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  • Writer's pictureSimon Jones

Do good leaders need to be industry experts?

Or can interims prove effective in new industries?

Was Elon Musk a car expert? Richard Branson may have liked music but he wasn’t ‘in’ the industry… or ‘in’ any of the many and varied industries he’s successfully gone in to.

When reviewing a person’s credentials or suitability for a senior leadership role how important are their skills versus their industry knowledge? How do you balance the need for fresh thinking without accidently fusing the lights?

At a time when businesses are facing tough decisions - being asked to fast track to retain customers while at the same time as streamline financially - is it too much to ask management who can operate the status quo to be accountable for this rapid change as well? Or is it time to bring in fresh eyes - even if just for the interim?

A great example would be the man who started his career selling tobacco & food products but is best known for turning IBM's fortunes around. I had the privilege to hear Louis V Gerstner speak at Harvard and take on some of his learnings on this particular question.

Is skills-based thinking is more important than industry knowledge?


Aside from possessing good communication skills, a high level of integrity, remarkable organisational skills, facilitator skills, and negotiation skills… it is actually someone who understands that a business needs to be agile that will deliver results. Agile in its operations, financing, market response, consumer offering… the whole shebang. Not just delivering change this is about being transformative.


“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn't just one aspect of the game, it is the game.” – Louis V Gerstner

In order for an organisation to become agile you have to change the culture and to do that you need to be an enabler ‑- able to listen, break down barriers and problem solver. You also need to have a framework ‘to’ that you want to get ‘from’ in order for your team to be able support you to develop a coherent and comprehensive plan that can be communicated clearly. Coming from outside the industry and bringing this kind of energy can meet resistance so being a good listener and not dismissive of concerns will be critical. Gone are the days of command control and reactive mindsets its time to be on the front foot.

Setting the vision

"When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor." – Elon Musk

Good leaders research, they have natural curiosity and open with enquiry.

By asking, not assuming (which can be a pitfall of those who have worked in the business too long) you can open up avenues of enquiry that may not have been considered before. What do your customers want? What do your employees want? Seems obvious but often can be so heavily caveated by ‘What can we do for our customers/employees’ that the result is a profit costing compromise. Identifying advisors and influencers within the industry to leverage their knowledge with an impartial and open mind.

Problem solving/Decision making

Consider that most problems and challenges are the same – just packaged differently, then experience in problem solving should outweigh the need to be an industry expert. There is a caveat here – that you have access to data and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). SMEs are worth their weight in gold when it comes to needing to understand ‘the devil in the detail’ but they can also be very entrenched to know how best to transition away from it. Best case set up is to have SME who can answer the questions but still have the challenge and impartiality, to be able to see the bigger picture, held by those accountable when it comes to making the final decision.

“If you're not flexible, you'll pound your head against the wall and you won't see a different solution to a problem you're trying to solve." – Jeff Bezos

Approachability and Confidence

Setting the culture comes from the top, therefore a leader’s actions set the tone for what is appropriate behaviour in the workplace. Combining approachability with confidence are powerful attributes to have in your leadership team. Genuine confidence underpinned by self-belief is not about being loud or the centre of attention. It is all about walking the walk / leading by example. It is how you respond to adversity, and the way you make others feel. The word that probably most sums that up is showing ‘Respect’.

“Respect is how to treat everyone, not just those you want to impress” – Sir Richard Branson

How much value should be placed on approachability above industry knowledge? If, like me, you value the power of ‘people’ to make change happen then approachability and genuine confidence has to be high on your check list.

Why consider bringing in an Interim?

Often bringing in the whirlwind that is change is best done using an interim director – for many reasons that I have written about before but more notably their experience, thick skin, proactive drive and lack of ambition to carve out a career in your business. Their career is being the Interim. Once the new ‘new normal’ is established a good Interim Leader will have brought the C-Suite on the journey and can hand over the reins.

In Summary

With a breadth of roles in leadership positions across different industries it is likely that someone with a career in transformation, cultural change and problem solving will have experienced the problem before and can bring that knowledge with them even if the circumstances of the issue are not the same. Your business will have the skills within it to support them with moving to a new vision. A good leader will be sufficiently accountable and yet unshackled to be able to drive the business forward to where it needs to be… ensure they have approachability and that’s half the battle won right there.

Click through for more information about the benefits of interim management and visionary leadership

To understand more about how bringing interim management in to help turnaround and transform your business please drop Simon an email


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