The Experts’ Advantage

LONDON – Nearly everyone who sits on Google’s board of directors has at least one computer science or engineering degree or doctorate. There are two university presidents and eminent scholars – Stanford University’s John Hennessy and former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman – and several members of the National Academy of Engineering and other illustrious organizations. For Google, it pays to have technical expertise at the top.

But Google is an unusual corporate giant in promoting those with scientific prowess to the top of the management ladder. Beyond Silicon Valley, few senior corporate executives boast technical expertise in the products that their companies produce. American boardrooms are filled with MBAs, especially from Harvard, while firms in the rest of the developed world (with the possible exception of Germany) seem to prefer professional managers over technical or scientific talent.

Nowadays, it seems as anomalous to have knowledge workers serve as professional leaders as it once did to have scientists in the boardroom. It was previously thought that leadership is less necessary in knowledge-intensive organizations, where experts were assumed to be superior because they were motivated by intellectual pleasure rather than such extrinsic motivations as profit growth and cost targets.

This difference in attitude is evident in many areas of society, not least in hospitals in the United States and the United Kingdom, where knowledge-intensive medical practitioners operate separately from managers. Hospitals used to be run by doctors; today, only 5% of US hospitals’ CEOs are medical doctors, and even fewer doctors run UK hospitals. “Medicine should be left to the doctors,” according to a common refrain, “and organizational leadership should be left to professional managers.”