In the last article, I talked about why experts like us might want to build authority, and what other options we have.
Here’s what I’ve learned about the Journey to Authority over the past few years*.
The Journey to Authority
On the road to authority, everyone starts out as a Novice.
We’ve all been there, and it’s no reflection on our intelligence, our skills or our motivation. It’s simply the starting point.
When we are the novice, we’re starting off with a blank slate. The road to authority is ahead of us, and the first major stop on the way is to become an expert.
But before we can develop that expertise, we need to get a broad base of experience.
I visualise this as a winding path, weaving from side to side, exploring different subjects.
As we follow our own winding path, we learn more about what interests us, and importantly, what doesn’t interest us.
We discover where our natural talents are, and where we are not so talented.
We meet mentors, read books and are influenced by the world around us.
This road could take years, or even decades, depending on where we started. Or it could take months, if we already had broad experiences and education prior to starting. It will be different for everyone.
At some point we cross the blurred line between Novice and Generalist, having developed significant expertise in some areas. Often at this point we call ourselves a consultant, and we can provide a lot of value to our clients.
And yet we have very little visibility outside of our local network. No one is “Googling” for us by name.
Usually at this point, we’re a generalist. We have not niched down, not chosen an area of specialization.
There are good reasons for that, our skills are transferable, we don’t have enough information to make a good specialization decision, and quite often things are good enough that we don’t need to make a major change.
Most consultants stop here, and remain a generalist expert. They work on networking to increase their visibility, and improve their processes around getting referrals.
It’s possible to have a very successful business as a generalist expert consultant.
There is another path you can follow, which culminates at becoming a recognized authority.
Let’s talk about “recognized authority” for a moment. You know how that phrase goes, right?
“She’s the recognized authority in her field.”
The “field” is the crucial part of that phrase, and the thing that prevents most generalists becoming an authority.
They don’t want to choose one field.
They don’t want to niche down and specialize.
You cannot become a recognized authority without choosing a field.
That’s why the next step on the journey is to niche down and specialize.
I visualise the process of specializing as a mountain range we need to pass through.
We can navigate through it on our own, but it can be advantageous to get someone to guide us.
In fact, I strongly urge anyone going through a process of niching down to get external help – that could be a business coach or mentor, it could be a peer, it could be a support group like a mastermind, or even all of the above.
There are logical and valid fears that you will encounter when you niche down. This is absolutely normal, but it’s important to push through them.
The interesting thing about getting to the Specialist stage is that you start to reap rewards even before you build your authority.
At this point you start to pattern-match, develop deeper expertise, and see the benefits of having similar client projects: more profitable, fewer external resources, almost like economies of scale.
Specialists can disconnect from commoditized hourly rate pricing, start to productize their services, and move towards premium pricing.
If you are feeling the pressure of having to work long hours for not much return, then specialization could be for you, even if you don’t intentionally build your authority.
But for those who want to go that next step, the last stage on the journey is authority.
To get there, we need to get more visibility, and we need to develop deeper expertise in our specialist area.
Luckily, there’s a way to do both of those things simultaneously – it’s called publishing.
By publishing, we are putting our thinking on our area of expertise out into the world. We are sharing our knowledge and creating a feedback loop.
As we create content through writing blog posts and emails like this one, videos for YouTube and the other social networks, and even graphics and carousels, we are also learning.
The process of writing itself helps us to organise our thoughts and learn what we know. We develop deeper expertise as we make connections between ideas and develop frameworks and processes.
Distributing our ideas puts it in front of others, leading to feedback. We get direct feedback in the form of comments, messages and emails. We get indirect feedback in the form of analytics telling us what topics resonated and what didn’t work so well.
Specialists often conduct research, sometimes small-scale mixed-methods research, but hugely valuable nevertheless. (Philip Morgan talks about this a lot, and it was he who inspired me to do the research that lead to development of the Journey to Authority framework).
This continuous publishing, writing, speaking, research and feedback is what takes us to the next level.
Authority is a destination, and it’s also a state of continuous improvement.
We don’t self-ordain as an authority, that needs to come from an external source – the recognition being a key part of the equation.
We’ve made it to this stage when we are recognized by a number of people as an authority in our field. That number will grow over time, as our visibility does.
As we discussed previously, being the authority brings many positive effects, a stream of inbound qualified leads being the primary benefit.
As an authority in that publishing feedback loop, we are content creators.
We’re often authors, sometimes self-published, sometimes commercially-published, and this gives us even more credibility and authority.
Authorities will often be speakers, invited to talk about their specialist area at conferences. We often see “author, speaker, consultant” in the listed bios.
Like writing, speaking comes in many forms and many authorities will be podcast hosts and frequently invited to guest on others’ podcasts – leading to more authority.
Authorities have the ability to change business model so they can impact positively on more people.
Summarizing the Journey to Authority
We all start out as a Novice, and move to Invisible Expert by getting a broad base of experience.
Many stay at Expert, and grow their income incrementally by increasing fees and getting better at attracting referrals.
A small fraction of the Experts will decide to niche down and become Specialists. This process of specialization takes months, and can have fears associated with it, but also great rewards.
After niching down, Specialists will develop deeper expertise naturally from working on a more focused problem and the pattern-matching that occurs with that. They can also choose to publish about their work. Often they will do research in their area. All of that leads to greater visibility and credibility, and becoming recognized as an Authority in their field.
As an Authority, they have options around business model and lifestyle that they would likely not have available had they not moved up the levels.
In the next article, I’ll talk about the stage that most people find difficult: niching down and choosing a specialization.
In this episode, Alastair and Philip discuss what the journey to authority looks like, why you should cultivate expertise, and how publishing develops your thinking.
* Sources: where does this “Journey to Authority” progression come from?
I’ve done a deep dive into the area of authority building over the past 3-4 years. As a result of my research, client work, my own personal journey, and conversations with experts, I have mapped out a progression that I think holds true for many – if not all – experts who want to become a recognized authority in their field.
Over the past four years, I’ve been speaking with people who are recognized as authorities (e.g. Alan Weiss, Marcus Sheridan, John Lee Dumas, Chris Do, Monique Mills, Ron Baker, and literally hundreds more).
Many of the folks I’ve spoken to are experts specifically in the area of building authority (e.g. Rochelle Moulton, author of The Authority Code, David C. Baker, author of The Business of Expertise, Mark Schaefer, author of Known, and more). is a household name in the podcasting world and
Every chance I get, I take the opportunity to briefly show my work on the Journey to Authority and the Authority Maturity Model, ask if it fits with how they see things, and ask for feedback and suggestions (I’ve incorporated a lot of these suggestions).
At this point I’m quite confident to stand over these models. There will be exceptions and edge-cases, and the lines are blurred, but for many consultants and experts this framework will be relevant.
Your perspective might be different, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback on this, I’m always happy to incorporate suggestions and update my thinking.
– Alastair McDermott
updated June 2023