Expert value

In fierce knowledge-tech economy, companies must refresh thinking on high professionals, specialists with deep expertise.

High professionals as overlooked talent assets.

With the global economy becoming fiercely reliant on knowledge, technology, and innovation, many jobs today require highly specialized talent. And as companies focus on their core competencies—the select things they do particularly well—to achieve strategic competitiveness, their success increasingly depends on deep levels of expertise in their workforce, not simply good management and leadership skills (Bersin 2009). General Electric, for example, is shifting from developing “jack of all trade” generalists to valuing subject-area expertise more. “The world is so complex, we need people who are pretty deep,” Susan Peters, who heads GE’s executive development, has said in published interviews.

Despite the importance of this specialized talent segment to organizations’ success, when it comes to talent management practices, professionals with high expertise are often under-emphasized. Instead, many organizations focus on finding, grooming, and retaining highpotential employees (Church et al. 2013), often defined as those with the potential to take on an increasingly broad scope of leadership responsibilities. Organizations have made an outsized proportion of direct and indirect investment in high-potential talent. In 2008, all 20 major corporations surveyed said they had high-potential programs (Silzer and Church 2009). In another survey of 45 companies worldwide, 98% said they purposefully identify high potentials (Ready, Conger, and Hill 2010). Further, the highest rewards in business and industry traditionally have been conferred on those who assume people management–leadership responsibility. Rising up the organizational hierarchy has been the surest path to increases in status, recognition, and salary. Finding and developing future business leaders is and should be a critical priority for organizations. But investing in just those employees with the potential to succeed in leadership roles can be risky.

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. They find little to no appeal in a path that would take them out of their area of specialization. One study found that more than two-thirds of talented, deep experts prefer a career track geared toward technical aspects of their respective area of expertise (Allen and Katz 1986). At Korn Ferry, business leaders who grapple with these issues often ask us questions like: “How can I develop high performers who aren’t interested in climbing the corporate ladder or managing people?” “Is there another way to get decent development investment for my experts besides designating them as high potentials?” “How can I keep my valuable, functional experts engaged?” Forcing
high-performing professional employees into general management not only runs against their natural career orientation but also may undermine sustained growth for the organization. Companies that depend on having a deep bench of expert talent to drive innovation could find that bench depleted if they fail to provide alternative reward structures and advancement opportunities for these high professionals.

Who are high professionals?

High professionals are individuals who have the capacity and interest to continuously develop their expertise for effective performance in progressively more challenging roles within their specialties. At the highest level, they can either be the most senior individual contributors, with titles such as scientist fellows or chief engineers, or, when equipped with leadership skills, they can lead their functional area in roles such as chief technological officer or chief science officer.

To effectively manage this increasingly important talent pool, organizations must identify what characterizes these experts, what drives them, and how they differ from and are similar to high potentials. While many studies have been conducted about the characteristics of high potentials in becoming leaders, there is considerably less such research about high professionals. So Korn Ferry embarked on a multiphase research initiative to develop a better understanding of what makes a successful high professional.

First, Korn Ferry interviewed 31 senior individual contributor and management-level participants nominated by their organizations as talented, deep experts. Participants represented a range of industries, professions, and geography. They included engineers, scientist, physicians, financial analysts, clinical psychologists, and musicians. They answered questions about role preferences, events that shaped their career decisions, likes and dislikes at work, challenging experiences and lessons they learned from them, memorable achievements, and future aspirations.

An analysis of the findings provides a clear, descriptive picture of high professionals: most tend to have (and desire) a linear career path, they are intrinsically motivated by their job, and they have a strong desire to be recognized and respected for their expertise. They cite administrative or “busy work” and office politics as the biggest disruptors to their effectiveness and express a desire for autonomy and independent decision making in their roles.

High professionals:

  • Have the capacity and interest to constantly develop expertise for effective performance in progressively more challenging roles within their specialties.
  • Can, at the pinnacle, be the most senior individual contributors, with titles such as scientist fellow or chief engineer.
  • Can, when equipped with leadership skills, lead functional areas in roles like chief technological officer or chief science officer.
  • Tend to have and want a linear career path.
  • Are intrinsically motivated by their job.
  • Have a strong desire to be recognized and respected for their expertise.
  • Cite administrative or “busy work” and office politics as the biggest disruptors to their effectiveness and express a desire for autonomy and independent decision making in their roles.
  • Possess a high specialty orientation and often hold positions with lower volatility.

High professionals and high potentials both:

  • Want to be challenged.
  • Are thrilled to solve complex problems.
  • Possess a strong desire for achievement.
  • Recognize that learning contributes to career success.
  • Stress the importance of self-awareness.

Differences and similarities.

While high professionals have their own distinctive characteristics, the research showed that they share some characteristics with high potentials, most notably their attitude toward challenges. Like high potentials, high professionals want to be challenged. High professionals and their high-potential counterparts are thrilled to solve complex problems. And both groups possess a strong desire for achievement.

The two groups also share perceptions of how learning contributes to their career success. In the case of high professionals, they tend to recognize that their professions constantly evolve. They understand they must learn continuously—on the job, from mistakes, and from other experts. “Don’t feel too comfortable with what you’re doing today because you’re going to have to reinvent yourself tomorrow,” said one participant in the study.

High professionals also stress the importance of self-awareness. Because previous research has linked self-awareness to leadership effectiveness, this represents another overlap between high professionals and high potentials. “Know your strengths and weaknesses,” one respondent observed. “Know where you belong in the broad context and what role you can play in the broader context.”

Based on the findings from the first phase of research, Korn Ferry turned to statistically measuring differences in role preference, motivation, and engagement for high potentials and high professionals. The results were compelling. Based on global data analyzed from close to 11,000 assessments, three dimensions emerged that define a continuum of career orientation:

  1. How people perceive the boundaries of their role responsibilities. The people who prefer roles in narrowly defined areas commit to their profession and enjoy opportunities that best use their expertise. Others, believing they can be versatile, take on roles in different areas, explore broadly, and try different careers. They enjoy doing things they haven’t done before. 
  2. How people adopt different approaches to success. Individuals on one end of the continuum want to develop expertise and pursue the most accurate outcomes. They delve deeply and enjoy working toward greater precision and certainty. Individuals on the other end of the continuum prefer to leverage others’ expertise and strive for practical outcomes. They make timely decisions and like to get a lot of work done, even if that work is not always perfect.
  3. How people engage in their work. Some people want to concentrate on a few priorities for high productivity, believing it most effective to get one task done before starting another. Others enjoy multitasking, preferring to get involved in many different activities and shifting easily from priority to priority. Examining individuals based on these factors helped key characteristics surface that distinguish the career orientation of high potentials and high professionals. Our empirical research demonstrated the relationship of career orientation with:
  • Position level. The research clearly showed that specialist orientation declines steadily up the organizational hierarchy. Individual contributors have the highest specialist orientations, while top executives have the lowest. This pattern was consistent in all regions.
  • Nature of job. Our survey study revealed the alignment between individuals’ career orientation and the demand characteristics of their job; in particular, those more specialist oriented reported their jobs were less volatile and require more functional specialization.
  • Talent segmentation. The research confirmed the association between career orientation and how that plays into talent segmentation within organizations. Those individuals who were identified as high-professional employees by their companies reported a higher level of specialist orientation relative to others.

A focus on high potentials to fuel the leadership succession pipeline will remain a vital lever for business leaders in the years ahead. In a business reality where sustained growth is anything but easy, maximizing the return on talent investment means leveraging all high-performing talent, both leadership and expert. Armed with fresh insights into the key talent segment of high professionals, organization leaders will be better able to differentiate talent to ensure success in critical roles; strengthen the value of expertise-driven career paths; and drive performance, engagement, and retention for all high performers.

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