Becoming Indispensable by Finding Your Expert Power
By Eric Feldman
July 12, 2022 | 7-minute read
Marketing Management and Leadership Project and Program Management Content Type Article
Dominic Ayres (left) is a senior client development manager on the industrials team at Eversheds Sutherland, a leading international law practice with a global client base. In January 2022, Ayres published the book “How to Advance Your Career in Professional Services Marketing,” a comprehensive guide to purposefully developing career skills while becoming a strategic advisor to internal and external stakeholders alike.
While completing his MBA Essentials program at the London School of Economics, Ayres learned more about the idea of expert power and how it supports career development. Strategies & Voices editor Eric Feldman sat down with Ayres for a closer look at this concept and how developing niche expertise can help one become an indispensable resource to their organization and beyond.
First and foremost, what is expert power?
Expert power means having a deeper, underlying power to discover and solve stakeholder needs, and has a lot to do with how we exert influence in our organizations.
Particularly in the professional services industry, we work in huge, global hierarchies where we often collaborate with senior stakeholders over whom we have no authority. Because of this, it’s challenging to influence stakeholders to change their behavior or move toward a common objective, whether for a marketing strategy, campaign or pain point needing to be solved. By establishing ourselves as experts backed by skills, knowledge and experience, we're able to possess that kind of power that's needed to influence senior decision-makers.
For example, at Eversheds Sutherland, I focus on the industrial sector, so part of my domain expertise comes from having regular conversations with clients, conducting independent research and constantly talking to others about the sector. When partners want to develop client relationships in the industrial sector, I have a certain understanding of what is happening and what is relevant. This allows me to use my knowledge to better steer those partners, the conversation and client work.
How does one gain the experience needed to have expert power? Does that come naturally with time or do you need to seek it out?
It is a combination of both. My advice to anyone wanting to develop expert power is to start with an end objective and build your way to achieving it.
One example was during the pandemic when a lot of our marketing efforts moved to digital platforms. There were junior members on the marketing team that had more knowledge of digital marketing applications and tools than me, so I set an objective to better understand them. Now I'm heavily reliant on digital marketing tools as a senior manager, and that includes relying on junior team members to best advise me on how to utilize them.
This logic applies to any part of your organization. If you're particularly good at something and others have a need for it, focus there on developing your expert power. Try learning about a topic that no one else knows as much about — people will seek you out for that knowledge.
How does expert power help you build trust with internal stakeholders?
I think there's always a journey to building trust, whether that’s with clients, partners or your team.
The first stage is awareness. There may be an issue to solve, assigned to you by a colleague or higher up with limited insights. While you have the skill set and subject matter expertise, the person who asked for your assistance may want to scope out the request and have oversight to make sure that they get what they need.
If you complete the task(s) to their satisfaction, you'll move into the next stage — understanding. The person you worked with now knows you can help them again and do a good job. They'll probably still spend time going over details, but not as much as before.
By establishing ourselves as experts backed by skills, knowledge and experience, we're able to possess that kind of power that's needed to influence senior decision-makers.
As you advance through these two stages, you’ll move to the acceptance stage. Here, the stakeholder will accept your skills and view you as valuable. You're someone who has proven continued excellence, so they will spend less time on details and assume you know what they want.
If you do this correctly, you’ll reach the point of trust. You’ve built a model where the stakeholder trusts you with their future requests, will no longer micromanage and will rely on you to communicate needs and findings.
There’s one stage even beyond trust: the strategic advisor stage. This is where your colleagues won't ask you to do a task, they'll ask for your advice on approaching said task. There’s interest in your opinion at this stage and you’re seen as someone with experience and knowledge on the subject matter. You may even have people refer to you as an expert.
Following these steps is essential to building trust and becoming an expert. There are certain stakeholders with whom you will build trust more quickly, but there will always be others who are hesitant. In general, this is a good way to think about yourself, your relationships and the value you're adding to the organization.
What does it mean to become indispensable?
Having domain expertise is crucial because you become the organization’s go-to person for that subject area. You utilize your knowledge and skills to help the organization, moving from someone who is merely marketing overhead to someone who is a trusted advisor — becoming indispensable.
The other part of this, and it ties in with the trust model, is reliability. It's one thing to be good at something, but when things are urgent or complex, stakeholders need someone to follow through on their commitments. They need someone who’s hard-working and proactive because those attributes build trust.
It's what I call internal client excellence — things like identifying expectations up front, scoping out what clients need, picking up the phone, asking good questions and keeping them updated on progress. I often see with junior colleagues that they're hesitant to pick up the phone and often misinterpret what's needed. This can waste a lot of time and dilute a lot of trust that you're trying to build.
Another fundamental aspect of internal client excellence is responsiveness. Often, the stakeholders in the business are under pressure and just need reassurance that someone in marketing received their email and is prioritizing it. I personally have a rule that I will try to reply to everyone, whether it's on Microsoft Teams, email or a phone call within 24 hours. Even if it’s just to say I will get to this — not here’s the answer or the plan, but it’s on my radar now and I’ll get back to you. That’s incredibly valuable.
The last part is following up with stakeholders after completing something, assessing what was achieved and getting their thoughts. Ask what feedback they have, how things could be done better next time, what they’d like to change, etc. This reliability, combined with expertise will make you truly indispensable.
What actionable takeaway would you give to someone trying to manage internal stakeholders with no actual authority over their work?
Understand that the organization you work with is made up of highly educated, time-pressed, relatively autonomous professionals. They often need to be persuaded and motivated to work together in a competitive environment to best serve clients. Part of this is that each individual you work with will have different objectives — they're incentivized differently. This makes it particularly challenging when the success of your initiatives is reliant on motivating others. I think there are three good ways to do it:
- Opt for the collaborative approach first. Understand and build relationships with internal stakeholders. You can identify areas where you can work together toward a common goal.
- Ask for input from stakeholders. While a collaborative approach may not work, you can ask stakeholders to provide input as part of the information gathering phase of a particular project. With this approach, identify how their participation will be beneficial to their role and professional development so they clearly understand what’s in it for them.
- Set “accountability traps.” Relating to the hierarchical structure in your organization, there is someone who has the authority to direct stakeholder actions (think of it as everyone having a boss). If you can bring an idea or campaign to a stakeholder’s supervisor and ask who on their team could assist your initiative, nine times out of 10 they will recommend the person you want to work with. With the supervisor’s approval, your request is more powerful. Always think about where there is an opportunity to use the power structure of an organization to influence others in helping you.
Any parting thoughts?
I think one misconception is that expert power is only developed through time. Anyone at any level of an organization can learn these skills and build the trust needed to gain expert power. We can constantly learn from other industries and our competitors as well. I believe you can never stop learning and finding new ways to have an edge.