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Tdworld 3024 Gatekeeper

Beware the Gatekeepers: Technical 'Experts' with Too Much Power

June 18, 2015
Better think twice before taking on one of these protected ‘Guardians of Technology’ unless you’re willing to go the mile.

Almost every large organization that I’ve had dealings with, particularly within the government and utility industry, has had Gatekeepers scattered about. These are folks that have usually been in the company for years and are recognized for expertise in a technical area. They’ve often risen to the top of their salary band but have not been moved into significant management positions. 

Yet they wield so much power and covert influence on decision-making in areas way beyond their technical competency – often to the company’s detriment.

Right after Desert Storm (and before I came to T&D World) I was contracted by a major IT company to help transfer advanced military technology to the utility industry and other civilian sectors. When it came to utilities, our sales team could get an audience with a company officer but then things would stall. The problem was that the officer would seek advice from an old buddy (usually the IT Gatekeeper located somewhere in the lower floors) who would promptly dismiss the whole enchilada without really seeing what we had.

That way nobody took a career risk. The Gatekeeper had made the critical decision without having to take responsibility. The executive could point out that he had sought out advice from an expert. But the result was that the company may have missed the technology boat in an area that needed help.

I think sometimes the ‘experts’, the Gatekeepers, punished us because we didn’t approach them first. In any case we learned to initially identify and meet with the Gatekeeper and make friends before approaching the executive floors. The very best approach was to equip the Gatekeepers to make the executive presentation themselves.

Gatekeepers are posted in non-technical areas also. The boss’ secretary or personal assistant often has more control of your workplace effectiveness, efficiency and happiness than the boss. Have you ever been annoyed by support groups that are more concerned about doing things the ‘right’ way than actually getting anything done at all? Those are clusters of bureaucratic Gatekeepers that can stop you dead in your professional tracks!

How does one become a Gatekeeper? Psychologists tell us that having recognized expertise in one area can lead to having confidence in our opinions about other areas that we may know very little about.

Confidence trumps competence!

Oddly enough, others who admire our core competencies may also start to have confidence in our ‘phantom’ abilities. So, an engineer who worked in SCADA systems for 20 years may become the Gatekeeper for new automation projects, even though he hasn’t had (or hasn’t taken) opportunities to keep up with the newer technologies. His thumbs-up or down can lead the company down the wrong technology path.

More troublesome, Gatekeepers often have patron protectors – buddies that have moved up in management- that will take and promote the Gatekeeper’s recommendations above all others.

So, what’s to be done? Most folks either butter up the Gatekeepers to get personal or project approval, or just quietly try to get along. Others escape to another department or company (where they’ll probably run into the same problem). A few hardy souls will put on the gloves.

Are you thinking about doing battle with a Gatekeeper in your company? Better think twice before taking on one of these protected folk unless you’re willing to go the mile. But you may be one of those incredibly valuable but often unappreciated folks who are more concerned about doing the right things, rather than doing things ‘right’.

If so, our hats are off to you!

We’d like to hear about your experiences in dealing with Gatekeepers. You can comment below and keep your anonymity. You can also send an email directly to me [email protected] and I’ll post your comments under ‘anonymous’. Just put ‘Gatekeeper’ on the subject line of the email.

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