How Women Rise – Overvaluing Expertise (Habit #3)

As we continue with the insightful overview of the “How Women Rise” habits from the award-winning author Sally Helgesen, this month we look at Overvaluing Expertise and redefining our expertise…

Redefine what we do

What is the expertise? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as a high level of knowledge or skill. When do you reach expertise? After you have spent a certain number of hours on a subject? After you have written a paper within your field? After you have gained more knowledge than your peers on a topic? The definition is somewhat clear and, at the same time, hard to attain because what does ‘high level of knowledge’ really mean?

Nonetheless, expertise is what we aim to attain when we study a subject matter of choice, when we develop a skill to work in a specific industry or when we simply position ourselves amongst other peers. Are we genuine experts in our area?
You may nod now and consider yourself an expert if you have spent years developing a specific skill. Maybe others are seeking your advice. That does not matter, though, if people don’t know of your expertise.

You may have shaken your head and not consider yourself an expert because you either think that there are better people out there than yourself, or you are not good enough to call yourself an expert and so on.
Whether you are part of the first or the second group, you are predestined to fall into the habit of “overvaluing expertise”, because, in the end, expertise won’t get the job done. What gets the job done is the ability to communicate, collaborate, and apply the knowledge available.

Let’s explore these thoughts more and imagine Ana, who is a software designer with Latin roots and entered the male-dominated tech world because the company she applied for was seeking higher female numbers at that time. In her eyes, she didn’t secure the position because she was the best person for the job. Since she was a woman and at that moment, she decided to demonstrate to everybody around her, that she was the right person for the job. She focused all her efforts on outperforming her work assignments and being the most reliable workhorse on the team. Sadly, her husband passes away, leaving her as the sole breadwinner for her three children, which meant that Ana needed to fast track into a more senior role.

She successfully secures a position in a different industry, the legal profession, and finds herself not able to showcase her expertise as before. Instead, Ana needed to learn through her team and clients by asking questions and understanding their way of thinking. She also needed to start having the courage for gaps and relying on the fact that other people within her team would have the experience she was lacking.

Sally Helgesen shares this case study in her book “How Women Rise” and if you are curious to find out how Ana deals with this situation, you will find it in the book. It is an example Sally has encountered many times in her three decades of working with successful women.

Sally calls this a “way of asserting your value regardless of what others perceive or think” and “one source of satisfaction that is controllable”. It is the best strategy for keeping the job and staying relevant, while it doesn’t allow you to step up the career ladder as this requires a different ability: the ability to do the job well enough. Improvement doesn’t mean to do a sloppy job altogether; it means to spend less time on the expert outcome and instead allow a good enough result. Pareto principle confirms that you achieve 80% of the result in 20% of the time. What if you spend the remaining 80% of your time on building your work result with the help of your colleagues? Spending time consulting them, rather than overvaluing your expertise and falling into the trap of doing it all alone with a less impactful result could serve all.

Pareto could be one lens through which we can prioritize our focus instead of following our automatic response on overvaluing expertise. Prioritization based on a clear personal goal definition connected to the goals of your organization, boss, or team defines the specific tasks you focus on for setting the time frame. Scheduling is the tip from Sally Helgesen, whereas she states that if your goal is to join your company’s executive committee, you will have a broad portfolio of responsibility, which requires you to be comfortable in leaving the mastery of the details to others.

The top tip to know when to do what
Based on the idea of Pareto, it is vital to start by assessing where you currently spend your time. Before that, though, let us find out when is the best time for you to work on your top tasks. Following these principles, you will find two tables below to assess your actual work efforts during the week. You can download a template to record your daily progress here:

How to build your template
1. Look at the “Interruption curve” section and tick the percentage of interruptions you experience. (e.g., tick the cell below 80% if you experience a lot of disturbance on Sundays or tick the table cell below 20% if you experience little interruptions on Sundays) Once you reach Saturday, you can connect your ticks with a line – this is your interruption curve.
2. Look at the “Performance curve” section and tick your level of performance for each day. (e.g., tick 20% if your effort is low on Sundays or 80% whether your capacity is right on Sundays) Once you reach Saturday, connect your ticks with a line – this is your performance curve.
3. Keep the tables with you for a week and refer back to it, to see whether your ticks are set correct or whether you want to make changes to your first reflection.

Next steps
After you identified your interruption peaks, compare them with your maximum performance value, to find out your most resourceful times. Bear in mind that low performance may require more time to get something done, and a lot of interruptions are not wise moments for your high impact results.

The top tip to know what to focus on
Now it is about identifying all the opportunities you must showcase your contributions. When focused on your expertise, you are focused on business and method skills. These skills are based on knowledge acquired through university or the experience gained through learning on the job from peers and superiors. These skills complement personal and relationship skills, which are called social and systems thinking skills.

Clustering these skills will create awareness that there is more to your skill-set than your expertise. There is an additional ability you can focus on that enables you to work through people instead of only through your knowledge. Mutual support is where the magic of teamwork and collaboration kicks in.
On completing your template  you will be able to create a clear picture of where you are heading, to see whether focusing on your expertise is right what you should continue targeting. After all, this habit is rooted in healthy respect for your role and the commitment to hard work.


Melissa L. Schlimm-Managing Partner, the Executive Coach and People Developer at The Ameliorate Group, wrote this article. Content inspired by the book called “How Women Rise” by Sally Helgesen-12 habits that hold women back from being successful in their careers – as well as my own experience as an executive coach when coaching senior leaders in the workplace.
The Ameliorate Group, Learning Partner with Women@Work, is the leadership and corporate coaching consultancy offering a range of bite-sized learning solutions to long-term development programs incorporating executive coaching to achieve organizational goals. The Ameliorate Group aims to superpower your teams and individual capability beyond what you thought was possible.
The first ‘How Woman Rise” program is provided across the Middle East through The Ameliorate Group, powered by Sally Helgesen. Creating more inclusive workplaces of the future through raising awareness of the habits that hold women back from being more successful in their careers. Encouraging both genders to engage in dialogue and co-creation of solutions and strategies to help women rise at work and in business.