Claiming a SME position and the 10,000-hour conundrum detraphiphat

Marketing guru Mark Amtower explains that it takes time to become an expert, but true mastery requires actively developing skills and then sharing your expertise.

There are tens of thousands of subject matter experts in our market, each specialized in a particular discipline. In a market as large and fragmented as government contracting, there are thousands of niches, each occupied by people with varying degrees of skill.

In his book Outliers (2004), Malcolm Gladwell brought up the concept of 10,000 hours as the basis for becoming a master of something, maybe anything. The research was originally done in relation to violinists in a study in the 1990s by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and others at the Academy of Music in Berlin.

Tons of articles and studies have come out since Outliers, some demystifying the concept, some supportive, but the bottom line remains that if you really want to excel at something, you need to put in the time in an active way, not just occupy the space and hope that you pick up skills by osmosis, by being in the vicinity of where the action occurs. 

Time alone is not enough

We all know people who have been doing a particular task for 5+ years, and at 2,000 hours for a typical work year, they’ve hit that 10,000 hour mark. But take those same people and see if some are decidedly more skilled than others. Some are further down the road to truly excelling in a particular area. 

Why are some further ahead?

The time factor alone does not dictate the outcome; it is the desire and drive of the person seeking to excel in a particular area.

When I was training a data analytics company’s sales staff on leveraging LinkedIn, part of the training involved one-on-one sessions with several key players. During one of those sessions I met with an account exec who had focused on the Department of Energy for over four years- pushing that 10,000 hour tipping point. He probably put in more than 2,000 hours a year, too.

So I asked him if he was a subject matter expert. He said no, he was a sales guy. I asked him if he knew DOE’s preferred contracts, if he had extensive connections with the client, if he knew the technical pain points and if he knew their budget cycle and the key players in the tech decisions. 

He answered yes to all questions.

I told him he was a SME when it came to doing business with DOE. 

A short time later, his LinkedIn profile reflected that SME status, and his profile views became a source for leads.

Sharing your expertise

While working with an organization that is more think-tank than contractor, I was advising multiple PhDs with some highly esoteric knowledge and skill sets. Every profile headline said “Consultant at XYZ”.

They were reluctant to share much of their expertise on LinkedIn assuming people would not understand or be interested in what they brought to the table. 

My advice was simple: your respective audiences are quite narrow, so you are not targeting thousands of people, at most you are focusing on hundreds, maybe less. And those who need what you do will find you if you populate your profile, including your headline, with the right words, phrases and information. 

The results were great. One PhD got a mid-six figure task order for his organization based primarily on info in his profile. Another grew a large enough network to start his own consulting firm.

By the time I left, instead of “Consultant at…” the headlines were “Leading expert on (stuff you’ve never heard of)” But the headlines resonated with those requiring that esoteric expertise, and the experts became findable.

These results have occurred countless times when I am advising sales and business development teams. It is often a matter of thinking a little differently about what you do, who you do it for, and how you share that publicly, especially through LinkedIn.

What’s stopping you from claiming your SME status?

If you have developed an area of expertise, what’s stopping you from sharing that? You have invested time in mastering a discipline then there is already a certain number of people who know that: co-workers and those for whom you perform the task.

Mindshare and market share do not occur of their own volition. They occur as you share information and who you and your company are and what you do. What you share must be verifiable to attain credibility. 

The more dedicated you are to a specific area of expertise, and the more you articulate this expertise to a target audience, the more likely it is that you will move your career and business forward.

It’s not just putting in the time, 10,000 hours or more. It’s using that time to hone a skill set that resonates with a definable audience then sharing that where it matters most when building a network, LInkedIn.

The value of a legitimate SME position in GovCon is indisputable, for companies large and small, and for consultants and other solopreneurs.

Not that I have an opinion.

Mark Amtower advises small and mid-size contractors on leveraging LinkedIn and building SME positions in the GovCon market.