Book Review: Viva La Geeks!

By Paul B. Brown  |  Posted 11-02-2002

Leading Geeks

Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology , By Paul Glen and Jossey-Bass, November 2002, 288 pages, $26.95

A classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result every time. By this standard, most executives trying to manage IT employees are crazy. Time after time they use the same leadership approach that seems to work on everyone else, then wonder why it doesn't work with the "techies."

The basic problem, according to self-professed geek Paul Glen, founder of C2 Consulting, a firm that specializes in working with IT-centric organizations, is that technology employees are different. You are doomed to fail if you don't recognize that fact going in—and change your management approach accordingly.

What makes them different? That's obvious to anyone who has spent more than five minutes with a geek, which Glen defines as a "knowledge worker who specializes in the creation, maintenance or support of high tech." There are exceptions, of course, but Glen says geeks tend to be task- and not goal-focused. To the typical geek, it's important that the computer run, not that the organization is more efficient as a result. And they have a strong need for order and consistency. Given the first and second points, it should come as no surprise that they hate ambiguity in any guise.

But it's no use saying, "Too bad. By definition, business is riddled with ambiguity, paradoxes and contradictions, and the geeks just have to learn to adjust." Instead, Glen argues, managers must take a different approach, constantly showing techies how their work fits into the bigger picture, a process he describes as "harmonizing content and context."

To do that, Glen turns to the tools that religious leaders have used for years: telling parables to make points and leading by example. The stories should be designed to answer a simple question: "Why is my work important to the organization?" And for those who find the idea of storytelling too soft, Glen extends the idea to include sharing plans and documents. Anything that reveals how the geek's work contributes to the greater good is to be encouraged.

Instead of trying to get geeks to follow by saying, "Trust me because I am your leader," Glen suggests that leaders serve as a model for the behavior they want employees to exhibit, counting on their own consistency to inspire that trust. "Collectively, the narratives [and the leader's behavior] either mutually reinforce or undermine each other," he writes.

Why go through all this effort? That's almost as simple as figuring out that geeks are different, Glen contends:

• The rate of technological change continues to increase.

• "Technological innovations remain one of the most important components of an organization's ability to compete in the marketplace."

• Geeks are the people who deliver the technological innovation.

• If you don't get more out of these people, you will fall behind your competition.

Glen's arguments make sense. Instead of fighting the natural inclinations of the people you are trying to manage, why not use those inclinations to the organization's advantage?

It is rare these days that a business/technology book delivers against its title. This one does. It is worth your time.

Reviewed by Paul B. Brown,the author of 13 business books including the international bestseller Customers for Life. Doubleday has just published an updated version of the book, written with Carl Sewell.