Richard Pierce Thomas

Leadership and Small Business Consultant

Though the setting was different, the story was the same. I’ve observed this scenario repeatedly in the various businesses I’ve worked with, and it goes something like this:             

A business hires a young, energetic employee who is technologically savvy and within days on the job, begins identifying system improvements and upgrades that the company needs to implement right away so they can start saving all kinds of money. The new employee, aka wunderkind, begins haranguing said business owner mercilessly to purchase the system. Said business owner drags their feet because what they haven’t fully admitted is that they don’t really understand all that new-fangled tech talk.

Wunderkind gets frustrated at the lack of progress on the decision and drops hints that a business competitor is rumored to be spending obscene amounts of money on their system improvements. “Perhaps they are the only ones who truly appreciate what technology can deliver,” he offers under his breath. 

Now, at this point one of two things usually happen:

1) Said business owner has had enough of the annoying yammering from the wunderkind and invites him to depart the organization, to try his ideas on the open market.

2) Said business owner gives in because he simply can’t take anymore of the wunderkind’s persistent requests, and in a moment of weakness, signs the purchase request for thousands of dollars in the hope that it will be the last he has heard from the kid. 

Au contraire…

Does the saying, “no good deed goes unpunished” mean anything? There is nothing like the power of a twenty-something aching to cut their teeth on a system install and unleashed on an unaware organization, causing mayhem in the lunchroom, with the fifty-something’s suddenly figuring out their email to send nasty grams to the youngster, and a line of complaining employees coming out of the said business owner’s office. 

In spite of what rich metaphors may be running through his head at this point, the easier path would not have been to liberate the wunderkind when they had the chance, before all kinds of money had been spent. That would have been a bury-the-head-in-the-sand option. 

The reality is the right answer is not as easy as one might hope, and I’ll save the tongue-in-cheek narrative for the balance of the article. Pragmatically, the answer lies somewhere in between the two common choices. 

Yes, by all means, keep the wunderkind in the business. We need smart young people in the business to keep us abreast of what technology is doing out there in the marketplace. Given our ever-increasing dependence on technology to drive innovation in how we do business, we need the young guns within our ranks, our eyes, and ears. 

The challenge is, however, for as much promise and energy the wunderkinds bring to the business, they lack the very thing that most of us leaders can give them, but rarely make the time for—mentoring and guidance on why we ask our organizations to double down and endure the headaches of system implementations. It rarely has to do with the features of the system alone. For those who have earned scar tissue from a system installation, you know of what I speak. If not, well…it’s likely not a matter of if, but when. You’ll just have to take my word for it until then.

The truth of it is that too many implementations are myopically focused on the how—diving deep into the technical aspects of the project while expecting the benefits to be self-evident to the rest of the organization. Worse, benefits are often extolled without a fundamental understanding of how the current system works. All said, the implication leads back to our responsibility as the “said” leaders to mentor the process, challenging the wunderkinds to express the why of the effort in a way that engages the organization before they get to the how. 

In the long run, given our ever increasing dependence on technology, investing in the learning of the wunderkinds will be as important as the investment in the systems, and likely the benefits of helping them get good at the why will pay in multiples well beyond any single benefit one system can deliver.

Rick P. Thomas is President of Activate Leadership, a leadership development consultancy in Washington state. He consults and speaks to organizations across the country, focusing on individual and organizational achievement.