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Expert . . .

November 9, 2009

Are you an expert?Recently, I had the opportunity to serve as an expert witness on corporate governance in an arbitration case. I was called to testify by the defendant’s attorney. The plaintiff’s attorney asked a pretty fundamental question right at the start; “What makes you an expert?”

Of course the CV he had in his hand as he asked the question certainly addressed some of the basics – employment, education, affiliations and clients with whom I’ve worked. But the truth is this was the first time I had been called as an Expert Witness in anything. So what does make me an “expert”?

First I have to admit that I’m very uncomfortable with the word. Expert sounds to me like you’ve pretty much learned everything and done everything – or at least know where to go to get the answers about everything that has to do with your area of expertise. I’m not sure I feel that I’m there yet. On the other hand, will I ever be in a position where I feel comfortable saying I rise to the level of expert? Probably not. So where does that leave me?

I remember responding to the attorney’s question with the usual “I have done this, I have been hired to do that, I continue my education by going here . . .” I earn a living advising business leaders, mentoring potential business leaders and coaching highly effective business leaders. And with all that, the one thing that I think makes me a so-called-expert is that I have figure out, after all these years, how to ask relevant questions . . . and then shut up and listen. At least I shut up and listen when I’m “on my game.”

I know I don’t have all the answers and if that is what is expected of an expert – especially in corporate governance and best business practices – then I’m not an expert. If, however, I am called upon to opine concerning best practices and governance in general, and allowed to ask probing questions to get to the unique situation at hand – then I can be effective.

In this case, I could ask questions of only a few folks who where there. And I had boxes and boxes of notes, minutes, depositions and company letters to read through and build the story of what went on. I guess the expert part came in as I understood the oversights, mistakes and truly questionable practices that the documentation made clear. The defendant had some issues and I felt compelled to say so when asked. The outcome should not have been different, but the governing board should have acted much sooner.

When the plaintiff’s attorney finished questioning me, I realized that I had indeed provided clear, logical, supportable testimony that the board, though slow in acting, had in fact followed the proper course and provided the right standard of care for the corporation. I began to realize, by the attorney’s questioning, that I perhaps do know more about this topic than most other casual business people. Despite that, I still am uncomfortable with the “Expert” part of this. I know I still have much to learn. And I will keep on learning.

So what makes you an expert? Is it really only experience or formal education? Do you acknowledge that you are an expert at something? How do you hire experts to help you? Do you consider consultants to be expert in a particular field? I think we all are expert at something. I’m not sure we all think about what that means or are comfortable with the title. How about you?

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