Are You Taking the Right Steps to Retain Your Subject-Matter Experts?

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 22, 2015
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The ear of a counselor, the structure of defined office hours, and purposeful listening are key to building trusting relationships with subject-matter experts (SMEs) in the workplace. And recognizing their deep level of expertise is an important retention factor.

“Working with subject-matter experts is really taking the time to ask [about] and understand their … expertise in a subject area they’ve devoted their lives to,” said Amanda Costello, content strategist at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development.

Costello, who wrote an article on the topic for A List Apart—an online journal for people who make web sites—works with SMEs in academia, but her recommendations can apply to other workplaces.

She works with faculty members, researchers and other SMEs at the large research institution where she helps translate their high-level projects to a wide-ranging audience.

Because Costello doesn’t share their research or academic expertise, SMEs sometimes worry that she will misrepresent their work when presenting it to audiences outside of their specialty area, she told SHRM Online.

She offered the following tips for building a trusting relationship with this employee segment:

Make yourself visible. Costello makes a point of being included on the agenda at “all-hands” meetings of SMEs. She uses the opportunity to briefly introduce herself and offer her expertise as a content strategist for projects on which they may be working.

“It’s another way to keep yourself from being [just] a name behind the [work] e-mail. It’s showing up to where they already will be.” Follow up the meeting with an e-mail reiterating an openness to meet with them.

Offer structured office hours. In the academic world where keeping particular office hours is common practice, Costello found that when her time appeared to be a limited commodity—such as being available to meet only from 8-11 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays—SMEs tended to make scheduling a meeting with her a priority. It’s a strategy that those in nonacademic workplaces should consider with SMEs in their organization. Otherwise, merely saying that her door is always open means that scheduling a meeting with her becomes “that weird thing on [your] to-do list that gets shuffled week after week” and never gets done.

Focus the initial one-on-one meeting with the SME on listening to build trust. “They have to know they can trust me with their [research] content ... to make good decisions and advocate for them when they’re not in the room,” Costello said.

Just as the SME doesn’t need to learn how to perform content strategy, Costello doesn’t need to be an expert in the field of the SME she is working with, but establishing trust goes a long way to fostering a sense of partnership.

The same goes for HR professionals, Costello said. The SME doesn’t have to know about HR processes and the HR professional doesn’t have to share the SME’s expertise, but establishing trust creates a feeling that “you’ve got an ally on the HR side.”

Costello found that taking an introductory class on counseling has been helpful in her work and taught her how “to draw out more information” for the purpose of her work as a content strategist in working with SMEs—and helped prevent her from unnecessarily engaging in a deep dive into an SME’s research.

The initial meeting also is a good time to learn how the SME visualizes his or her work will be used by others, and to talk about the strategy for best meeting that objective. This helps build the SME’s trust in your expertise, she noted.

Retaining SMEs, Developing Their Expertise

“With the global economy becoming fiercely reliant on knowledge, technology, and innovation, many businesses today require highly specialized leaders,” said Tim Vigue, managing principal at Korn Ferry, in a news release.

“It’s critical for companies to find ways to develop, reward and advance people with deep levels of expertise, not just people with good leadership skills.”

Talent management practices, though, often “under-emphasize those with high expertise,” according to an August 2015 report from the Korn Ferry Institute.

“The highest rewards in business and industry traditionally have been conferred on those who assume people management–leadership responsibility,” the report noted.

That runs counter to what SMEs want, according to the organizational advisory firm.

“Many specialized professionals—scientists, analysts, designers, engineers, accountants, architects, doctors and consultants among them—are more interested in developing their professional expertise than in pursuing a general management career track,” the report said. “They find little to no appeal in a path that would take them out of their area of specialization.”

However, more than half of the 731 executives Korn Ferry surveyed globally in September 2015 said that their organizations do not have ways to encourage and reward these professionals other than promoting them into formal management roles. Additionally, more than three-fourths (78 percent) said their organizations do not have development programs designed to help SMEs advance within their specific function.

Organizations that want to reward these “high professionals,” as Korn Ferry refers to SMEs, are missing the mark if they rely on raises and promotions to do so. Not being recognized as an expert is the primary reason SMEs leave their organization, the survey found.

Marji Marcus, Korn Ferry principal consultant, advised organizations to consider initiatives “that recognize the deep expertise these individuals have, and offer them opportunities to grow their contribution within their own functional areas,” such as by coaching and mentoring the next generation of experts.

“Otherwise companies run the critical risk,” she said in a news release, “of losing key institutional knowledge as experts retire or leave for another job.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her @SHRMwriter.

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