The following is part three of a summation of what I’ve taught in the most comprehensive of my manager training classes for game devs, a version of which was recently held at a client’s office over the course of two days. (part one can be found here) (and here's part two)
This is not all of the things you need to know as a people leader. It’s not even all of the subjects I offer for training. But it’s the most information I’ve ever accumulated in one place and it’s been used in a real world setting to teach game dev managers, so I thought somebody might find it useful.
I typically present this material in a classroom setting using Google Slides, thus much of the value comes from my witty repartee and scintillating monologue as opposed to the written word. That’s my way of apologizing in advance for sentence fragments, colloquialisms, and Twitter-inspired verbiage. This wasn’t written for a book. It was, however, written to further my goal of putting myself out of a job by removing dysfunctionality from our industry’s people operations. When that happens I can finally move on to my much more lucrative second career in residential landscaping.
And now (minus any client-specific, proprietary information), here’s part three of the training material.
With every client I stress the following priorities. This is true of every organization, including yours.
The top priorities of a healthy company, in this order:
As much of a fight-the-power, storm-the-Bastille, vox populi guy as I am, I will still stress to you that the needs of the business take precedence. If you have no company, you have no employees. Given these priorities, what do you do if a team member’s performance isn’t where it should be?
As a manager, imagine a timeline drawn for you indicating the potential future of any given team member. Beginning on the left is the phrase “you notice something” and ending on the right is “employee termination”. The steps that occur in between are organization specific. They may involve a PIP (performance improvement plan) or other formalities such as HR visits. They may entail a certain amount of coaching to try to reverse the employee’s course, moving to the left on the timeline, away from termination. But what I hope is that there is a very clear set of steps in a documented process that your company has in place for dealing with this worst case scenario. I created one for a client and it makes me feel much better to be able to tell their first-time managers, “Don’t be afraid of this. There’s a process for you to follow if it comes to it. You don’t ever have to wonder if you’re doing the right thing.”
I’m being fairly tongue-in-cheek introducing this as The Dark Protocol but there’s an incredible amount of seriousness to this topic. We’re talking about the emotional well-being of people you’re responsible for. We’re talking about how you impact THE one environment in which they spend the most waking hours. And we’re talking about their livelihood. We’re talking about people who are raising children. People who have moved across the country -- or from other countries -- to work at your company. By all means, have fun in your job. Be lighthearted. Enjoy what you do and cultivate the positive culture I hope you’re all striving to support. But please do not lose sight of the importance of your role as a leader. Do not take it lightly. By virtue of the fact that you receive this training, there is a very real burden of responsibility on you.
Best practices here may well vary depending on factors such as the state or country in which your company resides. Based on my understanding of human resource practices throughout the US, here are a few tips in case you ever find yourself responsible for a team member somewhere on this timeline:
This is the positive counterpart to The Dark Protocol. Here we’re talking about helping people grow and improve. But why is it important for people to be challenged and learn new things?
For one, studies show that one of the biggest contributors to employee retention -- particularly in younger employees -- is constant challenge. If you want them to stay, provide them with opportunities to learn and grow.
For another (I’m quoting my friend @mike_acton’s Lead Quick Start Guide) “How good your gamedevs will be tomorrow is much more important than how good they are today. There are simply a lot more tomorrows.”
A final quote, this one from Marc Merrill, president of Riot Games (circa 2010, before they were making boatloads of cash): “We never assume we’re as good at anything as we can be.” Since Marc’s company is now making upwards of $80million a month I think it’s probably a wise move to emulate his attitude.
The following points amount to more than simply “best practices”. These recommendations come from my own experience as a studio developer, my observations of having spoken with more than 100 game companies, and from contemporary literature and research. I contend these things because I’m an expert in the field of leading game developers. I feel the need to point that out because much of what I’m about to explain is, empirically, conflicting with how many game companies feel they should operate. It’s either ignored for expediency, held in disdain, or actively contravened by the leadership of many organizations. That’s OK. You can do that. It’s certainly your prerogative as a president or CFO. But you do so at the peril of your company’s health.
Your team members should hear that you and every other manager want them to learn new things, get better at what they already do, or both. This is part of speaking a shared language as leaders at your company.
If I approach one of your team members and ask them if they feel challenged -- if they’re learning new things -- and if they tell me no...who’s that on? That’s on you, their manager.
Allow team members to set aside a minimum amount of time on a regular basis for professional development. By all means, track it like any other goal and require that it be attached to a meaningful aspect of the business (see earlier point about this not being Make-a-Wish). This may change seasonally depending on your state of production and other factors, but just like with 1:1’s you should determine what amount of time the team member gets and how frequently, then stick to your agreement. Further:
In the Jack Welch era of General Electric, the top 10% of the company’s employees were sent to Crotonville, the corporate training center where extra management skills were pumped into the most promising individuals. But what if you came in at 11%? No Crotonville for you. If you did get to go to Crotonville, that meant someone else didn’t.
Don’t plan your employee development like this. If someone shows affinity and ability and they want to learn, they should have the opportunity. There shouldn’t just be one golden ticket. This sounds great on paper, but proves difficult to implement with non-infinite development budgets. Which raises the question: what is your budget? If someone wants a book, video series, or wants to attend a conference, who pays for that? How much can we spend? Is it per person, per department, per project, company-wide?
Whatever the numbers turn out to be, make sure you reward ganas. If someone wants to learn and grow, find a way for that to happen. Maybe everyone can’t go to SIGGRAPH. Can you schedule free lunch and learn sessions? Purchase access to videos everyone can watch? I’ve got one client who’s working on a part of their onboarding program that will provide every new employee with a Kindle, pre-loaded with a library of recommended reading.
At the start of every school year, all across America, teachers who get paid a lot less than you do will buy classroom supplies out of their own money because they care about their students. What will you and your company do for your team members?
Yes, we expect employees to bring the motivation, to be “self-starters”. But as a leader it’s up to you to provide the opportunities.
Additional tips for managers:
Here’s why I’m sick of seeing this meme: it is ubiquitously Liked and Shared by everyone who can’t do anything about it, and it’s regularly proven to still be a problem by the inaction of those who can. I don’t need reminders of such negativity.
Your people don’t need more negativity, either. Studies show it takes roughly five positive comments to have the same impact on a person’s brain activity as a single negative comment. Our brains come with an amygdala, a fight/flight/freeze center. What our brains don’t have is a Super Happy Fun Time center. So as you’re applying everything mentioned here, remember your attitude is important. And now we’re back at Emotional Intelligence, so I think I should wrap this up shortly.
There are a few other subjects I’ve taught on in the past, like Motivation, and Culture & Values. All important. But like all of this material, it’s great that it gets instilled in managers but it won’t have meaningful impact on a company until the top decision makers are involved in a discussion. Once you have CEOs and studio presidents and VPs in a room talking about people problems, then you can start introducing positive change that can last. Change that can affect the whole company and not just the one team with the well-trained manager.
I know plenty of frontline leaders that believe in what I’ve presented in this training material. I can meet with a dozen of them at the next GDC without too much effort and we’ll have a great time in our echo chamber. But for the sake of our industry what I really want -- what we all really need -- is to have the organizational leaders in a room talking about where the greatest sources of friction are for their people and why it hasn’t been a business focus to address them. Don't think your company has people problems? Invite me into that room, too. Your devs have already told me about your company's issues. I'm happy to share them with you.
I’m not beholden to the interests of a single company. And I travel all over North America and Europe talking to developers. I’m qualified -- perhaps uniquely -- to tell you that it’s not a matter of educating managers or letting your people read books while they’re on the clock or sending them to GDC to learn stuff. While those are great things, there are more important, endemic issues that just don’t get broached at your company. I’m always talking with game developers whose work environment has major problems but they fear to speak up. Or even if they do raise their voice, their comments disappear into the ethereal leadership layer that is The Powers That Be, with no evidence of any attempts being made to change things. Heck, I know HR managers who feel powerless to enact change because “it’s not up to me”. Let me talk to their CEO and share what I’ve heard from their own developers. Let’s open up those channels of communication. I mean, I can’t help but notice you’re reading this but your studio head isn’t. How do we change that?
Whoa, hey...where’d this soapbox come from. Settle down, Keith.
Anyway, thanks for reading. I hope the training material adds value to your workplace. We may not be able to solve our industry’s problems overnight, but having people leaders who are educated and prepared sure would help.