The Shift from Expert to Leader: What a Modern-Day Fable Teaches Us

Once upon a time, there was a talented Chef who loved cooking. They were incredibly creative and could happily cook all day long.

One day, the powers that be said to the Chef: “We’ve noticed what a great cook you are. We’d like to give you your own restaurant.” The Chef was ecstatic. They thought, “Now I’ll have lots of resources to develop new recipes, and more people to try them.” And so the Chef’s restaurant got started.

But the restaurant wasn’t what they’d imagined.

The Chef’s dishes were really really delicious but really complicated to make, so when they hired other less experienced cooks, the recipes often came out differently, which annoyed the Chef. In the kitchen, the Chef was frequently interrupted by diners who wanted to discuss and complement the food. Plus, running the restaurant was complicated, and when something went wrong, the other workers would come and find the Chef to take care of it.

With all that going on, there was barely enough time to cook the daily menu, much less create anything new.

After a few weeks at the restaurant, the Chef was seriously worn out. In a self reflective moment, they realized they weren’t very happy, thinking, “When I was cooking on my own, that’s all I had to do, and now there is so much going on I can hardly find five minutes to think! Where is this going to end?

Have you ever felt like the Chef?

Often, when we demonstrate expertise in an area, it leads to more responsibility – management, leadership – which is fundamentally different than the responsibilities we had as the expert. This transition can be jarring, especially when we are highly identified with our expertise.  

The story itself points to some useful tactics for managing an expanded role: Simplify. Delegate. Streamline communication.

 But as a coach, I like to look one level deeper, and I’ve noticed that people can experience discomfort in a new role, possibly due to the disconnect between:  

→ What you think your job should be and what it is

→ What you’d like to spend our time and what you ARE spending time on

→ Who you identify as inside and how your role appears to others

If you are undergoing a role change with new leadership and management responsibilities, consider the following:

Recognize the change.  On the one hand it seems obvious there’s been a change – say you have direct reports now, where you didn’t before?  On the other hand, its’s easy to just keep working the same way automatically.  Take a moment and ask yourself, what is my job now? 

Adjust your habits.. Whenever I took on new responsibilities, even in the same organization, my old systems would just stop working.  Consider your schedule, your energy, your to-do list, your workspace and be ready to experiment. 

Reframe your purpose and identity.  For many of us experts, our identity is tied into our expertise and we are used to being rewarded for the work of our own hands and mind.  When the job expands, purpose shifts.  Your raison d’etre now may be to help someone else make that spectacular dessert – ask yourself if that can be fulfilling, too.

Leave a Comment