“The Guy” theory

[Apologies in advance for the sexism inherent in calling it “The Guy” theory – the people with whom I was having these conversations were all male, so it made sense in those instances, and I can’t think of an appropriate gender-neutral term right now]

So I’ve been referring to “The Guy” theory in several recent conversations so it’s time to blog it up. Wes and I fleshed it out at breakfast last month. It starts with Phil Agre’s advice on becoming a leader in your field, where he says you need to pick a issue and become the locus of information for that issue.

Once you’ve talked to a couple experts and made a few contributions, other people start to hear about your work and contact you first. And then the process feeds on itself in a virtuous circle – you have a good network on the issue, so more people come to you to get in contact with the people you know, which increases the power of your network. To put it informally, you have now become “The Guy” that everybody else consults for that issue because you know everybody there is to know in that area.

The one time I became “The Guy” at a company it happened by accident. I got frustrated with our management team and spoke out about it. Other people at the company who didn’t feel comfortable speaking up in public then started getting in touch with me with their frustrations, so I became the mouthpiece for them. The more I spoke out representing others, the more people told their stories to me, and I was suddenly the equivalent of a union foreman for the company, representing the interests of the workers to the management team.

Charlie O’Donnell has had a similar experience of stumbling into “The Guy”-hood. Last year he started the nextNY networking group because he wanted to meet other tech people in New York, and now he’s considered one of “The Guys” of the technology scene here because nextNY has grown to 700+ people on the mailing list and he’s the titular leader.

So those are nice, heartwarming stories, but how does that help me moving forward? How do I become “The Guy”?

It almost has to be accidental because if you are trying to become “The Guy” in an explicit bid to gain power, nobody will trust you. You have to be genuinely interested in the people you are talking to and in what they have to say. You have to love talking about the issue so that your enthusiasm will infect your conversation partners and get them excited and talking to other people they know. They’ll remember who got them interested in the issue and come back to you when they have questions about it in the future.

So this post may not be useful for the Machiavellian pursuit of power. You can’t fake this stuff. It may be useful for centering ourselves, though. I’ve been thinking about this topic because I’m trying to figure out an issue where I can become “The Guy”. What issue do I care about enough to become the nexus? The theory and practice of management is a definite possibility considering that I spend so much time talking and thinking about management, here on this blog and in conversations with others.

Part of the reason I’m obsessed with this topic is that I’ve learned over the years that there are many issues where I can’t be “The Guy”. Physics. Programming. Sports. Art. Music. I don’t have the depth of interest to keep up with the people who really follow those topics. Again, the interest can’t be faked. I have a foodie friend who keeps track of the movements of chefs between restaurants the way most guys track their favorite athletes. I have other friends who read the reviews at Pitchfork with similar devotion.

One possibility is for me to try to become “The Guy” as a generalist. This is a really tricky one to pull off, but the idea is that if I have contacts in enough different areas, then I’m a great person to talk to when you have no idea who the first person to talk to is. If I can be the first link in any chain, then I’m always the right guy to start the conversation. I don’t have that sort of all-encompassing network now, but maybe that should be something I strive for. It certainly appeals to my tendency to dabble in many areas rather than focusing on any particular one. This actually reminds me of my post about innovation and community, where I suggest that because it’s so much effort to be at the center of a community (aka “The Guy”), innovation will come from those who can tie different communities together. As I say in that post, “there’s a real incentive to establish links to as many insiders as possible, to hear what’s happening first and see if you can figure out how to tie it all together.” I’ll have to think about that some more.

The take-home point? Pay attention to your interests. Seize upon opportunities to collect information and contact people about those interests. Talk about those interests with everybody you meet because you never know who might be a useful contact to expand your network. Before you know it, you’ll be “The Guy” and people will be contacting you. Revel in it for a while. Then as Agre suggests, find a new issue and start the process over.

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