The Expert Trap: What Holds Women Back from Thought Leadership with Carol Cox: Podcast Ep. 241


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You’re an expert in what you do: you have work experience, skills, knowledge, credentials, degrees.

You’re well regarded as an expert in your field.

You enjoy presenting and training in your area of expertise.

Being an expert is great for attracting clients who need your specialized services and for doing workshops and conference breakout sessions.

And it’s holding you back.

It’s holding you back from thought leadership: making a bigger and bolder impact, integrating meaning and mission into your business, and delivering speeches that are transformational and game-changing.

It’s holding you back from developing your full potential.

I call this “The Expert Trap” and, as women, we face this trap because of the society in which we live and how we’ve adapted to make careers and livelihoods for ourselves.

But, I believe we can do and be so much more – and we must if we want to make sure all of our rights are protected.

In this episode, I talk about:

  • What it means to be a thought leader
  • Why you would want to be a thought leader as the next stage of your evolution as an entrepreneur and speaker
  • What “the expert trap” is
  • Why women in particular get stuck in the expert trap
  • What you can do to start shifting from expert to thought leader

We can help! Join our Thought Leader Academy.

About Us: The Speaking Your Brand podcast is hosted by Carol Cox. At Speaking Your Brand, we help women entrepreneurs and professionals clarify their brand message and story, create their signature talks, and develop their thought leadership platforms. Our mission is to get more women in positions of influence and power because it’s through women’s stories and visibility that we challenge the status quo and change existing systems. Check out our coaching programs at


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Carol Cox:
What is the expert trap and are you in it? I talk about what can hold women back from thought leadership and this episode of the Speaking Your Brand podcast.

Carol Cox:
More and more women are making an impact by starting businesses running for office and speaking up for what matters. With my background as a TV political analyst, entrepreneur and speaker, I interview and coach purpose driven women to shape their brands, grow their companies, and become recognized as influencers in their field. This is Speaking Your Brand, your place to learn how to persuasively communicate your message to your audience.

Carol Cox:
Hi there and welcome to the Speaking Your Brand podcast. I'm your host, Carol Cox. Today, we're going to talk about what I've called the expert trap. Now, most likely, you're an expert in what you do, which is fantastic. You have work experience, you have knowledge, you have skills. Maybe you even have credentials, certifications and degrees in the area that you work. And you are regarded as an expert in your field and you most likely enjoy presenting, teaching, training and your area of expertise. And so being an expert is great for attracting clients who need your specialized services and for doing workshops and conference breakout sessions in your topic of expertise. Now I heard from a lot of listeners from the episode did a couple of months ago in July episode 232 called Are You an influencer, an expert or a Thought Leader? And many of you identify with being an expert, and yet you want to develop your thought leadership, but you aren't quite sure how to do so or what exactly it looks like.

Carol Cox:
And the reason I'm doing this episode today about the expert trap is that I believe that you being an expert and really being very comfortable in being an expert is actually what's holding you back from thought leadership, from making a bigger and bolder impact, from integrating meaning and mission into your business and from delivering speeches that are transformational and game changing. And I also believe that it's holding you back from developing your full potential. And so this expert trap, as I've called it, I believe that as women we face this because of the patriarchal society we live in and how we've had to adapt to make careers and livelihoods for ourselves. And we're going to go into more detail in this in this episode. But I believe we can do and we can be so much more. And actually we must if we want to make sure that all of our rights are protected. And you'll hear my rant towards the end of the episode about the real world consequences of women not being in leadership positions. So in this episode, I'm going to go through what it means to be a thought leader, why you would want to be a thought leader as the next stage of your evolution as an entrepreneur and as a speaker. What exactly this expert trap is why women in particular get stuck in it, and what you can do to start shifting from an expert to a thought leader.

Carol Cox:
And this is exactly what we do in our Thought Leader Academy. We help you identify your core message, your core story, your core idea, and then create your thought leadership platform, your signature talk, your visibility strategy, your monetization methods, and then also how to deliver your presentations and your speeches with impact. And enrollment is now open for the Thought Leader Academy. You can apply today by going to speaking your brand academy again that's speaking your brand dot com slash academy. So what happens is that the first step is for you to submit the application form. Then we'll review it and then we'll email you to schedule a one on one zoom call so that we can talk through your application, talk about your goals, and make sure that the Academy is the best fit for you. And I truly believe that thought leadership is not work that you can do by yourself on your own. I have coaches that I work with and you really need to do this with a coach. You need that sounding board, you need that reflection. And really, I believe that doing it within a community of women where everyone is raising their voices together and learning together is unsurpassed. And this is what we hear from the women who've gone through our Thought Leader Academy is that it gives them not only those tangible deliverables, but also the confidence to see themselves as a thought leader, to put themselves out there, and then also this incredible community and network of other women.

Carol Cox:
So again, to get all the details on the academy and to submit your application, go to speaking your brand slash academy. Now let's get into today's episode. So let's start first with my definition of a thought leader. I see a thought leader, someone who has an interesting idea, especially one that hasn't been talked a lot about in their circle of influence. So in your corner of the Internet, in the audiences that you speak with and that you work with, what is something that's not quite getting talked about or needs to get talked about more? A thought leader challenges the status quo. Challenges our assumptions. Challenges our perspectives, our mental models of the way we see things. Thought leaders communicate with conviction and boldness. They inspire people to take action and. They cause people to be self-reflective and to learn more about themselves and how they relate to the world. So why would you want to be a thought leader to evolve from this expert entrepreneur into thought leadership? Well, here is what I see for myself and for the woman that we work with is that you're not content to just let things be, you know, more as possible. You want to see change happen. Change happen, whether it's on the smaller level with your clients, your audiences, your community, or even at the larger societal level.

Carol Cox:
You want to have a bigger impact. You want to infuse meaning and mission into your business. You want to deliver speeches that are transformational and game changing, and you want bigger opportunity to do these things. Bigger stages, paid speaking keynotes, a TEDx Talk Board Positions Awards. All of those things happen when you put yourself out as a thought leader, not just an expert thought leadership truly build your brand and expand your business and your opportunities. So you may be wondering, Well, can't I just get these things by staying in my lane of expertise? And I don't think that you can. And that's why I call it the expert trap. Here's what happens as an expert. So you have specialized skills and knowledge, even credentials and degrees, and you're great at the work that you do, which you should be. Your clients come to you because you're good at what you do and you can deliver for them and you have the answers. A client needs help with something. A client has a question. You have the answer for them. You can solve their problem. You can put together presentations that teach about your area of expertise, and yet you're comfortable here, perhaps too comfortable in this area of expertise. And I don't know about you, but I have the type of personality that once I get comfortable with something, I want to challenge myself and push myself to the next stage.

Carol Cox:
And I also know that I oftentimes need someone else, either a coach or a community of other women, to help push me to that next stage to help me see what is possible for myself. And that's really what I see. Thought Leadership as is the next stage in your evolution as an entrepreneur and as a speaker. And it reminds me of the book called The Big Leap by Dr. Gay Hendricks. I love this book. If you haven't read it, definitely go out and get it. The Big Leap. I read it probably about three or four times over the past five or six years, and in it he talks about how there's four different zones. Based on the work that we do, there's the zone of incompetence. So those are things that we're just not good at. So we most likely are not doing that whatsoever. In our work, there is the zone of competence. So these are things that we can do good enough, but they're probably not really what our clients pay us for. But we can kind of get by just doing things here and there. Then there's a zone of excellence and this is where I, I see being an expert falls in as the zone of excellence and the trap with the zone of excellence. The expert trap is that it's really comfortable for you because you're well rewarded for it. You're well-regarded clients come to you for it and you are feel really good about it because you're great at it.

Carol Cox:
But then as the Big Leap talks about is that you want to at some point, most of us or many of us want to shift into our zone of genius. The zone of genius is that thing which only we can do is those ideas that come to us that are meant for us and meant for us to share with the world. The zone of genius can be an absolute incredible place to be, but it's also really scary. It can feel uncomfortable. There's a fear of failure because it's not our our zone of excellence. There's there's challenges there. We have to push ourselves. We have to grow. Yet the zone of genius is where our greatest work and our greatest impact will come. And that's where I see where our thought leadership comes into play. And this really needs to be a shift in identity, a shift from comfort to discomfort, from having the answers to being willing to ask questions, to ask questions of ourselves and of our audiences. And so you don't need to abandon being an expert on what you do and working with your clients and your area of expertise. What I invite you to do is to start asking bigger, deeper questions of yourself and your audience. So let me give you an example of this to to make it a little bit clear, and I'm going to focus on an area of expertise around productivity and time management.

Carol Cox:
Most likely, you have read books or read articles or listen to podcasts or watch videos about how to manage your time better, how to be more productive. Most of us are because we have a lot of things to do and we probably don't feel like we get as much done or as much as we would like to get done in a given day or a given week. And so let me give you kind of two different examples related to this. So first, I'm going to look at three men who have all talked about this productivity time management area. So and I'm going to separate them as influencers, experts and thought leaders, and then I'll give you an example for women. So the first one would be someone like Gary Vaynerchuk. Now he's an influencer and. If you go back to that episode 232 I did about the differences between an influencer or an expert in a thought leader, is that an influencer talks to markets, to large mass audiences with pretty mass market products. So Gary Vaynerchuk, he's on all the social media platforms, podcasts, videos, he's all over the place. And when he talks about productivity, it's all about hustle, hustle, hustle. His books are on Crushed. You don't have time to sleep, just hustle and work. So that's his kind of philosophy around productivity and time management. And as an influencer, the people who follow him want to be like him. That's what influencers, it's aspirational and their followers want to be like them.

Carol Cox:
Now let's take a look at an expert. That's someone like David Allen, who created a system called Getting Things Done probably a few decades ago now. So getting things done, GTD and it's very popular. Back in the day, they had planners and journals and all kinds of time management systems, productivity systems that people would purchase. And he has lots of books and now I'm sure there's online versions and apps related to that. So David Allen is an expert. He has a methodology that he teaches and you can learn that methodology and apply it to yourself. So that's very clear cut. He's clearly an expert in what he does now. Unlike Gary Vaynerchuk, who's an influencer, most people probably don't want to be like David Allen. They don't aspire to be like him. They just want to use his methodology. Now, here's where the difference is between someone like David Allen as an expert and a thought leader. I recently read a book by Oliver Burkeman. It's called 4000 Weeks Time Management for Mortals, and in the book he talks about that in an average lifespan. We have about 4000 weeks that we live. And he and Oliver Burkeman talks about how he used to be a productivity junkie like Lifehacker and what I wanted to try to maximize his time and get as much done as he could. And then at some point he realized, like, what am I doing? Why am I trying to maximize every minute, every hour of the day? Maybe I need to step back and think about what is it that I actually can get done in my lifetime, what are my true priorities? And perhaps we just can't get it all done that we want to get done.

Carol Cox:
If we have 20 things on our bucket list, maybe we're just not going to get to those. So in his book, he doesn't give us a methodology or a step by step system to be more productive. Instead, he helps us to shift our perspective. This is what thought leaders do, helps us to shift our perspective on the way we have thought about something, to a new way of seeing it, and then what that looks like for ourselves. That's the self reflective part, and then helping us to change our mental models around productivity and time management. So now of course, I wouldn't just do All Men I'm going to do now let me do a segment of women, because of course women fall into these categories of influence or expert and thought leader as well. So here's an example from that, Marie for Leo, who many of you probably know from B-school and the work that she does. So she's definitely an influencer. She has a large mass audience and she sells, I mean, kind of a mass market product, B-school to them. Well, when I was preparing for a presentation recently into this podcast episode, I happened to go to her Instagram just to see if she had done any posts related to productivity.

Carol Cox:
And it just so happened that she has a new program coming out this fall called Time Genius All Around Productivity and Time Management. So she's going to be sharing strategies and tips related that. But she's really an influencer because the people who follow Marie for Leo want to be like her. They want to have her lifestyle, her business, and they aspire to that. Now, let's take a look at an expert in this category. So that would be someone like Laura VANDERKAM. She's written a few books on productivity. One of them is called Off the Clock Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. And she's also done a TED Talk. So she's very much an expert in this space. In her book, she talks about strategies, tips that you can do, methodology that you can do. So she still within this paradigm of helping us be more productive and manage the time that we have now. Here is now a thought leader. And Helen Peterson wrote a book a couple of years ago called Can't Even How Millennials Became Their Burnout Generation. So it's a great book. I'm Generation X, but so I would say probably millennials and Gen X would fall into this as well. And this book was based off of an article that she had written a couple of years before she published the book that went viral.

Carol Cox:
And in it, she doesn't talk about here's a strategy to be more productive, or here's the strategy how millennials can stop being burnt out. Instead, she says, We have a societal, systemic problem that makes it impossible for us to truly get everything done that we want to get done. But even beyond that, to really, truly not suffer from burnout because of all the demands that we have on on ourselves with work, families, household, the technology that sucks us in all of that. And so from a thought leadership perspective and Helen Peterson is shining that magnifying glass on us as. I had our problem and helping us see something that we hadn't thought about before. So here's what thought leaders do, is they look at the big picture. They see things that are that other people aren't saying, and they speak truth to power. They're talking about systems that don't work for so many of us. They take their expertise. So they have expertise in that area, but they fill in the gaps with their opinions and their lived experience. So a lot of times as experts, people who are experts feel like they can't go out of their lane. They can't talk about or have opinions about things that they don't know 100% for sure. But thought leaders aren't going to have all the answers. They're not going to know 100% of things for sure. They're going to have to fill in those gaps with their opinions and their lived experience.

Carol Cox:
They're willing to put themselves out there and talk about ideas, even when they don't have all the answers. And it's probably based on my personality, but I have really done this for all of my career and even back to when I was in high school, when I was on the speech and debate team, I gave speeches and would do the debates and I would, of course, prepare and have my speeches prepared and be prepared for the debates. But I certainly didn't have all the answers, and I certainly wasn't an expert. I remember I gave a speech that I won an award for about climate change and the environment, and this was back in 1992. And I was certainly was not an expert on the environment as a high school student, but I felt really passionate about it and I wanted to put my ideas around about it, especially someone in that generation. I am also a self-taught computer programmer, software developer, so I learned it with the help of my husband and with a lot of books. And so I didn't have all the answers and I certainly wasn't expert when I started, but I learned all of those things and I filled in the gaps. I've been a political commentator on TV news for the past 15 years. I have a degree in history, but not in political science, and I got involved in local politics without having read a whole bunch of books about it or textbooks about it or or taking any classes and local politics and said, I lived the experience.

Carol Cox:
I, I learned it as I was going along. And I've been a political commentator for the past 15 years, not because I have all of the answers, but because I'm willing to share opinions and I'm willing to talk about my perspective as a woman. Really. This podcast over the past four and a half years, if you've been listening for a while, you probably have heard my evolution from kind of just being an interviewer and talking about very tactical things related to public speaking, to really opening up this idea of thought leadership and stepping into my own thought leadership. And that applies to Keynote, speaking to TED Talks and so on. And so here's what happens when as women we think we have to be an expert before we do something is that we don't seek out leadership positions. We don't pitch ourselves for bigger opportunities. We don't say yes to the opportunities that come to us. We don't run for office. And I'm recording this on September 2nd, which is less than two days since the US Supreme Court allowed the Texas law to go into effect, which bans abortion after six weeks. And most women don't even know that they're pregnant then because they've already have missed a period four weeks ago. So this is in that two week period. It is so outrageous. And not only that law banning abortion, but also providing a $10,000 bounty that private citizens can sue.

Carol Cox:
Anyone who they think, just think has helped a woman to obtain an abortion. It is absolutely outrageous. And this is not about protecting life. This is about controlling and punishing women and those who help them. And I am just absolutely furious that the Texas legislature and governor controlled by the Republicans and the US Supreme Court now also has a Republican majority on it, has allowed this law to stand and overturned almost 50 years of settled law from Roe v Wade. But this is what happens when we don't have women in these leadership positions and we don't vote for and encourage women to run for these offices. And when women think they have to be an expert in order to run, I mean, these men who are making these decisions, they're certainly not experts. They're not experts on my body and they're not experts on my privacy and my own health care and the decisions I want to make for myself. So I believe, though, that the reason that women in particular face this expert trap is exactly because of this patriarchal society that we live in. And so we have to recognize what is going on. And then we know that we can make our individual changes and changes within the group of women that were around to help support each other. In this, as women, we have needed to be seen as more competent than men to get the same professional and job opportunities.

Carol Cox:
So we have gotten our college degrees, graduate degrees. More women than men now get college degrees and get graduate degrees and a lot of different areas and we still don't have equal power. So it's not education, it's not competence. Women are oftentimes. Penalized for having opinions and for speaking up. Whether it's on social media or in other public venues, women are oftentimes trolled and given death threats and hate speech for for speaking up and having opinions. Women can be very qualified for jobs and other opportunities, and oftentimes we don't go after them because we can't check all of the boxes on the list of so called requirements. And so all of these things oftentimes prevent us as women from stepping into those leadership roles and as we have seen just over the past five years and are in the elections here in the United States, leadership and power don't come from competence. They don't come from qualifications. And all of what I'm talking about applies even more so to black women and women of color than for white women, because they face an even extra tax than white women do. So this is why I am so passionate about helping women with their thought leadership, with developing that confidence around putting themselves out there, putting their ideas out there. Because I believe that starting with your ideas, starting with your core message, putting your voice out there is going to help you develop a lot of these other leadership muscles.

Carol Cox:
And there's vulnerability in thought leadership. There's vulnerability in sharing your ideas and your personal stories and not having all the answers or showing a perfect facade of what you want people to think you are. So this is why our Thought Leader Academy has been so incredibly special to me. When I hear the women do their graduation speeches on our final call and they talk about the journey that they've gone on with us and how when they started, they felt that they wanted to be a thought leader but wasn't sure what that meant for them. And by the time they're done, they can say with confidence, I am a thought leader and I am ready to use my voice. And they talk about the network and the community of women that they've built together. One of the women who's already joined us for our fall cohort told me that she's ready to get out of being a conference breakout session speaker. That's where she's been in for a number of years, and she does paid speaking, but it's a lot of it's training kind of tactical content. And she says that she's ready to elevate her content, to tighten her message, to go bigger and bolder with her idea, to help her audiences imagine more, to speak truth, to power, to see what else is possible. And she also wants to have a strategy and a plan and accountability and support to make that happen, which is why she joined us in the Thought Leader Academy.

Carol Cox:
Let me tell you another about another woman who joined us. This is Betsy Jordan, who was on this podcast a few weeks ago, and she said that before joining, she had lots of content ideas and lots of ideas for her message, but she was just drowning in them. She didn't know which ones were the best ones, which ones to focus on. And she really needed help pinpointing her main idea. And she knew had known for a long time that she wanted to step into her thought leadership, yet something was holding her back and so she needed a growth container to do that. And she said that being part of the community helped her to face what was in her way around thought leadership and that every time she told her story in one of our calls, every time she heard other women talk about their ideas, their message and their story, it got easier and easier for her. And as a result, she has launched her new podcast. She has launched her new brand, and she's putting herself out there with her ideas as a thought leader. So I really want the same thing for you as well. In the Thought Leader Academy, we work together in our five step process to help you get clear on your compelling idea and thought leadership message and uncover your core story to craft your signature.

Carol Cox:
Talk to create your visibility plan so visibility for your own channels and then going on other people's channels and speaking engagements, identifying the best monetization methods for you and helping you to deliver your speeches and presentations for impact. And so what we hear from the women who've gone through our academy is that it gave them not only these very tangible deliverables and outcomes that you'll get, but the confidence in themselves and a community of women who share the same desires. So I invite you to apply to join our Thought Leader Academy. That's the first step, is to submit the application form and then we'll follow up with you for a Zoom call so we can talk through your goals and make sure that the Thought Leader Academy is the right fit for you. You can get all of the details and the application form by going to speaking your brand academy again. That's speaking your brand academy. We're continuing the series on Thought Leadership. Next week, we're going to hear from a couple of the women who graduated from our Thought Leader Academy about the mindset shift that they went through, evolving from expert to thought leader and the kind of content they're putting out there. And then the episode after that, I'll be talking about the three elements you need as a thought leader. So make sure to hit, follow or subscribe in your podcast app so that you don't miss those future episodes until next time. Thanks for listening.

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