1.3 The Mindset of Success for Leaders
Updated: Jun 14, 2020
Part 3 of the Production Leadership Series. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.
In the previous two articles, we looked at how the role of the producer shifts dramatically, from managing your self or a single team, to becoming involved in the noisy highways of cross-team and inter-game push/pulls, dependencies and resource struggles.
Just to pause and gather our thoughts: we’re about to talk through suggestions of gaining a real grasp of leadership based upon Jo Owen’s research of real leaders. This is very much a pick and mix strategy, in which you should see what you find useful and discard the rest.
After going into some detail on the challenges faced, we finally reach the Mindset required to truly succeed as you make the climb. This mindset is a combination of traits or attitudes that define your approach to good and bad days, how you think about the future and the past, how you turn obstacles into challenges and how you keep yourself as a strong role model.
Jo Owen speaks of eight traits that make up the Mindset of Success. We will go through these one at a time. As in previous articles, the role titles here give the general idea of responsibilities and accountabilities, but you may be called something quite different!
1. High aspirations
When you aspire to something, it means that you are actively pursing a path to improve a part of your life, be that internal or external. You may aspire to become a studio owner, or to be the best at project management, or to eradicate crunch in the games industry. Whatever it is, make sure you have high aspirations – being paid more or having a laugh with your mates does not count! It must be a high aspiration, something you can hold close and be proud of achieving (because you will one day). Dare to dream and focus beyond yourself on the mission you have set yourself, rather than on your self.
You might want to consider:
Where do I want to be in 10 years' time?
What are the skills, experiences and support I will need?
What are the key 1,2,3,5 year milestones?
What do I need right now to get started?
When you are initially seeking out a Production role, you need to keep staring far ahead at the future you and remind yourself constantly of your ambition. This focus on the future will remove you from the traps and challenges of being demotivated and demoralised. As you start out as a producer, your original aspirations remain, but you bolster them with a need to step out of your own shoes and see the world from those above you. Putting some time and effort into developing empathy with those who placed you here will pay dividends as you will understand how they think, what they need and how you can help. Helping others leads to senior positions and then you will ask your own team(s) to aspire to be better, by stretching and challenging them. You will seek out high quality and maximise their creativity, to not only push them as people, but make the most out of each of their talents and gifts.
It is important to avoid seeing out praise for yourself during this period, as this will place you in a safe position of conforming to what you think those above you are hoping to see. Instead, start to try to improve processes and pipelines, seek out challenges and see if you can find other likeminded souls who want things to improve. Be unafraid of failing either, as long as you give it your best shot: this is your chance to learn and adapt.
Eventually, as the ExecP, DevD or Studio Owner, your aspirations are around building a better place, a more successful company and ideally better games. Here you set the agenda and focus on the bigger picture, so that those who are led by you can be inspired and motivated.
Compare this to becoming an EP with low aspirations – you sit in your room, close the door and bask in the glory of leaving everyone else to get on with it. This is not what a leader is about – you need to get out there, inspire, motivate, spend the time looking to the future to ensure that you reach the absolute best you can.
Thinking back to the 10-year plan, this does not of course mean you expect to reach a fixed destination: it is a journey that opens up new opportunities as you build skills, experience and track record.
If you find yourself stuck though, consider this advice for setting the right context:
Am I learning and growing here?
Are there opportunities today and tomorrow?
Do I enjoy what I am doing? Enjoyment is not self-indulgence: it is vital to success
Are there good role models for me?
Can I find the right support? Coach / mentor
This is the High aspirations mindset. Control your destiny, take some risks and work hard to overcome the frequent challenges. This is the fastest route to personal fulfilment, excitement and meaning. If you see opportunities arise, grab them and show others that you are not afraid to be outside your comfort zone and visible.
Unlike being brave in a one-off scary situation, courage is that internal steel that is forged stronger over time and trials. Courage is the inner calm that gets you through tough times – and there will be plenty of those if you are making games. Also, if you are serious about chasing your dreams at the start of your journey, you need the courage to push hard, ask for challenges from those who have influence around you and fight to succeed. Ask the senior producer what their biggest headache is now and see if you can help. Volunteer to start a weekly learning session and focus on whatever skillset you’re currently within. Perhaps you are in QA and you want to show teams what you can offer as a team to them that they might not be aware of. Ask if you can shadow a producer when they do the rounds. Push and be cheeky. Cheeky is just another word for keen and keen people stand out way, way above those who are unambitious.
Once your courage has started to bear fruit and you become a producer, you will need to shift your focus. As soon as you have a team to look after, you also have to face up to the challenging moments where all manner of difficult conversations need to be had – and this takes courage. Underperforming is the single most common reason for needing to have one. So what is the best way to handle these?
Act early: if someone is not performing well you must speak up sooner rather than later. I have made mistakes myself where not giving the courageous feedback has meant someone missed out on the change to assess themselves, change and improve. Do not leave these conversations until it is too late – then they become unpleasant and emotional. Remember, if HR becomes involved as a last resort, they will want to know that you acted professionally and with care – so make sure you do
Stick to the facts: prepare beforehand so that you have data and facts. Do not go into any situation weighed down with hurt and anger or wound up with fear at confrontations. Overcome these unpleasantries with courage: prepare your thoughts, make notes, be logical and work out what good solutions might be in advance. What has actually gone wrong and what is the impact it has had? Most people feel terrible when they hear about a negative impact of their actions and they will go out of their way to help you
Listen: the art of being a good listener is a gift that many producers harness and it is one you can improve at. Shut up and stop talking. Introduce the facts and the impact, then let them know you don’t want to make assumptions. Ask them for their side of the story
Show respect: you are not barging into a bar fight in order to land a few punches and win. There is no winner or loser. There is no fight. Avoid any form of content here, take out the emotions and instead empathise, understand. Remind them of impact they are having on others. Talk it through with kindness, but remember what the end goal is and steer it that way
Stay positive: as Jo Owen puts it, drive to action. You need to make something change, you need to push for choices to be made, even if they are unpleasant. It does not matter who said what about who, it matters that a conclusion is reached with actions agreed and a common understanding that the issues are being resolved
Summarise: so what has been agreed? You are a producer, so you know how to put together a short list summarising a meeting. Treat this as one. Summarise, repeat it back to the person you are talking to. Next steps should be clear: who, what, where, when, how. Ensure you follow up and ensure you offer to help. You are here to boost the team, not to win battles
Courage comes from having these conversations frequently enough that they become a habit for you. You learn how to remove the emotion and unpleasantness and treat them as an opportunity that will lead to improvement in the team and the people involved. This is a great thing and they will always remember you were willing to help them – even if they end up moving, leaving or being a bit annoyed for a few days.
It does take courage to do this properly, because you are dealing with other people’s lives. Do not underestimate the impact you have simply by talking, listening and treating them with respect. Leadership grows from this inner courage.
There are six ways to build your courage mindset:
Train for courage: make the unknown become familiar and routine, just as we said above with turning difficult conversations into a habit. This is the same advice for giving speeches in public – prepare, practice, repeat as frequently as possible
Believe in your mission: the greater the cause, the greater your commitment so make sure you always remember that you are striving for something greater than a payrise
Create a bigger fear: let the fear of inaction be greater than the fear of action – don’t be stuck in a rut because you fear being rejected or failing
Focus on the benefits and outcomes of what you are trying to achieve, then work out the risks – you are a producer after all, so risks and issues are your bread and butter!
Find support: share the burden – engage the people around you that help you feel good about what you are trying to achieve
Manage your fear: recognise the fear, then visualise success
Resilience might benefit from courage, but it is quite different. To be resilient is to be enduring like a willow, that bends in the storm, rather than become brittle and snap. As the job of producing games becomes more complex and difficult, so too will the daily stressors grow louder. You need to become resilient. You need to endure, to find an inner peace that gets you through when others might snap in the storm. You will experience setbacks and failures and you need to be able to keep pushing forwards regardless.
At first, your resilience is strengthened by your inner resolve to work long hours on potentially boring tasks, as you know that this will bear fruit and lead you to achieve those high aspirations we talked about already. Your focus on the future will ensure that you approach each day as cheerfully as possible, seeking to learn and grow and be noticed. However, once you start as a producer, there is no escaping the gruelling nature of the job. Rather than sitting back and coasting into the sunset, you will each day face a myriad of new and different issues, some of which are predictable and some of which are entirely out of the blue. It is difficult for some people to face the ocean of crashing waves each day, whereas for others they build an inner resilience and face it with full knowledge that what they are doing is actually requiring of courage, skill, good humour, collaboration and all that good stuff.
From full producer onwards, you have weathered the initial storm and begun to enjoy it. Now your challenges shift to be around the ambiguity of what is expected of you, coupled with the lack of control to achieve everything successfully. You need to concentrate on future planning and driving towards that future, focusing on what you can control and learning to let go of everything you cannot. Remember, you can always control your own emotions and choose how you react and feel so stay positive and focus on your goals.
At the very top the sudden influx of high level meetings and distractions may knock you off your focus, but again you need to regain control, draw from your experience and push harder than ever. Each day your resilience grows and you become stronger, as you can see that you have not been broken!
Remember, it is best to be brutally honest around the challenges you face, rather than blindly hope that it will all be alright. However, when you are this honest, you must also and always engage your sense of humour and keep focused on those goals. Look at the best that can happen, as well as the worst and regain perspective – count your blessings and your friends. Nobody asked you to fight the good fight alone, so keep that support network close by.
So what are the best ways to build resilience for the long haul?
Take control. Most importantly, don't worry about what you cannot control
Control your own feelings. You always have a choice about how you react and feel
Stay positive: focus on your goal – and see next section!
Gain perspective: count your blessings, look at the best and worst outcomes
Draw on experience, from yourself and others, in order to find a way forward
Use humour: mock misfortune
Discover your mission: the greater your mission, the greater your resilience
Enjoy what you do: you only excel at what you enjoy
Cope with stress: by finding out what you can control (see first point)
Stay healthy: sleep well and look after your body as well as your mind
The next two mindsets are covered in the next article.