Leading Geeks, Nerds, and Geniuses: It’s Complicated

April 9, 2016.Jack and Suzy Welch.2 Likes.0 Comments

In the course of your career as a leader, chances are you will encounter a few types of employees that are, well, uniquely complicated to manage. Especially if you didn’t come up through the ranks of their functional area.

These are individuals whose work you don’t understand, or couldn’t do yourself. They generally dwell in a stratosphere of technical complexity; think coders, analytics experts, or engineers, or any employee whose brain is a black box to you. It used to be that such employees were pretty rare. By the time you were boss, you’d done most jobs on the way to the top, or had been exposed enough to them to understand their fundamentals. Today, you can rise through marketing or finance—heck, you can be an English major from Cornell—and find yourself managing scores of techies whose output can make or break the organization.

As a manager, it’s your job to hack the black box. Here’s how to do it so that everyone wins:

BE A TRUTH-SEEKING MISSILE

Start off with the understanding—from both sides—that there can be, and will be, no mystery about the work. That means managers will be expected to ask, and ask, and ask, about the work until they understand it on some level, and that “geniuses” will be expected to keep answering, and answering, and answering, until such time, and not begrudgingly, but eagerly.

Make it clear that even if you don’t understand what they’re doing, you really want to. You really want to learn.

LINK THE WORK TO STRATEGIC OUTCOMES

IT geeks and other “geniuses” can be just like every other kind of functional expert. They want all the bells and whistles they can get for their special projects. The difference is, when other functions ask for money, it’s usually easier to understand what they’re talking about.

This makes it all the more urgent to dig in, chunk by chunk, to understand how the technology being proposed benefits the strategy of the organization. The Socratic method is a great way to go about it: “Why does the data center need to be located where you say it should be?”, “What impact will each piece of hardware have on our desired strategic outcomes?” All your questions might just lead to a solution that is more flexible, productive or efficient.

Not to mention, do this enough and the best tech people become bilingual. They can speak fluent tech; they’re the real thing. But they also learn to speak fluent business. They embrace the company’s mission and values. They understand what activities drive revenues and costs. They worry about the competition. They feel strong ownership of the numbers. Ideally, your CTO is a person who is both a geek and wants to be a CEO someday. After all, the more geniuses you can build into managers and leaders, the more competitive your organization will be.

SHOW R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Managing geniuses is not all that different from managing mere mortals. Don’t let their unique skills get in the way of an authentic relationship, one built on truth and trust. Show them how much you want to learn from them, and how much their work interests you. How much you care.

Not just about the work, of course, but about the worker. Make sure they see that you sincerely and passionately care about them as people, so everything you say about the work, they feel is coming from a place of trust. Get into their skin, learn about their lives and interests. And then strive to make real meaning of their work.

No matter who you’re managing, nothing matters more.

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