The Geek Gap, and how to fix it
Summary: Technical experts are in critical roles and difficult to replace, yet they are often left sitting outside the formal leadership structure. Why?
Written by Alistair Gordon 04 Mar 2021

As organisations rely more heavily on their technical infrastructure, technical experts – or ‘geeks’ as they are sometimes referred to – are having a growing influence on how businesses operate. The issue is that, despite these people being in critical roles and very difficult to replace, they are often left sitting outside the formal leadership structure. Organisations rarely see them as leaders and, frankly, they rarely act like leaders. Geeks are often disengaged and feel misunderstood – danger signs when it comes to retention. What is the root cause: is it nature or nurture? Alistair Gordon explores the uncomfortable gap that exists between the geeks and the rest of the business, and discusses what can be done to close it.

Fifteen years ago, if someone had described me as a geek I’d have been upset. It was a somewhat derogatory term, a descriptor that suggested a person with tightly focused knowledge in an obscure topic, who was disconnected to the world the rest of us lived in, and deprived of anything close to an acceptable dress sense. Indeed, the Collins Dictionary included this definition: “a boring and unattractive social misfit”.

Wow, how things have changed. These days, given my lack of youth, hair and programming ability, I’d be over the moon to be described as a geek.

Geeks have inherited the Earth or, at the very least, appear to be re-inventing it. Geek today is a badge of honour – a well paid honour. Increasingly, every organisation has floors full of technical experts and depend on them to operate.

As more and more organisations decide to reduce costs by ‘taking out layers of people’, normal humans are being replaced by the rapid deployment of technology to drive efficiencies up and costs down. These systems are designed and deployed by, yep, geeks. Or, in more reasonable terms, technical experts.

We are not just talking about information technology gurus here. Marketing has gone digital, global HR subject matter experts are deploying systems from afar, and those specialists in finance play for hours with analytical tools that shed light on the levers of organisational performance like never before.

A world not quite so bright

We might be forgiven for thinking, given this state of affairs, that the future for technical specialists has never looked so bright, and that they must be living happy and fulfilled corporate lives.

excluding those technical specialists working for fast growth companies where technology is at the centre of their existence and value propositions - organisations who really understand and leverage technical stars - this doesn’t appear to be the case.

In most companies, according to engagement experts, engagement scores - a reasonable measure of happiness and fulfilment - among technical experts is very often significantly lower than the rest of the organisation.

Tech experts tend to relate more to their profession rather than their employer. For example, at a BBQ they might say “I’m in IT” rather than “I work for XYZ Corp”.

And technical experts are not renowned for being great team players, notwithstanding that modern enterprises have deployed matrix style organisational structures - meaning that many of these employees are on multiple teams. They tend to hoard knowledge rather than share it, and can be capable of broadly dismissive behaviour towards those of us who don’t appear to have the smarts that they do.

One chief information officer (CIO) recently put it to me this way: “they feel undervalued, both financially and emotionally; they feel misunderstood; and there is disrespect in the way the organisation selectively decides when to consult them.” This CIO went on to say that his technical experts are often in mission critical roles and begrudge the fact that, due to the shortage of skillsets and availability, successors are usually paid at a substantially higher rate (assuming you can find them).

A chief financial officer (CFO) echoed these comments: “My financial analysts have so much historical knowledge – let’s call it insight - into how our business operates. And the thought of training a new person fills me with dread”. The CFO claimed it might take as long as a year before a successor can operate at the same value adding level.

This fear of losing such critical knowledge drives leadership behaviours that are challenging for Human Resources Leaders. CIOs and CFOs have been known to turn a blind eye to poor behaviours from technical experts that would be unacceptable anywhere else in the organisation. This further entrenches the divide between the cohort of experts and the operational side of the business. HR is often called in to clean up the emotional damage left in the wake of an oblivious technical expert.

Is it nature or nurture?

In our interactions with groups of technical experts, the HFL team have a robust debate about whether these dynamics are driven by the nature of geeks or the poor nurturing of them by organisations. Do they feel slightly disconnected and disrespected because of the way they are treated, or do they contribute to the attitude of the organisation to them by their behaviour? Do they not embrace leadership-like behaviour because they are not treated as leaders by the organisation, or does the organisation not treat them like leaders because technical experts never appear to act like leaders should?

How might experts respond to being regarded – and being asked to behave - as leaders?

Another critical question is whether technical experts, who typically lead knowledge rather than people, are actually ‘leaders’ in our understanding of the term? Leadership has become synonymous with leading teams of people. But the concept of knowledge leadership is ill-defined and generally unrecognised. While most employees have a pretty good understanding of what good (and poor) people leadership looks like, we are less clear of the definitions and parameters that describe good versus poor knowledge leadership.

Given their highly influential role in our organisations, should we be expecting them to lead? Do they have the opportunity to? And what, when you have no formal authority, do knowledge leaders need to do to really lead from the front, to engage and inspire the largely technical teams they are members of? Most crucially, how do they deliver demonstrable and measurable value to the organisation, which can then be recognised?

Lots of questions: what are the answers?

Even a skin deep exploration of cause-and-effect of this geek dynamic will quickly resolve some truths. The organisation, by elevating the status, involvement and influence of people leaders over similarly experienced technical experts encourages the breakdown. It is then complicit in forgiving disengaged and individualistic behaviour, defensiveness and a culture of hoarding knowledge among those who are most required to share knowledge for the good of the organisation.

On the other hand, give technical experts an inch and they will gleefully take several kilometres. Assumed by the organisation not to have leadership skills, to be poor in building relationships and only good with data and machines, technical experts prove extremely capable of manifesting these apparent traits and gaps effortlessly. Ask a random group of technical experts what the business thinks of them and they will quickly, usually with great accuracy and humour, describe the situation. Since the business believes they are eccentric, they happily play up to the part.

Now let’s consider the flip side. Imagine what might be achieved with highly capable, respected, relationship nurturing technical experts working hand in glove with their colleagues, and the wider business, to effectively execute winning strategies. Imagine if the negative energy was turned into positive energy: what might then be achieved? Some of the world’s fastest growing companies are providing the answer.

It is time for organisations and their technical cohorts to hit the reset button. Organisations need to start treating technical experts as the valued leaders they could be. And technical experts need to start acting like leaders, leaders of knowledge rather than people, and drop the victim mentality they can so easily adopt.

Technical experts as knowledge leaders: do they know how?

If we were to build, from scratch, a leadership program for knowledge leaders, what content would it contain? What delivery style would it need to deploy? How big is the shift we are asking technical experts to make in their mindsets, and how long might this take? How similar, or different, would the content need to be to a typical people leadership program? What foundational competence or capability framework would need to underpin such a program, and how would you assess it? Do existing tools suffice, or would you have to build a completely new set?

New thinking is required

The truth is that new thinking is required if organisations are going to achieve two critical goals in this domain: to reduce the material risk of losing mission critical people and knowledge from the organisation, while simultaneously releasing the potential of technical experts to have a material impact on the growth and direction of the organisation.

The Geek Gap, and how to fix it