Moving from an Individual Contributor to a Leadership Position

Four Barriers to Building Credibility

A litte knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.

  — Albert Einstein

The right of passage for an individual contributor moving into a leadership position is through building a base of credibility. For this individual, moving from expertise to credibility is more about shifting gears than it is about trying to go faster, to accomplish more, or to be smarter. Some people, however, if left to their own instincts, face one or more of four barriers to building credibility.

Barrier #1: The Lure of Depth of Knowledge

Not everyone understands or appreciates the need for building credibility and managing relationships. Many successful individual contributors are high achievers, motivated by high standards and a need to get the job done right. For these individuals, depth of knowledge is a tremendous lure. Where this is problematic, however, is when a person assumes that increasing expertise simultaneously increases credibility. The thought that “knowing more is worth more” misses the point about how credibility is derived. It is not about how much a person knows or does that makes him or her credible. It is the value that others ascribe to what one knows, and does that moves the credibility meter.

Barrier #2: Smart, Arrogant and Clueless

Can you think of someone you know who is brilliant but clueless when it comes to working with people? Problems can arise when an individual who is technically competent makes assumptions—or worse, is clueless—about how important it is to be smart. If the person’s motivation is to be right in every discussion, prepare for arrogance. When someone thinks he knows more and that makes him the smartest person in the room, prepare for condescension and sarcasm. That can be damaging, dare I say, career limiting, when some of the less smart individuals in the room happen to be senior managers.

Barrier #3: Speaking Up as “Kissing Up”

There are those who think that having expertise and doing a good job should speak for itself; self-evident credibility if you will. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. To recast an old adage, it’s not what you know; it’s whom you know and how they attribute value to what you know that makes you credible. If this requires speaking up, there are some who think this reeks of self-promotion. Speaking up about your knowledge or track record of success does not mean you have to “kiss up.” Objectively discussing your accomplishments and how they have impacted others demonstrates self-confidence, pride, and even passion for your work. So the issue is not that a good job should speak for itself. The issue is that you want others to know that you appreciate what they need and value, and that you are or have been actively working to that end.

Barrier #4: Too Much Expertise, Not Enough Credibility

The Peter Principle 3.0

Technical expertise without credibility—native intelligence without emotional intelligence—only means that a person is smart, maybe even capable, but not necessarily valued. Where some people top out in their careers is at the point where they have demonstrated expertise but fail to launch in terms of credibility and relationship building.

This is a variation of the Peter Principle, first described in 1969 by Laurence Peter in his book of the same name. Peter contends that people are promoted to their level of incompetence. Peter puts it another way: “the cream rises until it sours.” This suggests that something other than technical competence plays a role in successful career advancement. In his book, Working with Emotional Intelligence (1998), Daniel Goleman expresses a similar view. His variation of the Peter Principle is “too much college, too little kindergarten.”

Credibility is not automatically attached to expertise and therefore has to be cultivated through its own unique set of skills and experiences. While critical to professional success, credibility is mandatory for moving from individual contributor to leadership positions.

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