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  • Writer's pictureLiam Wickham

1.5 The Mindset of Success: the final set

Part 5 of the Production Leadership Series. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here.

6. Collaborative

It is clearly a sign of strength in all game producers that they can collaborate well. However, collaboration is not simply being able to communicate with others and run daily stand ups; it is far more about utilising those who do not work directly for you to the advantage of the game and the team.

A collaborative mindset sees you focusing on succeeding through others, more than succeeding through your own direct work. I have lost count of the number of junior producers who I see catapulted through the ranks because they are chasing popularity in an industry which seems to reward social cliques over discipline mastery. However, to be a true leader who will reach the high aspirations you have set yourself, you need to go beyond acting for laughs and avoiding difficult conversations – you need to set aside your ego.

Success as you move up the ranks comes with and through others. As we grow into the senior positions, we need to learn how to gain the trust and respect of willing followers, without chasing popularity. Collaboration is key because we no longer control all the resources we need for success. Whereas before we may have had to rely on ourselves to get a job done, now we are relying more and more on entire teams and groups of people that we may not even have physically met (in the case of in/outsourced teams, partners, external studios and publishers etc.).

By collaborating with others proactively, we engage in what is called ‘positive politics’, presumably because most of us hear ‘politics’ and flinch – it has not part in the games industry, right? Well it is here and it is wherever groups of humans work and play together. Positive politics is the acknowledgement that we can collaborate positively by understanding the needs of others and fitting that around our own needs, then working together to try and achieve the best for all parties. It is also the acknowledgement that sometimes we have to fight harder for our own corner than the other one, because not everyone can have that extra hire they need, or that extra extension.

The collaborative leader focuses on four activities.

Build your influence across the studio(s) and external partners:

Listen: use the secret weapon of all the best sales people and leaders: your ears. This has come up again and again in our articles on leadership in slightly different forms, as it is crucial – a leader needs to get around and listen to what is going on. Information gathering is incredibly powerful.

Build credibility: do as you say, set clear expectations, avoid surprises. Note that this touches upon accountability and other mindset traits – keep your word and be careful who you give it to. If you cannot keep promises then don’t make any.

Make it easy for others to collaborate: reduce perceived risk and effort and engage incrementally. In other words, talk about why they might be concerned about collaborating then directly address those worries and take real credible action around that. Engage incrementally – do not try and ask for the moon on a stick or the whole world at once, but break it down into easier to handle requests. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Build your team: do not blindly accept the team you inherited. This is probably not a popular statement, but you are expected to fight for the best team, or group, or studio or whatever it is you are leading. Remember, you are employed to keep quality high as well as all the rest of it. The trick is to achieve balance across:

Skills: recruit to potential as well to achievement; so look at the bigger picture and the long-term effects of mentoring and support on those you hire. Also think about what you can do to upskill those already on the team. Do what I do – talk to them about their hobbies, their qualifications, go look at their LinkedIn profiles and talk to them about their dreams. This might not be possible with larger teams, so make sure your leads do it for you.

Perspectives: avoid a company of 'yes men/women'; you want to ensure that opinionated people aren’t afraid of expressing those opinions. You also want to make sure that they are not fed up offering them, only to find no action is taken. There is a whole world of knowledge and advice on this topic, but remember this – if you are told a thing and ignore it, don’t expect that person to tell you it again. On the flip side, if you hire your mates and surround yourself with mates, don’t expect to progress beyond the level of your peers, or to see beyond their own perspectives.

Styles: different styles are the most productive, but hardest to manage. By style we mean personality and we all know that the gaming industry is happy to recruit those who do not want to wear suits or work in banks particularly. There is a reason for entering this industry and it certainly is not earning money or job security – it is around creativity, camaraderie, geekhood and the rest. Be aware that a great team has different styles and not all of them get on well with each other – but this is absolutely fine, because it gives you new perspectives – see above!

Values: you can train skills, but you cannot train values. Know what you want from your team members and be sure that they are clear on your values. You can hire the world expert of something you need, but if they are a horrific working partner who will rip your teams up and spit them out, best go for someone else. Values are important because they produce well-honed, integrated and happier teams of people. Happier people work harder and better and enjoy themselves. It’s a win win.

Maintain and grow your teams:

Delegate: stretch and test the team with challenging work, not just the routine; this is so important and we have covered it previously to a degree – you must allow others to do a good job, or a bad job and learn from their mistakes. You can be there to support and encourage but your job is not to do their job. You MUST delegate effectively, or you will fail.

Coach: do not let the team delegate every problem to you; if you have not trained your team yet to take chances and be OK about failing, you will find that they come to you far too much for support, or to take over the problems. They realise that you are a control freak and a problem solver so they simply hand all their issues to you. If you take these on, you will be consumed by problems that are not yours to fix. Draw a line, force the issues back on them and coach them to solve them. Do not hurry to pick up other people’s problems, just because you happen to be able to solve them – it denies them the chance to stretch, learn and conquer. Be humble enough to understand that they deserve that chance, even if it means a few failures along the way.

In other words, trust and support, don't control and monitor.

Be a partner, not a child:

Act the part with senior management. Step up. You are an adult and you know what you are doing. No, really, you do, as much as anyone else does. Stand up straighter, shoulders back and breathe deeply, because we need you to be grown up enough to stand alongside the bosses and represent your team/studio/game/etc. Do not let those around you down by being intimidated, as that will stop you collaborating effectively.

Adult to adult relationship: a partnership, not a hierarchy. There comes a point where those around you are simply too busy to bother about who leads who. They simply want to know that you will talk to them, be transparent about your risks, issues, requirements and other problems. They want to be communicated with as equals, because it is simply faster and more efficient that way.

Each partner simply has different roles and you have to work together to make the most of your respective strengths and roles. Remember that positive politics? By the time you understand this point, you will be practicing that daily – collaboration that works requires understanding who you need to go to for what, who can help and who cannot. Your network will expand and you will be reaching outside to external partners and studios and ensuring that you see everyone as a potential partner.

7. Growth

It may seem either obvious or daft to insist that we keep growing throughout our career, but this is more important that you might at first think: what works today might not work tomorrow. We need to always be learning, growing and adapting. If you don’t believe me, get yourself a copy of The Complete Guide to Game Development, Art & Design published in 2005, or maybe the Game Production Handbook from 2013 (3rd edition). In these tomes of wisdom, you will find extremely valuable and interesting information. However, what you will not find is anything about mobile gaming development, the move away from physically shipping the game to DLC, the advent of streaming services, GaaS and all that jazz. Grow, adapt, learn, or become obsolete as a producer.

Not only must you keep learning, but you must have the courage to move on, as you move up the production ladder. When you first start out, you are learning your craft and trying to stand out with what you do. As you take on management, you need to learn how to handle a team of people who are relying on you for certain elements of their jobs and wellbeing. You also need to see every obstacle and bump in the road as a fantastic opportunity to learn and adapt, using what you experience to be better at what you do. Higher up, you are into the world of positive politics which we covered in the collaboration mindset above.

Eventually you are catapulted perhaps into a strange world of understanding strategy, studio direction and the perspective of leading from the top. Here you need to be constantly seeking out new ways of doing better, both personally and for your whole team. In other words, the rules of survival and success change at each level of the organisation – and so do expectations of leaders:

  • Front line leaders are expected to be: hard-working, proactive, intelligent, reliable, ambitious

  • Middle leaders are expected to be: able to motivate others, decisive, experience in the industry, effective networkers, able to delegate

  • Top leaders are expected to be: Vision holders, able to motivate others, decisive, able to handle crises, honest and living with integrity

You can see then that growth also includes shifting your mindset to fulfil these expectations, ones that shift dramatically as you rise. Jo Owen compares this to a butterfly that goes through many life stages, each of which look unlike the previous one – we too need to reinvent ourselves and transform as we shift roles.

Prisons in our minds

Jo Owen found through his interviews of thousands of leaders that we often form different prisons in our minds that stop us from growing. As time goes by we stop seeking out growth quite so much and we can get trapped in these.

Prison of success: we may be good at our current role and we forget that when we move on to bigger and better things, we need to be ready. We start to stagnate in our mind. In order to be ready, we need to prepare for new challenges and new rules of survival. We need to keep learning.

Prison of the past: if you are convinced that all the best games were made before most people were born, or that music stopped being interesting after you reached 20, you are probably putting a little too much emotional baggage in your way to move onwards and upwards. Dwelling in the past turns you into a sad old fossil, so move on and build new skills for the future, not the past.

Prison of performance: in the stable world we might want to live in, we might look to reuse the same old processes and workflows that have always worked in the past (or not), meet our targets and do our appraisals twice a year. In the dynamic world of game production, we need to grow, which means focusing on the goals and how best to meet them, outperforming what we achieved previously, improving, optimizing, encouraging creativity and self-development, being willing to change. We focus on learning, not just achievements.

Prison of fear: the fear of failure can haunt us all and lead to countless tales of mental illness, breakdowns and stress-related illness. Unfortunately, fear of failure stops us growing. This prison can have surprising roots: praising the achievement can be harmful compared to praising the effort; neurotic perfectionism can seriously damage our drive and confidence; avoiding competition in any form so we won’t risk losing can stop us even trying. We need to have the courage to try, fail, learn and grow.

How to build your growth mindset - the growth cycle

If we were to picture a cycle of growth, it might contain these four steps: Challenge, Test, Learn and Adapt. This might look reassuringly familiar to those of you who are steeped in Agile or DevOps. Continuous improvement of the mind is just as valid as CI in software development.

Here is a brief summary of these four steps in the cycle:

  • Challenge yourself to improve, stretch, change and try new things

  • Test: try new approaches, discover what works

  • Learn: ask WWW (what went well) and EBI (even better if... – the positive version of what went wrong) after every key event

  • Adapt: put your learning from WWW and EBI into practice

  • Challenge again: start the new growth cycle

8. Ruthless

We have to be careful with this one. Jo actually does not call this one out as a mindset trait, but rather as a potential part of your Dark Side that you need to be aware of and control. Since he lists it, I think it is valuable to dip into why we need to be aware of it and indeed how we can make use of it in our career. Being ruthless is never going to be popular, but sometimes it is absolutely essential. Ruthless does not equate to evil or bad necessarily – that very much depends upon how we use it. As you can see, when you are moving up, you are going to need to stop the popularity content and start having difficult conversations. You are going to have an agenda that needs to be pushed and defended in the face of other people’s agendas. Inevitably it seems these days, at the very top you also need to be able to face largescale redundancies and studio closures and decide who keeps their jobs.

The need for a hard edge (a much nicer way of expressing being ruthless) exhibits most clearly in four areas. These areas are preconditions for you to survive in your role:

  • Right goal: you need to narrow down your goals to one or several and totally commit to them. If you have belief in your goal then you will know what the right decisions are. Next, your team needs to understand the goal and commit to it. Create focus and clarity by having as few goals as possible and making them as clear as possible.

  • Right team: venture capitalists don’t back ideas, they back teams. Make sure your team is made up of people who have the right values to help achieve your goals. If you need to move some of the people to places where they will likely fit better then do so.

  • Right performance: remember how we said difficult conversations were usually about performance? This is where all your practice having those pays off, because in the end you are left with a team that performs and improves. An underperforming team will kill your goals.

  • Right budget: negotiate to win the best budget you can get. Prove that you need lower goals and a higher budget! Faced with a reduction in resources? Ask yourself how you can do even better with less.

The dark side: beware the demons

In your career you may have already discovered that success is not about being popular: you have to make hard choices. How you behave around those choices, how you treat people and how you cope can reveal the darker sides of people. We need to recognise that every mindset has a dark side.

  • High aspirations: these goals we set should not be about the self – they should focus on the mission and gain buy-in from the team. As we said, if your goal is to earn as much money as possible for yourself, you aren’t going to be inspiring your team much.

  • Courage: do not be the lone hero. Success is a team effort and it takes guts to let go of total control and trust others to make mistakes, learn and come back better.

  • Resilience: avoid pointless battles - only fight when there is a prize worth fighting for, you know you will win and there is no other way of achieving your goal.

  • Positive: avoid denial. Recognise and deal with problems when they arise.

  • Collaborative: do not chase popularity. Build trust and respect.

  • Accountability: do not try to do it all yourself.

  • Growth: learning is a means, not an end. Make sure you are learning how to be more impactful in your role and future roles, NOT just learning skills so that you can add another certification to your LinkedIn profile.

As we come to the end of my summary of Jo Owen’s excellent book The Mindset of Success, I feel more and more that everyone cam benefit from a copy for themselves. If you read this far, hit me up and I might send you mine!

Please do let me know if you got something out of these leadership articles and what else you would like to discuss.

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