentive for expert employees. Indeed, such freedom to experiment, and even to fail, is key to staying ahead of industry trends. As such, it is integral to both the growth of the organisation and the development of the expert.

For instance, with the rise of open innovation, internal experts have been assigned to identify promising external research organisations to partner with in the early phases of a project. Others have been asked to lead the creation of chairs with prominent university labs. And companies such as 3M and Google allow their employees to spend up to 20% of their company time as they wish.

The ROI of these flextime policies has been significant, in terms of both value creation by serendipity (such as the famously accidental invention of the Post-it Note) and also retention of critical expertise (which has been well documented in organisations such as Airbus and 3M).

At the extreme, experts may benefit from sabbaticals that allow them to focus on their own research passions, which they can then translate, refreshed, back to their day jobs.

Experts who are happier are more likely to create new ideas that will determine their organisation’s – and perhaps even their industry’s – future. Capitalising on those breakthroughs and translating them to strategic value are key to increasing companies’ competitive edge.

In the third part of our series, we explain how attract the next generation of 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.