Geek-geezer syndrome: A culture that brews greats
Individuals should not wait to be pushed from geek to geezer; rather, they should exercise their choice of when and how to become a geezer!
I think a lot about talent for organisational effectiveness—talent density, portability, responsibility, and accountability. These pertain to mindsets and organisational processes. An important aspect of culture with respect to talent should not be forgotten.
Geezer is an informal English word used for people who are beginning to grey. Geek is a common word applied to young strivers. We begin our careers as geeks, constantly improving our knowledge and skills. At a future point, geeks will have the opportunity to become geezers—the greying bosses of new recruits.
Individuals should not wait to be pushed from geek to geezer; rather, they should exercise their choice of when and how to become a geezer! Some people successfully inhabit both domains for longer than others, but rarely so. Remaining a geek for too long is negative. However, transforming into a geezer has great rewards.
So, how do these ideas relate to talent development?
Geeks are in the ‘gathering’ phase. They acquire new knowledge and skills by doing five things: they are curious, they explore, they absorb, they learn from failure, and they are innocent with inexperience. They secure career advancement by excelling in these five ways. The duration of this geek phase varies, and might even span 25 years. The explosion of knowledge tends to shrink this geek phase.
At some point, geeks level off in curiosity, exploration of new ideas, and in the absorption of new knowledge. They also start to get burdened by the yoke of their experiences.
The levelling occurs over maybe five years when their learning and skills stay flat or, in some cases, even taper off. If the person recognises the symptoms, she or he can transition to an alternative pathway, which is the ‘scattering’ phase of the career.
Greying geeks may voluntarily switch to the geezer’s scattering pathway. ‘Gathering’ essentially means acquiring new skills, while ‘scattering’ means sharing wisdom through experience.
Intellectual and emotional torque is required to make the transition. Recognising and accepting the need to transition is a major personal challenge. Who wants to recognise, let alone admit, around age 50, that they are no more geeks?
People are fed on valid quotes like ‘Age is just a number’ or ‘If you think you are old, you will be old’. They read about exceptional people who did great things late in their careers—such as Dr John Bannister Goodenough, who continued with productive scientific research well into his eighties and was awarded the Nobel Prize at age 97! Such inspirations are not wrong, but neither are they wholly right. There are exceptions to every rule, but everyone cannot become that exception!
When a person consciously transitions from the gathering curve to the scattering curve, she or he realises that the experiential wisdom they possess is of high value to the new geeks. The geezer nurtures, counsels and guides the new flock of geeks.
The greying person’s success and satisfaction come from the growth and success of the younger people. Like the beautiful aspen tree, which spreads its roots widely to help nourish its vast ecosystem, the experienced person spreads their wisdom and experience to nourish others. The positive influences from several mentors, not just one, cause many seniors to vicariously enjoy the success of their geeks, who, of course, rightly deserve the credit for their success.
Geeks acknowledge the influence of their geezers. The mentoring may be for a short association, but it is meaningful. Read Indra Nooyi’s book, My Life in Full, to see her acknowledgement of those who mentored her over the years—Norman Wade, S L Rao, Larry Isaacson, Carl Stern, and so on. Today’s directors at Tata, like Koushik Chatterjee and P Venkatesalu, would fondly remember the beneficial influence of former finance director Ishaat Hussain. Tata Chairman N Chandrasekaran and CEO of TCS, K Krithivasan, would readily acknowledge the positive impact of S Ramadorai early in their careers.
Leaders of Hindustan Unilever acknowledge the mentoring effect of their seniors. For example, former HR heads like the late Tarun Sheth or R R Nair will likely be mentioned. Young finance leaders may mention Mathew Panikkar or D Sundaram as the mentors who influenced them positively. Marketing and sales leaders might mention the late Shunu Sen or Bhau Phansalkar.
Reciprocally, the geezers also recall with surrogate pride the connection they enjoyed with the geeks, who subsequently became visibly successful. Speaking for myself, what comes to my mind are my short but fondly remembered associations with former geeks like Sanjiv Mehta (later CEO of Hindustan Lever), Suresh Narayanan (CEO of Nestle), and R Mukundan (CEO of Tata Chemicals).
What happens if the geezer is unable to come to terms with the emerging signals and fails to transition? At worst, they become a blocker or a sour leader, the kind of boss that geeks dislike working for. At best, the greying can sit back and be satisfied with influencing young people in a small way.
Great people companies revel in the geek and geezer syndrome, celebrating it as part of the organisational culture. It becomes the soup in which future leaders are brewed.
Author and business commentator. His fifty-year professional career was spent in HUL and Tata