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In Praise of Experts

By Marty Nemko

Cartoon: Thank God, a panel of experts! “Thank God! A panel of experts!”

We love to diminish experts. It makes us feel less inferior. And we do many things to rationalize their unimportance:

Companies are adopting ever flatter hierarchies and insist on team decision making to minimize the notion that some employees are more expert than others. They use their own employees as trainers and internal consultants rather than bring in the best experts available.

Recognizing today’s anti-expert ethos, true experts themselves often downplay their expertise. How many times have we heard experts, even Nobelists, mouth egalitarian pap such as, “It really was a team effort,” “I couldn’t have done it without my family,” and other placating hogwash.

Our devaluing of true experts extends beyond the workplace. For example, today, we’re as likely to draw our political views from comedian Jon Stewart as from a true political expert like CNN’s Jeff Greenfield let alone the New York Times’ Tom Friedman.

Even the media doesn’t take its search for experts seriously enough. The experts who appear in the media are disproportionately people who have written books with sexy titles and then hired expensive publicists to pester the media until they relent. You might ask, “But don’t only the best businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, etc., get books published?” Hardly. Often they’re the ones whose careers are flagging and choose to write a book to try to salvage it. Most true experts are so busy and so rewarded by their work, they usually don’t take the time to write books, at least until they’re slowing down toward retirement. That’s especially true today when, even after writing a book, the odds are slim of a first-time author getting published, let alone selling enough copies to justify the enormous time it takes to write a book. Alas, most media people don’t value true expertise enough to take the extra time to dig up the real experts. It’s easier to just say yes to the publicist pushing an author.

So, I invite you to transcend all that egalitarian posturing you hear today and remember the obvious but obfuscated truth that, indeed, some people really are more expert than others, a lot more expert. So when you have a significant need or problem at or outside of work, ask yourself whether you’d really be wise to dig up a true expert.

How to find one?

1. Instead of relying on who is being interviewed in the media or even the trade press, ask respected colleagues for recommendations of experts they’ve been happy with.

2. In just the first few minutes of that first conversation in which you describe your problem, you usually can tell how expert someone else. True experts almost immediately understand your situation, perhaps invoking past instances in which they addressed a similar problem. Usually, they quickly then outline a plan for how they’d help you that makes sense to you. Phony experts usually avoid talking specifics except perhaps to brag about their credentials or past “successes,” and instead focus on getting you to sign on the dotted line.

3. Before expending any serious money on an expert, get three references from clients with problems similar to yours. If the “expert” can’t come up with three, he almost assuredly isn’t the person you need. When you call the references, say something like, “I’m deciding which consultant to hire and it’s an important decision. I’m considering (Insert candidate’s name) to help me (insert the problem you’re trying to get help with.) Are you in a position to assess whether he’d be an excellent choice?”

Then again, maybe, to succeed, you don’t need an expert. Just write a book called, “The Seven Keys to (insert a career-building topic)” and hire a publicist.

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