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There's Another SME: You

While presenting at a conference, I said that I consider myself as much an expert as that of the SMEs and stakeholders that I work with, and I do. I was shocked that this got such a big reaction from the people in the session who are talented L&D professionals. Later, I remembered an earlier conversation with someone who said that too many organizations treat L&D team members as "order-takers." I agree that happens, and it's frustrating, but I'm concerned that we aren't positioning ourselves as experts. How comfortable are you with conveying your expertise to stakeholders?

It can be easy to feel confident expressing your ideas and concerns among like-minded people, such as other learning designers and developers. However, you also need to make sure that you convey your visionary, strategic thinking and planning, and project management abilities to your leaders, SMEs, and clients. Often, we are way too comfortable only describing ourselves as creatives, designers, developers, and architects (which we are), and we omit that we are leaders, strategists, change agents, and visionaries.

Here are five things you should do that will demonstrate your leadership skills and competence.

1.) Connect the dots

We often know things but don't share what we know because we are afraid to rock the boat. I disagree with this approach; put on a life jacket and rock that thing. Here's an example: my chief learning officer and chief strategy officer came up with an idea for a new learning product that they felt would generate a lot of money. It was a tense time, and they were adamant this was the best solution. However, when I heard how they planned to execute it, my alarm bells went off. I went into my CLO's office, closed the door, and explained that if they did things according to that plan, it would violate our agreement with another organization, potentially damage the relationship, and risk future contracts with them. She listened, thanked me profusely, and we pivoted. This leads me to my next point.

2.) Speak up.

Are you showing up at meetings and sitting there wordlessly even though you have questions or concerns? STOP! I have been in countless meetings where no one asked a question or said a word, and then later on, everyone complained about the outcome. And the people complaining were actual senior managers! (I quit that job, but that's a different post).

Pay attention and participate; ask the questions, make a case for more information, analysis, time, budget, etc., and you will demonstrate an investment in the organization's goals. Any smart team or company wants a committed employee. This leads me to my next point.

Often, we are way too comfortable only describing ourselves as creatives, designers, developers, and architects (which we are), and we omit that we are leaders, strategists, change agents, and visionaries.

3.) Get their attention to influence decisions

I used to get really angry when I felt I was telling my bosses or SMEs about potential issues, which they ignored. With time, I learned that this dismissal is not personal; it's a false sense of protection. Once people get attached to a solution or idea, it's hard to let it go. So, when no one listens to my voice, I write it. I write a brief report or email with relevant data supporting my ideas or concerns. I ALWAYS offer alternative solutions (even not doing something is a solution), indicate my preference and why, and leave it up to them to decide. Sometimes, people need time to reflect and turn the noise down in their heads so they can focus. It works most of the time.

You might also be the type of person who is less inclined to talk in meetings, and that's okay. Honor your personal style by writing an effective report, but you must share the report with the right people. Finally, even if they ignore your report, you have it as proof that you tried to steer things in the best direction.

4.) Speak their language, not ours

Design your messages with two things in mind: the audience and the evidence. For example, I love talking with other L&D folks about neuroscience, working memory, accessibility, and everything else L&D-related. Guess what? My SMEs don't know about it and don't want to hear about it. My CFO sure as hell doesn't. So, what do I talk about? Things I know they want to hear about: proven tales of success and what we need to do to implement that type of success. Sometimes, I scare them away from bad ideas with evidence of similar failures. I work with physicians, and they respect research, so I share that when needed to make my point. When talking to my CFO or CLO, I also highlight costs, staff time, technology needs, and revenue-busters or generators.

5.) Align organizational victories to learning when possible.

Whether in a leadership role or not, you need to share with the world when you have hit things out of the park for the organization. Do you have top-notch performance metrics based on a new training? Have you implemented a popular new curriculum? Did you do magic with a limited budget? Make sure you share positive results with key stakeholders. Try not to get upset if they don't automatically recognize these successes. Remember the point to connect the dots for them.


I wish I could tell you that if you do everything above, leaders will stop asking for needless training or becoming attached to problematic ideas and solutions. I can't; I'm not a liar. I can share that I have received much positive feedback from leaders and SMEs for doing all the above things, even when it wasn't popular. You will still receive challenging or wrong directives because leaders and SMEs are human, and humans make mistakes. However, you are obligated to yourself, your learners, and your team to own your expertise and move like an expert.

What do you think? Have any other tips for us? Disagree with me? Let me know.


Need Help? I've Got Your Back

Do you need help creating communication strategies and processes to improve collaboration with your SMEs and leadership? I can help you. Contact me to discuss in more detail.



Hey, I'm Kandice

I'm a learning expert with tons of experience managing, designing, and developing learning programs as a solo learning leader. I love sharing my ideas and thoughts on how I do it and manage to enjoy it...most of the time. 

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