In episode 55 of my podcast, Best Boss Ever, Jon Cogan shared his experience with his “worst boss ever”—a leader who epitomized the antithesis of ideal leadership qualities. This particular boss was notorious for deflecting blame and hoarding credit, a behavior pattern that demoralized the team and eroded trust. It highlighted the frustration and disillusionment that can stem from working under someone who prioritizes self-promotion over team achievement, and fails to recognize or reward the contributions of others. It’s leaders like this that majorly affect how a business operates (and its success!) by limiting team cohesion and job satisfaction. 

Jon’s story really hit a nerve, as I’ve long waxed on about the benefits of promoting people matter experts—and this leader was not showing much expertise in this area. This leader probably had amazing subject matter expertise, which helped him get promoted, but as a people leader, it created a toxic environment for many.

So now you’re probably thinking: OK Christine, but what exactly is the difference between a people matter expert and a subject matter expert?

Let’s get into it:

Subject matter experts are the leaders who prioritize their subject matter expertise above all else, and see very little value in what we would call soft skills—and what they would call “silly soft skills.” Subject matter experts are actually a really good thing, and incredibly important for a business’s successbut subject matter expertise doesn’t automatically mean great people skills. 

People matter experts are the leaders who prioritize people and their value to the organization, in addition to bringing their own individual subject matter expertise.

While you may think that in order to be an effective leader, you need to be a subject matter expert, I’d argue that the opposite is true: Subject matter experts do not always make effective leaders. 

Here’s why: Subject matter experts get promoted because they’re really good at something—not necessarily because they’re great at leading people. They’re promoted because they’re really strong at a certain skill. But often, they also derive their value to an organization from that subject matter expertise alone. Sometimes, they take great pride in being the most knowledgeable person in the room—the one with all the answers. This can lead to gatekeeping information and insecurity, two of the most talked-about offenders when it comes to the “worst bosses ever. “ You can see now why Jon’s story of his worst boss sounded like a subject matter expert with minimal people matter expertise.

On the other hand, people matter experts possess the skills necessary to drive company success. They prioritize employees’ value and understand the impact that value can have on the bottom line. They know how to rally people’s emotional energy, get them excited about their position and/or projects they’re working on, and build a positive mindset and culture.  

These types of leaders are more focused on their capability to extract great skill out of everybody on their team. Instead of wracking their own brain trying to figure out how to solve a problem, they’re looking to a group, trying to figure out who’s the best person to tackle that problem. 

This model drives efficiency and efficacy for a business. Think about it: If you’re a subject matter expert, and you’ve established that type of dynamic in your team, you likely have a group that’s looking to you to put your stamp of approval on each presentation, or provide the final answer to every question. This becomes a bottleneck and slows down all the work that the team is pumping out. But if you’re a people matter expert, you’ve built a team that can operate independently. They value your input and expertise but you’re not holding them back from delivering. Each one is doing what they were hired to do, supporting each other in what’s needed to get the task or project done. 

What do you think? Do you prefer reporting to people matter experts or subject matter experts? Join me on LinkedIn and let’s continue the conversation. 

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