The Geek Gap (and how to fix it)

Tuesday 31st August 2021 Alistair Gordon

Here’s a question to consider. If every modern organisation relies on technical innovation to stay competitive, why are the technicians who create that innovation given so little attention and support?

From the first day an upcoming people leader starts a new role, they’re given appraisals, mentoring, career ladders, capability frameworks and development to encourage them to peak performance.

Engineers, software developers, data scientists, economists and other technical experts rarely get that level of support.

They are assumed to fall on the wrong side of the box model measuring performance and potential. It’s clear they’re high performers, because it’s obvious they keep critical systems running. But are they high potential?

No, because high-potential employees are those defined as having the potential to become more and more senior people leaders.

In other words: despite providing obvious value through the innovation they develop and the cost savings and new products they create, technical staff are assumed to be low potential because they don’t want to lead a team.

Why experts fall into a development gap

If your organisation thinks like this, you have a “geek gap”. It’s likely that, compared to those on a management track, the experts in your organisation will have fewer appraisals, no real career ladder, and very limited development, mentoring and networking. Any development they do have is likely to be technical.

Lacking that development, expert careers tend to stall. As experts become more senior, like any executive they need to develop commercial acumen, relationship skills, the ability to coach, mentor and delegate, and the ability to influence and drive change.

How can your organisation help experts develop those skills, and jump the geek gap? Here are three suggestions.

Provide a career track for experts

People leaders want to learn how to lead teams. Experts want to learn how to lead ideas, projects and innovation. These are two different disciplines.

Think of them as leadership and expertship. Organisations that offer a separate expertship career track and capability framework are well-positioned to maximise expert effectiveness and to retain experts for longer.

They stay because they understand their organisation values them. That is not something you can say about organisations that have no formal expert track.

Change your organisations’ definition of potential

If the current measure of potential is “ability to lead more people in the future”, then you are missing out on the opportunity to extract far more value from developing your technical experts. Change the definition to “the ability to add more value”. This allows for more investment in the development of a greater number of talented experts.

Take a long hard look at your organisation’s talent and ask who actually generates new value? Nine times out of ten it’s the experts. The world’s fastest growing tech and engineering firms have understood this for some time.

Challenge experts to prioritise business skill development

Technical teams can have a reputation for being cranky and difficult. But so would people leaders, if they weren’t challenged to do better by teams of development professionals as they rise through the ranks.

Innovation is hard. Technical ideas are complex and difficult to sell. From their first day on the job, experts need to be challenged to learn organisational strategy and commercials, so they can be their own best salesperson for their ideas. They need the same attention paid to developing relationship, influence and mentoring skills as that which is paid to the skills of people leaders.

At the same time, make sure your coaching focuses on how experts might deploy these skills, not how leaders might. This helps the content and facilitators pass the experts’ sniff test – that is, “do these people really understand my role and the environment in which experts operate?”

Turn ideas into execution

Don’t ignore technical teams and hope they’ll learn the business skills they need unassisted. It’s well understood that people leaders need support to succeed, but inarguable that, as they become more senior, technical specialists face challenges just as difficult.

Help them jump the geek gap. It’s the most significant intervention that HR can make today to encourage innovation and create a competitive advantage.

Alistair Gordon is the CEO of Expertunity, and co-author of Master Expert: how to use Expertship to achieve peak performance, seniority and influence in a technical role.

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