Succession Planning for Organizational Subject Matter Experts

by Sharlyn Lauby | Posted | Career Management

Succession Planning for Organizational Subject Matter Experts

There's absolutely nothing wrong with not being a manager.

In the recent article "4 Ways to Develop High Potential Employees into Subject Matter Experts," we shared an equally valuable option for both the employee and the company: To develop high performing employees into subject matter experts (SMEs).

Companies regularly have conversations about who their next managers should be, but how can organizations identify who would be a good SME? And, once an employee has been identified as having SME potential, how does the company talk with them about their career potential?

4 Qualities of Effective Organizational Subject Matter Experts

Organizations frequently have conversations with employees as part of replacement and succession planning, but it wouldn't be fair to anyone to apply the same principles of management development to SME development. While there will be certain skills expected of both managers and SMEs – like problem-solving, critical thinking, and effective communication – there are also a few we should specifically look for when identifying subject matter experts:

  1. Technical Ability – Obviously, there's an expectation that the company's subject matter experts have a high level of technical skill. It's possible that department managers will rely on their SMEs to provide detailed answers about how things work.
  2. Project Management – Subject matter experts can be some of the first people assigned to project teams to fix issues or oversee updates. Primarily, because they have the technical expertise mentioned above. Understanding the core principles of project management would be an asset.
  3. Beginner's Mindset – Because of their knowledge, subject matter experts could be given the role of trainer. This means they will need to demonstrate a huge amount of empathy for beginners. Having a beginner's mindset will serve them well.
  4. Radical Candor - This is the name of a book and the concept of directly challenging another person with respect. Subject matter experts will be asked their opinion. Being able to respectfully disagree or present an alternative perspective is key.

Organizations also need to think about the expectations they have for SMEs. Will they work on projects? Train other employees? Whatever those expectations are, they should be identified, documented, and shared with individuals being considered for the role.

Succession planning doesn't have to just be performed at the organizational level. Check out Tim Sackett's tips for ramping up succession planning within a department or team!

SME Career Development Conversations

Once the competencies for an SME have been established, organizations will want to start talking with individuals about the opportunity. This has to be a nuanced conversation for three reasons:

  1. No one really wants to hear they're not management material, even if they're relieved they're not being considered for a management role. Being an SME should be presented as a great opportunity. It should be described in terms of the value it brings to the organization and the department.
  2. Organizations will have to decide if they like the term subject matter expert. Some organizations might be reluctant to use the word expert. That's okay. In fact, some employees might be uncomfortable with being labeled that as well. Another option would be the word specialist.
  3. It's possible that an SME could become a manager or vice versa. An SME could develop the skills and desire to move into management. An SME in one area might also be asked to become an SME in another. For example, a payroll specialist might become a payroll and accounts receivable specialist. And, though we don't like to think about demotions, it is within the realm of possibilities. A manager could move into an SME role because it suits them better.

While the start of the conversation with a potential SME might be different, there are many other aspects that will be the same. Organizations will want SMEs to have regular one-on-one feedback sessions. SMEs will continue to need professional development and training that aligns with their role. The important part is to realize that being an SME doesn't have to be a lesser role. It could be a much-desired position.

SMEs Need Career Development Too

Becoming a subject matter expert isn't the end. Individuals may move into (and out of) this specialist role many times throughout their careers. That's good for the employee and good for the company. But it does mean that both individuals and organizations must rethink and prioritize skill development.

As the business world continues to evolve, organizations will need their SMEs to stay current and relevant. To achieve this, organizations must give SMEs the development opportunities they need to grow in their roles and ensure SMEs have a place in the company's replacement and succession plans.

Cracking the Code to High Potential Employees

Learn how to make the most of the high-performing employees you have by investing in their future.


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Cover of the book
Cover of the book

Cracking the Code to High Potential Employees

Learn how to make the most of the high-performing employees you have by investing in their future.


Watch Now


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