Peacock's head_MG_1173 copy 2‘Nothing would be more fatal than for the Government of States to get in the hands of experts.’    Winston Churchill

There are times when we all need experts – usually in fields beyond our knowledge and experience. However, whilst good managers and leaders seek expertise when it comes to making decisions, they also don’t forget their instinct. Here, Caroline Allen shares her own painful experience of relying too much on the label of ‘expert’ and not enough on instinct.

Many years ago, as a very young manager, I was responsible for establishing a series of new training workshops for middle managers inside a large organisation. At the time, I was fortunate enough to have the budget to be able to pay for ‘the best’. So I contacted a reputable business school in the UK seeking a ‘qualified expert’ in the subject concerned in the hope of inviting them to run the workshops. Naively, I figured that my criteria (‘expert’, ‘qualified’, ‘a name’…. ) meant that I couldn’t go wrong…..

The person who was recommended was eminent in his field. He had an impressive title and an eye-wateringly long list of academic qualifications. It seemed he’d written several books and his published research accounted for the demise of a small rain forest (yes, it was long ago enough for print). I was confident that with such credentials and such a background, he must be the man for the job. I was so confident, in fact, that when his secretary told me that ‘the Professor would not need to meet me before the workshops but would require briefing papers and a phone call’, I didn’t challenge her. However, my antennae began to wriggle.

I sent through the requested papers. We then had our phone call.

If my antennae had previously been wriggling, then during that call, they were now thrashing around uncontrollably on the top of my head. But despite every instinct warning me to the contrary, I said that I was looking forward to meeting him on the morning of the first workshop.  After all, he was a Professor. He was an acclaimed expert. He had many qualifications. He was published. He spoke at conferences. He was expensive….

The day of the first workshop arrived and I was looking forward to a day of learning. I was going to sit alongside the other delegates to enjoy the experience. Or so I thought.

By lunchtime of a very long morning, a full-blown verbal bun-fight had broken out between the Professor and the delegates. The chemistry between him and the group was toxic. The sun had set long ago on the days of this man being open to challenge. His ego had mushroomed in direct proportion to his academic climb and his ‘fit’ with the managers was more ‘fist in glove’ than ‘hand in glove’. He may well have been an expert in his field but alternative viewpoints and handling probing questions were not his specialty.

Had I trusted my instincts and not been blinded by qualifications and the idealization of expertise, this embarrassing and painful situation for all concerned would not have ensued.

We lumbered through to the end of the day at which point I had the uncomfortable task of explaining to the Professor that we would not be inviting him to run the rest of the series of workshops.

I quickly discovered that graciously accepting feedback was not amongst his qualifications. With a self-evident penchant for cliché, his part of our conversation ended with the words: ‘I don’t think you know who I am’ and my part of our conversation ended with swift removal of his security pass.

By recounting this tale, I am not dismissing qualifications and expertise. I much prefer my doctors to be qualified and should I ever need one, I’d like my defence counsel to be experts.  I am simply hoping to remind managers and leaders that instincts deserve a place at the table as squarely as any other consideration in making good quality decisions.