The Anti-Expert

By Joan

From your own experience, describe an occasion of consulting in which you acted as an expert. Did you solve the problem?

Every client that engages my services does so with the expectation that they are hiring a particular kind of expertise so I can help them solve a particular problem, but this does not mean that I act as an expert throughout the engagement. Last week I met with a new client (a community college) that is hiring me because of my expertise in economic and workforce development. They want to know if their current academic pathways map to future career opportunities for their students. Another client, a museum, hired me because of my expertise in legislative outreach so they can advocate for federal grants. A school system hired me specifically because I did NOT have expertise in the K-12 educational environment, but had helped other organizations solve similar problems.

I am invited into an organization because the client perceives that my expertise can help them solve a problem, but once inside an organization I rarely act in an expert role. Most often I rely on what I now know as the process consulting model. Perhaps that is why Edgar Schein’s writings resonate so well with me – I naturally work from a place of “humble inquiry.” When I don’t work from this place of curiosity, when I think I know all the answers (usually when I’m feeling fearful/vulnerable/insecure), those are the times when my work and client relationships suffer.

The school system that hired me because I was an “Anti-Expert” in K-12 education did so because they wanted to make sure I had no predisposed ideas about the educational system. Also, THEY were the experts in education and that is the role they played throughout the engagement. This work started in 2010 when the acronym “STEM” was just becoming a common term in education circles. Numerous international reports pointed to a decline in participation and performance of U.S. students in science and mathematics, and increased demand for people with STEM degrees. The school system was alarmed when they recognized that student participation was falling while demand for STEM workers was rising in northeastern Maryland where a thriving research and development community had taken root. School leaders wanted to ensure that its programs aligned with the requirements of this new regional economy.

I worked with the district to create a 20-person STEM Education Advisory Board made up of leaders from government, industry, and higher education, to guide the school system as it revamped its programs. This Advisory Board helped the school system identify issues and trends in workforce, higher education, and in science and technology that would impact the school system’s course offerings. This information was used by the school system as a basis for developing a 10-year STEM Education Strategic Plan. This plan identified the district’s highest priorities and expanded its STEM coursework. The plan also guided the county’s grant request process and informed decision-making to install new programs as resources are available. With my help, the school system established new partnerships with the science and technology industry, resulting in millions of dollars of new grants for STEM programs.

Did I solve the problem? Yes, in about three years my clients and I put adequate solutions in place. However, my engagement with this client lasted six years. In hindsight, and with the new knowledge as a result of this class, I see that I went from being the “anti-expert” to the expert and forgot to be curious. I also think that my client was afraid of cutting me loose (knowledge loss) and I was afraid of being cut loose (financial loss) so neither of us ended the engagement at the right time. Also, we had not defined the end point. What did “done” look like? I’ve since taken many of the lessons learned from this consulting job and applied to new engagements.

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