Nurturing Effective Team Leaders: The Transition from Subject Matter Expert to a Team Lead

One of the core strengths within Akela is that its leadership and staff come from a wide range of backgrounds, with each member having worked across multiple fields of professions. This has provided each person within significant experiences, both good and bad, in learning and refining their skill sets – including their leadership abilities.

As part of the preparation for this article, clients and all Akela staff were asked their views on the differences between a subject matter expert (SME) and a Team Lead (TL), and how the transition from one to the other typically occurs. There were several interesting observations, but there were four consistent comments from across the board:

  1. Not all SMEs are suitable to transition to a TL – there is a significant difference between the two roles – but each role is equally import as the other – they just have different functions.
  2. The transition between the two roles requires a monumental shift in mindset.
  3. Within six months the individual leaving their SME role will be out of date with their knowledge and skill sets for that role. What they need to realise is that their new expertise MUST be in leadership. Too many times the individual tries to hang onto their previous role because its what they are most comfortable with.
  4. Probably the most important aspect is the support, training, and mentoring of the TL by their supervisors and organisation. Without this, the individual is likely to fail in their transition process, which in turn fails the team and the wider organisation.

Team Leads Are a Critical Role

One of the critical capabilities for success for any organisation is that of the TL. Be it in a factory, global supermarket chain, military, policing, and emergency services, cyber security, ICT, or software organisations, or the public service, TLs carry the weight in “getting things done” across the organisation.

In both government and private sector organisations, SMEs are often promoted to TLs and middle management positions primarily based on their technical expertise, rather than their leadership abilities. Most people reading this are now thinking of several instances where they saw this firsthand – and in many cases the fall out that occurred – and why.

It is crucial to recognise that leadership encompasses much more than theoretical knowledge or simply being the expert in a particular stream or field. It requires something else; both from the individual, and from their supervisors / organisation.

This article explores:

  1. The importance of staff management, interpersonal skills, ability to ingest and analyse vast quantities of information in a short timeframe, and the ability to make decisions in adverse conditions in leadership at all levels.
  2. The need to attract experienced leaders with real-world experience, particularly in fields like ICT and cyber, to bridge the gap between technical expertise and leadership prowess.
  3. Ways to address the lack of necessary mentoring and leadership training, with an emphasis on succession planning and providing opportunities for development.

Recognising the Importance of Leadership Skills

Staff management, interpersonal skills, the ability to see the clear picture during times of chaos, analysing disparate information feeds within a short timeframe, and decision-making abilities are crucial attributes of effective leadership.

Organisations cannot rely on TLs having just a theoretical background or having worked for several years in just one stream and not developing a broader experience base. Often this leads to fractures within the team, increased staff turnover rates, decrease in capabilities and services, and loss of trust up and down the “chain of command”.

Hands-on experience across a range of different fields provides a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. This enables a TL to know in advance the outcomes and consequences of certain courses of action and equips them with the ability to appropriately respond to various situations.


Imagine you have a highly skilled software engineer with technical skills and in-depth knowledge—a go-to person for solving complex technical challenges within the team. Impressed by the display of their expertise, you offer a promotion to a lead position, believing that technical acumen will naturally translate into effective leadership. But you don’t look at the other attributes that are needed for the role.

It soon comes to your realisation that this new role requires a different set of skills beyond their in-depth knowledge. As a TL, your employee struggles to manage conflicts, delegate tasks, and motivate team members. Challenges include effective communication and the lack of ability to foster collaboration within the team and the necessary leadership skills to guide employees under their charge.

Then your organisation is faced with a significant crisis – say a complex cyber-attack by a potential large criminal organisation or nation state. Critical systems are failing, business operations are being impacted, and the malware is traversing across the organisation’s infrastructure – and the SME that you recently promoted is now one of the teams that is in the middle of it all – what is it that you need most from that individual, technical or leadership skill sets?

This scenario is common where a person with exceptional technical expertise is thrust into a leadership role without bridging the gap between the two roles. It emphasises the importance of recognising that SMEs have an equal role to TLs, but do not automatically have the skill sets or personal attributes to become effective leaders.

It also highlights the need for organisation to provide comprehensive leadership training and mentoring to support successful transitions and foster well-rounded leaders who can effectively guide and inspire their teams.

Identifying Suitable Candidates for Leadership Roles

As discussed, not all SMEs are naturally suited for transitioning into leadership roles, especially in fields like ICT and Cyber. To address this, organisations should aim to attract or internally promote those individuals that already, or have the potential to, demonstrate leadership attributes and real-world experiences. This also includes those candidates that have gotten their “noses bloodied” through failures and tough times. Learning what not to do is equally important as learning what to do.

Combining specialist knowledge with battle-tested leadership abilities can significantly contribute to your organisation’s success, particularly dealing with issues such as employee retention, capability development, and crisis management.

Dual-Stream Approach to Retaining Top-end SMEs

While leadership roles are essential, management must also recognise the value of top-end SMEs. These experts should be remunerated and incentivised accordingly to ensure employees remain loyal. Implementing a dual-stream process that provides recognition and growth opportunities for both SMEs and leaders can maintain a balanced workforce.

The dual-stream approach recognises that not all SMEs may have the aspirations or skills to take on leadership roles, but they still contribute significantly through their technical expertise. By offering a parallel track focused on technical growth, organisations can retain these valuable SMEs and provide them with a fulfilling career path that recognises and rewards their specialised skills. This can include further training in areas that appeal to the employee, travel incentives to conferences/holidays, 9-day fortnights or even cash rewards.

Addressing the Lack of Mentoring and Leadership Training

Many supervisors fail to bridge the gap in providing the necessary mentoring and leadership training to potential and newly appointed TLs and middle management. To address this, those at a top-tier level need to foster a culture that enables leaders at all levels to mentor staff with leadership potential. It would be beneficial for your organisation to invest in leadership training and courses, exploring adaptable modules from organisations (eg: defence) that condense the learning into shorter time frames.

Implementing Succession Planning and the “2 Up” Principle

To ensure your organisation’s resilience and bridge the gap between SMEs and team leads, they should be given the opportunity to learn their supervisors’ roles and even their supervisors’ supervisor roles – known as the “2-Up Principle”. This ensures effective succession planning and empowers individuals to seamlessly step into leadership roles when required, maintaining continuity during absences (maternity leave, long service leave or sick or annual leave) or transitions (promotions, retirement, redundancy, resignation).

Your organisation can create a robust leadership pipeline by recognising the importance of staff management and interpersonal skills, attracting experienced leaders, providing mentoring opportunities, and offering leadership training. Embracing succession planning and implementing the 2-Up Principle ensures continuity and adaptability, leading to more resilient employees and long-term success.

Ready to transform your SMEs into effective TLs? Take the next step with Akela Group!

With an extensive background in developing and delivering customised, competency-based training modules, Akela staff bring real-world experience and qualifications to empower both government and private sector organisations.

Our team takes the time to understand the unique needs of each organisation and excels in creating tailored training solutions that align with your specific objectives.

Specialised leadership development programs and personalised mentoring will empower your SMEs to excel in their transition to leadership roles. Unlock the full leadership potential within your organisation and bridge the gap between SMEs and leaders. Together, we can build a strong foundation of technical expertise and exceptional leadership for a thriving future. Contact us today for more information.


Brad Watson

Founder and Chief Executive Officer



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