As a consultant, I often have people looking to me for my expertise. As a coach, I help people clarify and solve their own problems. Sometimes being an expert makes it difficult to coach rather than teach or mentor, and the trick is stay open-minded and listen.
Consider two extremes: Learner and Knower. If you imagine a number line from –5 to +5 where the negative side represents a Learner stance and the positive side represents a Knower stance, I describe myself as a -1. This puts me on the Learner side; even though I am constantly reading/observing/thinking, I don't feel like there's a focused drive or strong conscious effort behind my learning--it's just part of who I am and my normal routine.
The moments when I feel like a Knower are more intense, and I'm wary of going into that mode. The times when I have tried to have open, engaging conversations with Knowers have been frustrating, and I don’t want to be that kind of expert.
A few months ago I had a happy hour with two of my old coworkers; it's been a bumpy journey for them ever since I left that company. The team transitioned from scrum to kanban unsuccessfully, the relationship with the business stakeholders dissolved, some team members are gone for one reason or another, and the director started outsourcing development work. My old team has fallen apart. But some of them want to re-commit to agile practices and scrum. As they were telling me this, I felt excited and optimistic that life and work were going to get better for them.
Then the other shoe dropped: they were going to continue to outsource development work, and the QA work is going to be outsourced to another country. Enter Allison the Knower. I pointed out the issues they were already facing and rhetorically asked how they could be agile with their “team” spread across the world. Ouch. My need to be the vocal Knower put a damper on the happy hour, to say the least.
That’s not the kind of expert I want to be. It doesn't matter if I was right or wrong in my assessment of the situation and what would happen because I'm not there. The better reaction would've been to offer to participate in their journey, provide coaching support, and contribute constructive advice/resources to help them make the situation work. An expert is helpful when she’s by your side, not when she’s standing in front of you telling you what you’re doing wrong. Failure can tell you what you’re doing wrong just fine.