Most successful people have long track records of high performance – whether it’s attending a prestigious college, achieving high grades and multiple degrees, excelling in their technical or functional areas of expertise, and progressing rapidly in organizations. The key to this success is often having the right answers at the right time. We’re conditioned to be the “smartest” person in the room, to have answers to complex problems, and to make sure everyone knows we have these answers.

In working with C-Suite executives, I’ve found that the focus on being the “smartest person in the room” can be a stumbling block to fully engage and grow effective leaders in their organizations. A senior executive’s accomplishments are measured by how effective their team is, not by how smart the executive is – this is a subtle, yet very significant, shift in mindset that is crucial to C-Suite success.

Shift from “Expert” to “Coach”

Paradoxically, this “smartest person” approach keeps the senior executive in an endless loop of both being the expert and directing the activities of their team. This also keeps the members from fully contributing to the team and from developing their own leadership skills – and thus being less engaged.

To shift to a more collaborative – and generative – leadership role, one in which the executive is explicitly growing leadership talent in the organization, I recommend the following:

Adopt a curious mindset vs. an expert one

Restrain the impulse to get to the answer. Instead, gather members of the team who have a stake in the challenge. Learn what they’ve already discovered, tried, or determined about the situation.

Ask open-ended questions for which you don’t already “know” the answers

Questions such as “If we had no constraints, how might we approach this? What are all the possible approaches and the impact of each? What would be the best outcome we could hope for and what would it take to get there? What’s the worst that could happen and how can we offset those risks? What haven’t we thought of that we should consider? What do you think we should do?” And really listen to the answers to these questions from your leaders and team members.

Coach, don’t direct

More than anything, effective senior executives coach others to make decisions and implement plans. Once you’ve gotten everyone’s ideas on the table, guide them to identify what initial steps they can take and what responsibility each of them have for those steps and the desired outcomes. Then set up how they will report on how they’re doing implementing the plan. And make sure the responsibility and authority for performance stays with them.

Adopting a curious mindset, asking probing questions, and coaching others will take the senior executive out of the expert role and help leverage all the experiences and knowledge the executive has gained over the years to coach and develop strong leaders in their organization. This leads to a more engaged team, a healthier organization, and better business results.


Ace-Up Executive Coach Carol Rosa SabiaCarol Rosa Sabia is a C-Suite Executive Coach with 30 years of executive experience and coaching expertise. Carol employs Organizational Health concepts from The Table Group and is a Certified Conversational Intelligence (C-IQ) Coach.

Learn more about Carol Rosa Sabia