While terms like “Geek Squad” and phrases like “The geeks shall inherit the earth” are humorous, it’s common knowledge that “geeks” – high-tech specialized knowledge workers – provide tremendous value in technology and business.
Because they’re so important, it’s imperative to understand them, manage them, and lead them effectively. No one knows that more than Paul Glen, author of Leading Geeks. In this book, Glen asserts that geeks are essential for continued innovation, either to generate new ideas or to implement the ideas of others. They are knowledge workers who specialize in creating, maintaining, or supporting high technology. While they are often found in IT, they also have roles in accounting, finance, marketing, sales, or customer service.
We need them – but what makes them tick?
Geeks are, according to Glen:
- Reason-based – Geeks value logic and rational input
- Focused on problem solving – “In every situation,” Glen says, “They seek out the problem and try to solve it.”
- Childlike – Geeks are intelligent and often very successful early on, in years when they might have been developing social skills or self awareness. Based on this, they are often childlike and still new at adjusting to social situations and intuitively knowing how to act.
- Curious puzzle solvers – Geeks love intellectual activities that make use of their knowledge, creativity, and logic.
Geeks can also be poor communicators, and be prone to interpersonal conflicts. They can also be resistant to following typical organizational policies and structures, believing they should have exemptions based on their specialized work, technical skills, creativity, and intelligence.
How to lead them
Glen says effective management involves providing vision and strategy with one hand and guidance with the other. He outlines four key responsibilities that are essential in managing and leading geeks:
- Nurture motivation. Understand that geeks might not be motivated by speeches or bonuses. They are more likely motivated by having others appreciate the significance of their work, recognizing how their work affects their careers paths, and accomplishing specific goals.
- Provide internal facilitation. Help geeks exchange ideas and create opportunities for them to interact and learn from each other. “See yourself as a facilitator rather than a manager,” Glen says. “If you try to exercise power, geeks will resist and you will lose power instead.”
- Furnish external representation. This means protect them and buffer them. Geeks flourish when their needs are advocated for, and there is someone in their corner getting information, establishing and maintaining alignment, obtaining resources, and managing client expectations. Buffering geeks means keeping them away from office politics and the chatter from the outside world.
- Manage ambiguity. Because geeks are reasonable and fact-based, managers should make efforts to control all three types of ambiguity, including:
- Environmental – the organization’s purpose and values
- Structural – the way work is organized
- Task – the details of individual roles and tasks, including project roles, assignments, and judgments
When geeks have questions answered and understand what they are doing and why, they are more likely to succeed.
Geeks are intelligent, creative, motivated by reason and problem solving, and essential for innovation and technology delivery. Managers can make the most of their personalities and skill sets by better understanding how geeks think and what motivates them.