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A Simple Test of Leadership
by Keith Fuller on 04/03/14 04:26:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


(reprinted from my company website --

In the 13 years I spent as a developer I worked at two studios, and since I started doing leadership consulting I’ve become familiar with dozens more. As a result I’ve found I can now quickly reach a fairly accurate assessment of the quality of leadership at companies of various sizes. To be sure, the more time you have to spend learning about an organization, the more precise you can be. By obtaining answers to the following questions, though, I can get a pretty clear image in just a few hours. I bet you can, too.

I mention this here because I believe game developers deserve the best possible leadership, but at the same time we typically fall woefully short of properly scrutinizing the leaders we already have. For more than a decade I just threw my hands up along with so many others. “It is what it is.”

That’s not a solution. That’s the problem.

Consider whether these questions (and the answers they elicit) are important to you, then consider what to do about it at your company.

  1. Is leadership the default career path? As Buckingham and Coffman (and 25 years of research) indicate in First Break All the Rules, one of the most certain ways to riddle your company with deficient leaders is to promote subject matter experts to leadership simply because they’re excellent contributors. The typical thinking is, “You’re such a First, Break all the Rules -- Buckingham and Coffmangood programmer, we’re promoting you to lead programmer,” when the two skillsets in question don’t necessarily have even the smallest of intersection. You may as well say, “You’re such a good programmer, we’re promoting you to concept artist.”
  2. Does everyone get regular one-on-one meetings with their lead (preferably at least once per month)? Forging a personal connection with the people you lead is possibly the most important task in front of you as a leader. The number one reason people leave a company is because of a crummy supervisor. Developing a rapport with your team increases their engagement and decreases turnover. Doing the opposite yields the opposite. If you’re the lead, don’t wait for someone else to create a company policy or tell you what to do. YOU schedule time with your people. It shows them you care and makes you more effective at your job.
  3. How often do employees receive performance reviews? In the past few months I’ve told multiple clients: if you’re only doing performance reviews once a year, just stop doing reviews. You’ll save yourself a ton of time and energy and you’ll no longer be fooling yourself with the false belief that you’re helping your people and your company. How Damaging is a Bad Boss, Exactly?, hbr.orgWe humans do a horrible job of remembering positive events and we’re much too quick to let them be overshadowed by negative ones. That’s not a business thing, that’s simple psychology. How useful, then, is eleven-month old information about a team member? For a better approach, read Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager. Or do what my friend Josh Nilson does. He’s now CEO of East Side Games in Vancouver, but as COO he implemented the practice of having every employee get a review every two weeks. Every. Two. Weeks. And the results were wonderful.
  4. What’s the attitude about continuous improvement? This isn’t just a cool buzzword, it’s a leadership principle. At the 2010 IGDA Leadership Forum, Riot Games president Marc Merrill said, “We never assume we’re as optimal at ANYTHING as we can be.” I’d have to say using Riot as an example for successful business practices is probably an OK move. As a counter example, I once visited a company where a studio leader pointed out a disgruntled artist and told me they’d been unhappy with their role in the company. How long? TWO YEARS. If your company’s leadership is OK with letting relationships deteriorate for that long, I’d challenge their dedication to continuous improvement at any level.
  5. Does anyone receive specific training in leadership skills? It is frighteningly common to see a studio where leaders have arrived in their current roles without ever having been told how to be a lead. That’s how I received my first “promotion” to leadership years ago and it’s still a widespread problem. Many companies seem to assume that because someone has been around long enough, or shipped enough games, or is the studio head’s buddy, they’re going to make an acceptable lead. Even if you’re surrounded by the best examples of leadership our industry has to offer, it’s exceedingly difficult to learn on the fly and effectively switch gears from contributor to leader without explicit training. And how often does anyone find themselves surrounded by exceptional leaders, anyway? If osmosis from similarly untrained leaders is the preferred teaching method for leadership, you’re inflicting a dark spiral of inbred deficiency on your employees.

There are many additional questions you could ask, but even just these five will start to paint the picture. While I’m definitely advising you to ask these questions, I’m not recommending open revolt or mass departures if you find the answers wanting. Instead, engage your studio leaders in a discussion of these issues. It may well be that existing senior leadership values nepotism over training, or prizes keeping veterans happy over filling roles based on emotional intelligence. That’s their prerogative. Once you achieve clarity on your values and those of the studio, though, you should be prepared to act on them. Otherwise, “it is what it is” is all it will ever be.


The five questions above aren’t the only ones worth asking. By all means, add your own leadership questions in the comments. Here are a few more to get you started:

Does everyone have a mentor?

Are the expectations of leadership positions explicitly stated?

How do team members speak about leaders when they aren’t present?

Do leaders ask their team members, “How can I help you develop professionally?”

Can every employee answer clearly and immediately when asked, “Who’s your lead?”

Does senior leadership boil down to controlling through fear?

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Paul Tozour
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Good article, Keith. I don't think anyone can argue with those points. This is absolutely one of the greatest problems the industry faces right now.

I'm looking forward to reading more.

Keith Fuller
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Thanks, Paul! I'm glad you liked it.

Being a leadership consultant, I'm clearly biased to agree with your assessment...deficient leadership is the widespread radon leak of the games industry.

Travis Jones
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Thank you for this.

I've personally been shouting #1 at people for years... If there was a single change I could make to the structure of so many companies, it would be to add an alternate track for promotions based on technical excellence, reserving "Lead" roles for those who actually want to manage people.

Keith Fuller
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You're welcome, Travis!

When I worked at Raven I think they'd been solely promoting to leadership roles for about 15 years. It wasn't until just a few years before I left the company that the HR director created the idea of a "studio programmer" track that allowed for non-leadership advancement as a programmer. The change was years too late to prevent serious problems with leadership, though.

Benjamin Quintero
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a couple thoughts.

#1 - the issue with leadership is that it is often seen as the default progression for everyone; not just business, but the employees as well. The famous, "where do you see yourself in 5 years" questions is always some round-about PC way of saying, "i want to be making more money than what I am now." For many people and places, the way to make more is to move into leadership. Being "just" a programmer has it's limits for most places you end up working; a cap that most programmers hit around 10-15 years into their career. Then what?

#3 - regular performance reviews are fine, but just getting reviews to evaluate your self worth to the company is like an endless supply of fetch quests where your reward is a, "thank you" from the quest giver - not one gold coin, not even a loaf of stale bread. Often reviews are tied to everything from promotions to raises to profit shares and more. A code review is different from a performance review, where only one of those two imply an effort to improve on your craft while the other has deeper implications about your employment.

#4 - I tend to be of the mind that this idea of continuous improvement falls in lap of the employer, not the employee. If there is no place to look up to, no progress to be found, then employees have nothing to reach for. The employer defines where the glass ceiling stops. That said, it's always the responsibility of every senior member (not just management) to look at the people below them to ensure everyone is organized to do their best work. It leaves room for the juniors to move up, but this doesn't really solve the problem for senior staff looking for the next rung on the company ladder.

Curtiss Murphy
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It's been almost a decade since I first read First - Break All the Rules! I learned to listen to my guys, to ask questions, and to look at them differently. I used their 2nd book - Now Discover Your Strengths - though, I find that one less appealing now that I've read Growth Mindset. First is as timeless now as it was then.

Thanks for the reminder!

Keith Fuller
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I'm glad you got some value from the article, Curtiss!
At the recommendation of my friend, Scott Crabtree ( I, too, read Dweck's Growth Mindset. I don't find it necessarily in direct conflict with the idea of speaking to an employee's strengths, but I definitely believe what Dweck says about an individual's ability to grow in any given area.
It's absolutely true that the vast majority of employee reviews focus almost exclusively on improving the employee's weaknesses instead of allowing them to operate in areas of strength, and I think that's another way in which our industry (and others) could benefit from improvement.