My early fall reading list included "The Power of Credible Expert Leaders" by Dr. Amanda Goodall, which had been recommended to me by a CEO search committee member with whom I am currently working—as luck would have it, he also happens to be an executive search consultant! Citing examples from various industries, Dr. Goodall convincingly argues that expert leadership plays a crucial role in an organization's success. She highlights that top universities are led by scholars, not outsiders recruited from the private sector, and that the best-performing hospitals, for example, are headed by physician leaders. Also true for professional sports, the book cited that basketball teams tend to win more games when led by former all-star players or individuals with successful careers in the NBA. Dr. Goodall asserts that expert leaders not only share their organizations’ culture and values, they are also best positioned to convey a clear sense of purpose, take a long view, create a productive work environment, perform to high standards, and signal excellence.
While I fundamentally agree with many of her points, there are exceptions. I've seen best-in-class organizations accelerate excellence by bringing in leadership from companies distinguished among their peers in other sectors. This approach, while presenting a steep learning curve, has proven to be a game changer for those hiring organizations in the long term. That said, in the post-pandemic world—when it has never been more important for teams to feel valued, understood, and supported—organizational culture is at the forefront of everyone's minds. As Dr. Goodall asserts that people who work for experts are happier because they feel better understood and that the organizations they lead are more successful, this is something to consider.
As a way to calibrate my own thinking on this topic, I sought the opinions of four executives who bring their unique perspectives from diverse industries: Tim Mulligan, Chief Human Resources Officer at BENlabs; Jane Miller, a Board Member with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and former President and Chief Operating Officer at Gallup; Beth Quillen Thomas, Nonprofit Leadership Consultant; and Lisa Watson, Principal of the Watson Consulting Group. The conversations were fascinating!
Solid Leadership and Adaptability
Chief Human Resources Officer at BENlabs
Tim Mulligan, a CHRO with 25 years of human resource experience, offered a balanced viewpoint. While underscoring the pivotal role that relevant work experience plays in leadership, Tim acknowledged the contextual nature of this requirement, asserting that its significance hinges on the specific industry in question. Tim noted, "I spent much of my career in hospitality. In that world, I saw many instances where a leader was hired with a strong management background but not a background in the hospitality industry, and it was an uphill climb. Sure, there are transferable skills—communication, teamwork and team management, financial prowess, and problem-solving, for example—but not having inside knowledge of hospitality-centric areas such as housekeeping, food and beverage, bar management, stewarding, customer service, or hospitality revenue management, for example, really could be a downfall for these hired leaders."
Conversely, Tim believes that a “smart, good leader can do well in areas they did not grow up in." He shared that in industries such as technology and marketing, especially, general business management and leadership skills might be able to outweigh sector-specific expertise. Tim explained that his own career shift exemplifies his belief that adaptable leaders can succeed in different industries. "That's where things like strong and effective leadership and management skills, along with adaptability, creativity, and collaboration—essential for really any industry—can trump not having specific functional expertise in the genre of business the company sits in. It worked for me—I was able to transition my own career away from many years in tourism and hospitality to a career in AI and tech, and I seem to be still growing, learning, and succeeding." While specific expertise is invaluable in certain contexts, leadership skills that transcend industries can play an equally crucial role. The key lies in recognizing the inherent nuances and adapting one's leadership approach accordingly, just as Tim did in his career!
Board Member at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium Former President and Chief Operating Officer at Gallup
"The Power of Credible Expert Leaders" argues that having leaders with technical knowledge and industry-specific understanding is crucial for success across various sectors. As an example, Dr. Goodall cites the notoriously complex and regulated environment of healthcare as requiring leaders familiar with the distinctive landscape of patient care. In our discussion, Jane Miller, Gallup’s former President and Chief Operating Officer, pointed out that the definition of expertise is nuanced and contingent on the unique demands and intricacies of each position. Drawing on the book’s example of a hospital system, she elaborated, "For example—it may or may not be a physician [who is necessary] for a healthcare system. Perhaps you need an expert with experience with prescription management and Medicare on the business side or someone with culture and people development skills because nurse turnover is costing the healthcare system millions annually."
In this context, determining what expertise is required is not solely a matter of individual qualifications but, rather, a dynamic process influenced by the broader organizational context. Jane emphasized that in such instances, the Board and leadership must come together to shape and define the parameters of expertise, tailoring it to the specific needs and goals of the organization. "It essentially comes down to who has the overall business competency, leadership, and proven experience to align teams from different areas of expertise and leverage their strengths to develop a strong strategy along with the mission, vision, and financial outcomes." Jane added, "With the CEO search at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, for example, it was the right time to hire an expert in animal and veterinarian science as well as someone with experience in developing a strong culture as our leader."
Humility and a Fresh Perspective
Beth Quillen Thomas
Nonprofit Leadership Consultant
Agreeing that expertise can be a boon, nonprofit leadership consultant Beth Quillen Thomas emphasized that it is not always essential and asserted the value of a different outlook. She explained, "While I would agree that possessing expertise in a particular field is certainly an added advantage, I don't believe it is always a predictor for achieving success. If a proven leader is hired into a new environment and has the willingness to put ego aside and listen, learn, and make an equal effort to understand the company culture before making any significant decisions, then it is possible to be a non-expert and still succeed."
Beth went further, "I would also argue that oftentimes the non-expert is the one who sees things from such a completely different perspective that it becomes the catalyst for addressing long-standing issues and introducing new opportunities, thereby contributing to both company success and employee satisfaction." With humility and a learning mindset, non-expert leaders can make remarkable contributions and drive success in diverse fields.
Building Trust and Relationships
Principal at Watson Consulting Group
Taking a slightly different perspective, Lisa Watson, whose more than two decades in the nonprofit sector included 14 years leading the best-in-class Downtown Women’s Center, challenged the belief that individuals from outside an industry can readily introduce innovative thinking. She stated, “I think there’s this kind of misbelief that people from outside can think outside the box and come in with something new.” She argued that it’s not always the case that the organization’s current leader lacks creative thinking, rather, it may be that they understand the limitations and boundaries that exist and—because of this deep knowledge—are often more skilled at pushing those boundaries further than their non-expert counterparts.
Equally important, Lisa highlighted several challenges that can arise when leaders are brought in from different industries without sector expertise. She pointed to a common challenge she’s faced, sharing, “I feel like there is a gap that exists if you hire a leader externally. I’ve often hired chief-level people who come from a different level of expertise, and it’s really hard for them to build trust with their teams.” Underscoring the value of shared experiences between executives and those they manage, she added, “It’s much easier to get people to follow you if you’ve been in the trenches. And a good leader needs people to follow them. It’s not to say that it can’t be done, but you’re going to need more time to build that expertise.”
Similar to Jane, Lisa also highlighted the context-dependent nature of expertise; she noted, “I think it also depends on what the work is. If relationships are core to the function of what you are doing, you may want to bring on a leader who’s been building those relationships for the past ten years, as opposed to someone who does not have those relationships because they’re outside of the relevant field—it’s not that they can’t do it—it’s just going to take them years to understand.” She added, “I have over 20 years of experience in homelessness, and a lot of my current work revolves around philanthropy and the child welfare system. I know a lot about families, homelessness, and the philanthropic aspects in Los Angeles. However, considering the vast scale of LA County’s child welfare department, which has approximately 50,000 employees, it took me two years just to gain an understanding of how both the county and the child welfare departments work.”
So, is expertise the be-all and end-all of leadership? "The Power of Credible Expert Leaders" presents it as a crucial element and makes a compelling case, but the answer is more complex. Industry-specific expertise remains important but is one star in the constellation of qualifications that should be evaluated. To meet contemporary needs, leaders must possess not only deep knowledge of their respective fields, but also the leadership abilities and versatility that allow them to both thrive in diverse environments and adapt to changes within their sectors.