You’ve heard of the glass ceiling…
But have you heard of the Subject Matter Expert Prison?
This is a phrase I’ve coined for the invisible trap around you that’s stopping you from stepping into your next level of leadership.
And even if you do manage to smash the glass ceiling and get promoted to the C-Suite without escaping the Subject Matter Expert Prison, you will:
👉 Still be stuck in the weeds.
👉 Still struggle to have your voice heard.
👉 And still feel invisible around the leadership table.
This is not the kind of executive I want YOU to be.
That’s why I’m dedicating this episode of Maximize Your Career to helping you escape this prison by taking control of your next promotion.
In this episode, I’ll show how to find the key, unlock the door, and step into a whole new level of leadership.
If you listen to this episode and think to yourself “I want to think and act like a senior executive now”, then I am here to help. Because you are ready for that next level. Get your next promotion faster and easier than you’ve even imagined by joining at ExecutiveAheadOfTime.com
What You'll Learn:
- Real-life examples of what being trapped in the Subject Matter Expert Prison looks like in action
- The two ways that the Subject Matter Expert Prison is holding you back from advancing into senior executive leadership positions
- The connection between the Subject Matter Expert Prison and burnout
- What you need to do to escape the Subject Matter Expert Prison
- How to start showing up and communicating like a leader today
Listen to the Full Episode:
Featured on the Show:
- Connect with me on LinkedIn
- Download my 7-Step Promotion Roadmap
- Join the next round of my 6-week group coaching intensive, Executive Ahead of Time
- My book Promotions Made Easy is coming soon! Get free content – delivered straight to your inbox – that will help you apply what I teach BEFORE the book comes out. Sign up here.
Hello, everyone, welcome to another episode of Maximize Your Career. I'm your host, Stacy Mayer, and super excited, as always, to be here with you again this week. So, at the time of recording this episode, we are just past halfway point of my current round of Executive Ahead of Time - my six-week group coaching intensive that gives you all of the tools to get promoted into higher level executive positions. And I am super excited for some of the work that is coming out of this program, and I just wanted to share that with you so that you could get a behind-the-scenes look at what we're doing. So, one of the concepts that I teach - and you've heard me talk about this on my podcast - is the concept of 3X-ing your vision. And this is a lot more powerful than just stretching your vision, stretching yourself. But it really shows you - as a tool -the decisions that you're making today that aren't aligned with that bigger vision that you have for your career; where you're headed three promotions from now, what you really want to be doing inside of your career, the impact that you really want to be making. And once you can really understand what that is for you, then you can make better decisions in the present moment. You start to do things differently in your day to day based on where you're headed based on the impact that you really want to be making in your career.
And so I am seeing these corporate badass women doing some really extraordinary things, like putting themselves out there for positions that they have really no intention applying for prior to joining this program; submitting themselves for positions that are two levels up from where they are currently, having conversations with executive leadership and really challenging the status quo, really challenging themselves as to where they are and what they're fully capable of doing in their careers. So, I wanted to share with you one of the wins that was shared inside of my Voxer group, which is the communication channel - it's a text messaging app where we communicate as well about our wins and our challenges - and I offer real time coaching and feedback to the women in the program as we're all going through this together. It says, 'Hi, everyone just want to share that I will have an interview next week and the salary is 30k more than I make now. I'm kind of getting that ‘I want to throw up’ feeling. But this is my vision. This is where I'm headed.' This is such a powerful win, and I really wanted to dissect this a little bit.
So, one of the funny things that I share in my coaching with these women is that if you don't have that kind of tingly feeling in your stomach, you might not be pushing yourself hard enough - you might not be challenging yourself or stepping outside of your comfort zone. So, what she's saying here is basically like, 'I might actually get this role.' That's essentially what she's saying, because otherwise you wouldn't feel nervous. You don't feel nervous about doing the interview itself. What you feel nervous about is the success on the other side. The thing that makes your stomach turn is the 'Oh my gosh, this could really happen.' What if I actually get this role? What if I succeed in this interview process? What if I am fully capable of doing so much more, whether it's inside of my organization or at an outside company making thirty thousand dollars more than I'm currently making working in a role that I actually enjoy more where I have more autonomy, where I'm making a bigger impact and I'm making a higher salary as well. What if that really happened? That's what makes your stomach turn, and that's how you know that you're on that right path - that you're going towards that 3Xed vision. Because most of you are so fully capable of doing the job, but the challenging part is putting yourself out there, really understanding how not to sabotage yourself in the process, but fully go for these higher-level executive positions. Because most of us in reality aren't actually afraid of failing because we fail in little ways every single day. We fail simply by not putting ourselves out there. And in this case, what my student is sharing with us is that she is afraid of actually succeeding. That's why our stomach hurts - 'Oh my gosh, I'm doing this.
And so, we're afraid to actually succeed, and once you can kind of recognize that, then you say, 'Oh, all right, well, I'm going to do it anyway. Even though my stomach hurts, I'm still going to put myself out there in that bigger, bolder way. I'm going to go for that position where I'm making that impact. I'm going to go for that higher title. I'm going to go for that bigger company. I'm going to go for something that I didn't even understand was within my wheelhouse when I first joined Executive Ahead of Time just three weeks prior. But now I realize that I'm fully, not only fully capable of getting the position, but I'm fully capable of exceeding expectations once I get there.
That is what we're teaching inside of Executive Ahead of Time. I am giving you the tools to have success at that higher level of position - to not just have success but to exceed expectations because that's what we want. We don't want the stomach butterflies. We don't want to get the success and then get there and then feel like we're over our head. So, we're doing it in a way that's aligned with our truth, what we're really capable of, but we're challenging that. We're pushing that envelope a little bit more. And speaking of Executive Ahead of Time, enrollment is open right now, so I want to make sure that you get inside there - you go to our sales page, you read about the program, you schedule a free career strategy session with me so that you understand are you a good fit. Can this program help you advance into executive leadership? Because right now I am changing the way that we do business. By getting you promoted into a higher-level executive position, I am bringing more diversity to the leadership table. I am bringing your specific, unique leadership style to the executive table and that is what companies need more than anything. They need you in a higher-level executive position. So come on in - Join us inside of Executive Ahead of Time and let me help you get there. Go to ExecutiveAheadOfTime.com- You can read all about it and you can submit your application and make sure that you're a good fit so that we can get you enrolled in that program before the end of 2021. I cannot wait to see you there.
So, today's episode is going to talk about something that you have seen. It's been right in front of you. You know that it's there, you know that it's a trap, but you've never had a real name for it. And you don't really understand that this is holding you back from getting into those higher-level positions. So, I'm going to just put all of this on the table today so that you can start to break out of this trap and really understand how you are stuck right now and how you can literally open the door to a whole new future for yourself.
So, the concept that I'm talking about today is the SME prison. Right now, you are stuck in a 'Subject Matter Expert' prison. And prison can sound like very hard work, but I want it to. I want you to understand the magnitude of this box that you've been putting yourself in as the subject matter expert. So let me break this down for you a little bit more. You've heard of the glass ceiling. You know that it exists. You have difficulty getting into a higher-level leadership position, and women's leadership often calls this the 'glass ceiling' - that thing that we have to break through in order to get to that other side. And it's above you, it's invisible. I'm not sure I have to fight. I have to push. I have to challenge myself. I have to go harder, harder, harder to get through this glass ceiling. So, you're pushing up. Imagine you've got this glass ceiling, you're pushing against it, you're slipping and sliding. But what is all around you? What is actually surrounding you in those heavy bars that are surrounding you are actually your prison. So, you're pushing against the ceiling, trying to get into executive leadership. But what you're not realizing is that you're in a prison all around you of your subject matter expertise.
So, I had a woman come into coaching with me a couple of years ago, and she was a senior vice president at her organization, so she had a technical seat at the table. She was having regular conversations with the CEO of her organization. She was fantastic at her job. She was exceeding expectations inside of her current role. So why would she need to hire me? Why would she need my help to really get that voice at the table? It's because she was still tied to her subject matter expertise, and this can happen, also at the C-suite level. I have clients that join Executive Ahead of Time that are already C-suite officers. Why? Because they took their subject matter expert prison with them. They broke through the quote-unquote glass ceiling. They got a seat at the table, yet they took the bars and the chains with them. Now here is the great news, and this is why I teach you to become the Executive Ahead of Time. What we have to start doing is breaking out of this prison now.
You are going to take down the bars one by one; or you're going to simply take the keys that you've been holding this entire time, unlock the door and walk out the front door of the prison. You are going to start to break free of your subject matter expertise that is holding you back from getting promoted into executive leadership positions. And then even if you get promoted, if you bring this prison with you, you still won't have a voice at the table.
Now this is one of the most straightforward podcast episodes that I've probably done. We're on like episode number 95 or 96 or something, and I'm telling it like it is because this, my friends, is it. You are in a subject matter expert prison. But the good news is, is that once you learn to break free of your own prison, you catapult into executive leadership. This is why my graduates are getting skip-level promotions. This is why my graduates are getting promoted not once, but twice in a six-month period. This is why my students inside of the current Executive Ahead of Time group are getting promoted in one week - because they literally took the keys, opened the door, stepped out of the prison and then all of a sudden, they shot through that glass ceiling. But we have to understand what the subject matter expert prison is and why it is really keeping us back from those next levels of executive leadership. So, I'm going to break all of that down for you today and my friends, congratulations. There is literally freedom on the other side. There are sunny days ahead. There is more impact, influence, and energy to succeed at the senior executive level right in front of you once you break through this prison, once you really understand what is holding you back from success.
So, I want to break down the components of subject matter expertise. So, you understand the concept of what got you here won't get you there. You see it all the time. You understand that you need to do something different. Yet the first 20 years of your career, you spend climbing the corporate ladder through your subject matter expertise. Most of you who are listening to my podcast transitioned into executive leadership from a place of being the expert. And this is great! I want you to be the expert. I want to have that attention to detail. I want you to be really, really great at your job. I just want you to stop relying on it to get promoted into executive leadership positions. Now I get clients promoted into higher level leadership positions who choose to have this attention to detail - this depth of knowledge - in certain subject areas. You can continue operating at this deep level. I'm not suggesting that you stop doing that. What I am suggesting is that you realize that doesn't actually serve you at the executive leadership level. That's not WHY you got promoted. You got promoted because of your strategic thinking, because of your ideas, because of your leadership qualities, because of what you brought to the leadership table that was beyond your subject matter expertise.
If you are an individual contributor and you want to rise up and you want to become a principal or an architect or a senior product manager - whatever that might be for you - that is not what I'm talking about here. Continue doing that. I'm not saying that that is a bad thing at all. That is a very noble leadership path. What I'm talking about is those higher-level executive positions that require a different level of expertise - a leadership expertise - that is beyond your subject matter expertise.
So, this SME prison is holding you back for two reasons. One big, huge reason is you're underwater. You're too busy. You are stuck in the weeds. You have no time for strategic thinking. You're not putting yourself up for higher level leadership positions because you don't have enough time in the day. You can't imagine managing more people because you're already swamped. You're being called in the middle of the weekend to put out a fire. It feels a bit overwhelming. You feel frustrated so you go back to your work, and it's like the cycle just keeps continuing. So, there's the productivity side of things where your stress levels go up the more in the weeds that you are, the more you are mired in, by the details, the more decisions that you're making in a reactionary way, versus a proactive way. So, we know that this is the case. We can't keep running on these fumes. But yet it's really hard to get out of the cycle. I totally get it. That's what I'm here for.
The second reason why you're SME prison and this one, I think, is actually really, really important. So, most of us, especially women, we think we can do it all. So, I have been in this trap before running on fumes, and I just kind of keep going because I'm like, 'You know what - until my health starts to deteriorate, I could do it all'. And this is not great. But it's a problem and you're like, 'Well, as long as my health is fine or whatever, as long as I'm not completely burned out, I'll just keep going'. But the real reason why this is such a problem - this SME prison - is because you are eroding trust with leadership. Leadership cannot promote you if you are in this prison. If you are tied to your subject matter expertise, and they can't promote you for two reasons. And I want this to hit hard. I want you to realize why this is so pervasive.
The number one reason is because there's nobody else who can do your fricking job. You are the best at it. If you have no succession plan, if you don't have anybody else who can do your job, how in the world can they promote you because they need you in that role. And you've seen this happen, you've seen people less qualified get promoted. This is the reason why - you're too good at your job. And the second area why this erodes trust with leadership is because you're basically telling them, 'I don't know how to manage my time. I don't know how to strategically think. I don't know how to lead at a higher level. I'm so mired in the weeds that I can't even function. So why would you promote me to a higher executive leadership position?' And hopefully this feels a bit like a slap in the face because I want it to. I want you to understand this prison that you are in and what you are creating for yourself that is actually keeping you stuck exactly where you are. And the good news is, is that there is a way out. And now I'm going to share with you a little bit more about what that 'way out' looks like. The glory that's on the other side - the sunshine, the blue skies - the impact, influence, and energy that you really want to thrive and exceed expectations at those higher leadership levels.
So, you know what it looks like technically. You have that favorite boss, that boss that you really want to emulate, or maybe it's a mentor or another powerhouse corporate woman or another powerhouse corporate woman who is already in a C-suite position and is living your best life. You know what that looks like. You know what it's like on the other side, but the challenge is you're not exactly sure how to get there. You're not sure how to get out of that prison.
So, the first thing I want you to start to do is to understand your own unique leadership style. You're going to have to start defining this for yourself. Who are you without your subject matter expertise? What does that look like? Describe it for yourself. Now, this isn't a wish list like 'I would be a better leader that does this'. I'm asking you to do this with the person that you are now - really identify your own unique leadership style. I did a podcast episode on this - identifying your unique leadership style - a while back, and I will link to that in the show notes. If you want to go through the entire step by step process to define your unique leadership style. But that's essentially what we're doing here. We're looking at who you are right now before you change anything. What makes you a valuable leader? And this is so important to understand because it's really going to start to show you why you are already capable of succeeding at that higher leadership level. You just happen to be stuck in this prison. You're in an SME prison, but once you break out, you're going to be able to succeed - so really understanding that leadership style.
The other thing I want you to know is why are people in higher level executive positions compensated better than people in lower-level executive positions? And you could say that it's just because it's a higher title and so you're supposed to get paid a little bit more than, you know, others. But from a business perspective, it's because of the value that executive leaders bring to the organization. So, the higher you go up at your organization, the more compensation you're going to get financially because of the value that you bring to your organization. So, you're going to get paid more because you're getting paid for your ideas and not just your subject-matter expertise. Now again, I talked about those people who are in individual contributor tracks and they're moving up, and they're in higher level roles like a principal or an architect of engineering or something like that. That's a higher-level expertise, and those people are also getting compensated accordingly for their deep knowledge. And so, you just basically have to decide, 'okay, am I going to rise the ranks in an individual contributor role or do I want to rise the ranks in leadership'. And most people who are listening to my podcast, it's because they want to make that impact at that leadership level and break out of the subject-matter expertise prison and into something that feels more sustainable and impactful for them. And so, I just need you to start identifying what your current unique leadership style is. And then the second piece is how do we start expressing that leadership style to others? And the way that we're going to do that is through our communication. And we communicate in many different ways. You communicate with your physical appearance, your confidence, the words that you say. And so, there's all of these different things that come into play.
But in the purpose of today's episode, I really want you to think about how are you communicating as the subject matter expert vs. the executive leader. And how am I communicating as the executive leader or subject matter expert? A great place to start is just to look at your last meeting with your boss. Think about the last conversation, the last one on one that you had with your boss. And now I want you to ask yourself what percentage of that meeting did I communicate at the higher executive level, and what percentage did I communicate as a subject matter expert. Essentially checking in on all the details - giving updates on my scorecard, making sure that my boss had every little in and out of what I'm working on, every single detail. And just start to notice this for yourself. How am I communicating with executive leadership? When I am showing up into group meetings, what percentage of that meeting am I waiting to be called on? When I am called on, am I simply answering the question that I was asked, which would essentially be relying on your subject matter expertise. Or am I adding a deeper level of value to the conversation at a higher strategic level?
Now the good news is, is that most of you guys know how to do this. You have ideas. You know what you would do differently if you were in a position of power, but you just think, 'Oh, well, you know, even in my role, my boss,’ - (I hear this all the time) - ‘My boss only wants to know the details.' And the truth is, once you start stepping up in this way and you start answering the questions in a more visionary strategic way versus just diving into all of the details, your boss is going to be relieved. Your boss needs to be reminded of the bigger picture, of the bigger vision, of the bigger why - why you are working on these certain things. Your boss needs to and wants to start trusting you as a strategic thought leader, not just as the subject matter expertise. This is a relief for your boss. Now, like I said, at any given point, you're going to be able to answer the details. You're going to be able to go into the details or if you can't go into them yourself, you know who to ask, you know who to go to, you know who to bring into the conversation. You are a responsible leader. You understand all of these nuances, but you're going to start shifting the way you're communicating with executive leadership. That is how you are going to start to break out of this subject matter expert prison that is holding you back from getting promoted into executive leadership.
This is such a relief. I hope that when listening to this episode today, you see it as that relief because you, my friend, have the keys to the prison. You have the ability to break out of the prison. And any given day, you do not have to wait until your higher-level position to break out of this prison. And once you start to do that, once you break out of what is holding you back from making it into those executive positions, once you become that executive ahead of time, then when you do smash that glass ceiling, when you do get promoted to the C-suite, you are ready. You have already been leading at that higher executive level. You have already built executive relationships. You are a C-suite executive and now you have the title and the compensation to match. That is changing business. That is what it means to bring more diversity to the leadership table. That is why I do the work that I do. You need to be in a higher-level leadership position, not just as the subject matter expert, but as the extraordinary leader that you are fully capable of being in those higher-level executive positions. Thank you so much for listening. I cannot wait to see you get into those higher-level positions and I'll see you next week - Bye.
About Your Host
Hi! I'm Stacy Mayer, a Certified Executive Coach and Promotion Strategist on a mission to bring more diversity to the leadership table by getting 1000 underrepresented corporate managers promoted into senior executive positions each year worldwide.
I help undervalued executives scale to the C-Suite using repositioning strategies that build your confidence and visibility, so you can earn the recognition and support you need from key stakeholders while embodying your unique leadership style.
My podcast “Maximize Your Career with Stacy Mayer” tackles topics like executive communication, getting more respect in the workplace from challenging bosses and team members, and avoiding the common mistakes that sabotage career advancement.