HELPING THE YOUNG ONES GROW
I’ve been working in the video game industry for the past 15 years. I've had many roles, and many different responsibilities, mostly in a gigantic studio, but recently in a very small one, the one I co-founded with 4 other associates. And oh boy, the job is different. I actually will write a paper in the upcoming months about the differences in managing huge teams – but within a very structured frame – and a small team – building the structure and culture as we go (and also with the extra stress of being able to pay everyone).
But for now, I have a different topic. I would like to flesh out some of the observations I’ve made along the years while I was managing people. Or, to be more precise, while I was WORKING with people, talking not only about the teams I was managing, but everyone around us.
Most of the people I have worked with in my life tell me they enjoyed working with me. They grew, they sometimes bloomed, and here is why I think I received those compliments. This list is certainly NOT exhaustive, but it’s a start!
1. Get to know who you work with. Start with small talk and see where it leads.
It seems like a no-brainer, right? But this takes time and effort. To get to know who you work with you have to go beyond the name, hobbies, favorite sci-fi movies or whatever in that range. Start off with those basic questions I just mentioned above. At the coffee machine, on lunch, or whatever the occasion. And then listen. REALLY listen. Don’t try to talk about you and your goddamn important opinion. Be really interested in who the heck this other person is. What was this activity s/he did the past week-end? Oh some skiing. Where? With family? Are they good? Since when did s/he ski? Where did s/he learn? Oh in France, really? Where in France? Born there, lived there? What happened? Etc. Of course this is totally not an interrogation session, but just listening to an answer and then letting the conversation be driven by your curiosity. It all starts there. Be genuinely curious about the other. You might discover some personal challenges the other one can have, and this might help you understand his/her needs or priorities… Pay attention – you’ll quickly get what they like, they don’t like, what they’re passionate about. This is your foundation.
2. Then it’s time to search for the gem – or the driver
I believe there is a gem in everyone. Yet, sometimes it could be hard to find. What do I mean, by a gem? Something one’s really good at, or could get really good, or a passion that person has. A gem is something inside someone, and could be used as a driver for any manager: the areas someone is good at doing makes a strong driver, and vice versa. Cultivate the gem, then use the gem to cultivate the talent.
In a lot of people leading teams or being known as experts in certain fields, the gem is kind of obvious. But in some other people, it’s not. But the gem is there, and you should try to find it. And again, you have to pay attention to others (forget your bellybutton for once). What are they good at, what do they really like? Sometimes, they don’t even know. How to find this gem, this driver? Look for the beautiful inside the other, their strength, would it be the commitment, the sense of competition, the communication ability, or artistic skills. Could be a lot of things, and it could be found in such a wide variety of ways. Remember that small talk you had with a co-worker about hockey? Happens he was playing. What position? Offense. Many goals? Was it important, was he proud when talking about his play? How was he talking about the other team? Ok, so this guy is competitive.
3. Plant the seed
I’m very bad at judging myself. I think I’m not the only one in this situation. The older I get, the easier it is, but still. Everyone needs a little help, especially the young ones in the job space who are trying to grow. Once you have a bit of an idea of where the gem – or driver – is, it becomes easier. You, the elder one, know a bit more about the hierarchy, the roles and specialties in your company. And most importantly, how people get promoted. The unofficial channels. Help the young ones in there. Take this young worker –or not so young – that works in your team and that has good, or even great ideas and introduce her/him to the lead designer. Have a conversation about certain topics. Or just point out, out loud, some qualities you see in him/her. You know, sometimes just having someone saying where they see us going gives us all the confidence it takes to eventually get there. This is the easiest way to help someone. ‘Hey, I’ve been thinking about this: I see you in this position’. ‘Oh, really’ woahh, I don’t know, I’ve never seen myself there, never thought of it.’ ‘Well, you should think about it. You really have the aptitudes. Get some experience here, and there, and probably on some future project, you’d be ready. Want me to talk about it to your actual lead?’
4. Help the shy
There are shy people. I’m not. It’s always been easy for me to express my ideas and opinion in meetings. But it’s certainly not for a lot of people. Help them. Don’t put them up to it in front of everyone. Don’t go right in a meeting ‘So, Nancy, what’s your opinion about this?’ Nancy might not be so happy about this. She’s SHY. Maybe she doesn’t have any opinion on this particular project anyway. Nah. Go talk to her about what she thought about this subject after the meeting. See if she has some ideas that weren’t expressed. Don’t wait for her to come and talk to you. She’s shy, remember? Get to know her and where or in what field her ideas or opinion can have an impact, even very small. Then before you get in your next meeting, talk with Nancy. You know what topics will be discussed. Planning, animation, design, whatever. Just talk, and most importantly, listen to her. Ask what she thinks, how she sees it, etc. Just listen, be very open, and humbly ask for her advice. Then go with her in the meeting. If the context permits, mention the idea she had, the opinion she had. ‘Yeah Nancy and I had a little conversation about this earlier and she had a good suggestion, actually: we should do this before doing that, etc.’ you put her ideas under the spot, not entirely herself. You can do this a few times. Eventually she might feel comfortable talking in meetings. Maybe not, maybe she never will. But are her ideas worth an ear? Most of the time, I believe so. Give them a little push. Nancy will slowly gain confidence, and you’ll gain her respect for a very long time. It’s a win-win for everyone.
5. Be real
I’m pretty much from the school that believes it’s not worth it to work on weaknesses. Work on your strengths. Same advice for the others on your team. Help them focus on their strengths, and make it clear what they’re not so good at. Gavin is a level artist. He’s good as what he does. He can light a scene, work on FX, etc. He also like Design a lot. Game design. He always have tons of ideas, but most of them aren’t that good, or just don’t fit the game you’re making. Tell him his ideas are not so great. Explain why. Maybe it’s a lack of comprehension on the pillars of the game, maybe it’s just a question of feasibility. Tell him. Use yourself as an example. You can tell him some areas (about game dev or any other things in life, could be cooking…) that you like, but that you’re not good at. And you can still like it, but you keep it to yourself. You like food a lot, eating a lot, this doesn’t mean you can open a restaurant next week. But you can still make good supper at night, invite a few friends and savour it. Same goes for Gavin and game design. And it’s totally ok to point it out. He still wants to push game design? Alright, send him some books or articles about it that he should read. Point out where and why he’s not good. Sometime the message is hard to deliver. Sometimes, you might make Gavin sad. But in the long run, chances are very good that he’ll come back to you a few years later and be thankful for your honesty. In short, try to create honest and genuine connections – it’ll often grow into an open, trusting relationship. Who doesn’t want this? Like friend told me, it’s like a domino effect towards an ongoing developing relationship synced with developing successes.
So those are the basics, the no-brainers for me, but I saw a lot of managers over-looking them, probably too busy looking up. If you have any other tips, please let it loose in the comments!
Thanks to Caroyln Dooge and Kama Dunsmore for the help