Navigating the tension between expert and coach

Melissa Rosenthal
3 min readJan 23, 2023

Do I optimise for today or invest in tomorrow? That’s a leadership question that most of us regularly face. It presents in many different situations, including people leadership. As we help our team members grow and develop, we find ourselves balancing the role of expert (solve for today’s problem) and coach (build capability for tomorrow).

As an expert, our team, colleagues and clients seek our guidance and direction on various topics. That makes us feel good, and the good feeling can be pretty addictive. We seek more ways to share what we know — because (at least in theory) that helps others and gives us warm fuzzies.

In many cases wearing our expert hat is ideal. Less experienced team members need help identifying the possible and optimal paths forward. We’ve seen things go wrong, which helps avoid repeating the same mistakes. We can pattern match from scenario to scenario, creating new opportunities and mitigating risks. And we can get to a decision quickly.

What is the price of wearing our expert hat? Sure it makes us feel good and makes a quick decision. But how does it impact our team’s confidence? How does it help to build their problem-solving muscle? How does it create a sense of collaboration, safety and trust within the team as they work together to solve the problem?

As a leader, wearing the expert hat doesn’t build confidence, problem-solving muscle or trust in a team.

Of course, there are times when using our expertise is the best thing to do. Like when something is genuinely urgent. (Let’s face it, these are rare.) Or when the team hasn’t seen anything like the current situation and has nothing relevant to draw upon. We can’t blame them for not understanding something they’ve never seen before.

In other cases, it’s important to role model curiosity. To encourage the team to think about whether they have relevant experiences or observations they can draw on to apply to the current situation. To help them trust themselves to analyse the situation, create recommendations and, in many cases, make a decision. There’s no doubt it takes more time to lead them through this process, but it’s an investment that saves you time in the future and delivers on your job as their people leader.

Having a range of questions at the ready can help you and your team clarify and resolve the current problem. Questions like:

“Why” Questions

  • Why is it essential that we focus on this problem?
  • Why is this particular problem a challenge for you?

“What” Questions

  • What does a good outcome look like to you?
  • What is blocking you from solving the problem?
  • What have you done in the past when faced with a new problem?

“Who” Questions

  • Who else have you consulted about this?
  • Who else might you consult?

“How” Questions

  • How would you like me to help?
  • How should we progress this?

This list is only a starting point. Remember that the tone you use to ask the questions will be an essential determinant of how they are received. The goal is to create a relaxed vibe where your team feels safe to think aloud.

And if you’re still feeling the tension between your inner expert and coach, remember that asking one or two questions like the ones above can help find the sweet spot between them.

Originally published at on January 23, 2023.