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  • Writer's pictureLiam Wickham

1.2 From good manager to great leader

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

Part 2 of the Production Leadership Series. Part 1 is here.

Jo Owen writes in The Mindset of Success that your mindset is the key to unlocking the mysteries of how to grow from a good manager to a great leader. As a games producer, that is not only going to allow us to do a better job, but probably give us a better night’s sleep too. When he talks about mindset, he means a set of inner traits that we hold, such as Courage, Resilience and High Aspirations. We will explore each of these in part three and how they shift as we rise from seeking out a production role to overseeing a whole game or studio.

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as levelling up and increasing how courageous we are, or how resilient, it is more about the nature of that courage and how it evolves.

Before we do that, let’s take a quick look at the challenges we face. From left to right in the table below, we trace the changes that take place as we move from seeking out a production role to looking after a single team, then multiple teams and an entire game, to perhaps multiple games or a studio. The titles used here are illustrating the point – you may be called something different!

The Time horizon changes for us, as we go from working on our day job, to looking at schedules, plans and roadmaps that might look months or years ahead. For an Exec Producer or Studio Owner, they may well be overseeing the future of the studio, rather than keeping focus on one game. Their hopes and dreams are around the future plans, as well as supporting the current endeavours. This is our time horizon and it reveals how far ahead we must ponder when considering all other aspects of our role.

The Main tasks at each stage shift (as we said in part one) from doing to thinking about how to improve and delegating. You may learn at the coal-face how to work hard, deliver high quality work and cooperate with other team members, but it is the next stages that turn your experience into that drive to make sure your whole team continue to deliver at a high level of performance and quality. You go from doing to delegating, from following pipeline and process to investigating and implementing optimisation and continual improvements. You end up managing the managers, then leading from the top. By then, you have hopefully built inside yourself the mindset of success required to survive at the top.

Who you value ultimately changes from your self and immediate team/mates to entire departments, cross-functional relationships, staff support functions and the world of stakeholders. Senior Producer upward will doubtless require keen assessments of relationships with publishers, outsourcers, senior directors and all manner of others who can influence the outcome of what you are trying to do. As we said in part one, it becomes a lot noisier as you enter the airstream of middle management. One thing that never changes though is the natural necessity to care for every person who relies on you. Never lose sight of that.

Financial skills may seem like an odd addition to this list, but you will be expected to know a lot about money and how to make best use of limited quantities. At first, nobody expects you to have any idea about game budgets, but from the mid-tier upwards you will be expected to keep costs down (in the form of not approving outrageous expenditure on hardware, licences, etc., while keeping an eye out on the cost implications of any decisions you approve).

Senior producers will quite often also be expected to negotiate for more people, juggle limited resources and fully comprehend the concept that increasing game scope increases its cost. When you need to slice and dice, you will be assumed to understand the implications. At the top, you will find yourself handed a very complicated spreadsheet and left to work out what it all means (if you are unlucky).

Profit and Loss (P&L) becomes a major part of your life, as you juggle to make sure that the correct contracts are signed, along with the proper decisions being made at a high level, to ensure that your studio not only survives but thrives. You are no longer a cost in the machine, but a revenue generator. You need to know what government grants are available, how to save on tax, what exchange rates mean and how they might affect you. This does not all come from simple osmosis.

We believe that exposing junior producers to financial matters far earlier than seems to be the current trend reaps benefits later, as they can make the most informed decisions with the most comprehensive information. They are also quite simply better at understanding money matters, which is vital if you are to avoid extremely costly mistakes.

Traps and challenges

There are common challenges and pitfalls at every level of leadership, and production is no different. We need to briefly cover and understand some of these before we can move on to the mindset you need to overcome them and grow those problems into opportunities. Without understanding the terrible traps ahead, you may instead plunge right over that cliff!

As you seek out a production role, you may be forgiven for not looking forward to the lack of excitement that comes from yet another day of doing the same old tasks, but in different colours. The first trap to avoid is that of disenchantment: remember, you could be working in a bank! Maintaining a cheerful disposition even when faced with the seemingly endless churn of testing a game level for the hundredth time, or whatever it might be, will get you noticed. We will cover this in the next article.

When you are handed a small team to look after, the challenge morphs from caring about your own job to being able to stop micromanaging everyone else’s job. You are a coach now, who must help your team members to succeed and you don’t accomplish their success by doing their work for them. Just as a football coach needs to stay off the pitch, you need to be there in support, with guidance and encouragement, rather than jumping in and trying to score.

Full producers in charge of multiple teams enter that noisy realm where they are exposed to the sweeping prods, pushes and pulls that come from all directions. Whereas previously you were able to exist in a bubble with your team, now your bubbles are being constantly bombarded by demands and dependencies from other teams and senior bosses. Seagull management needs to be seen off. You need to press for more people while stopping others from taking your people off somewhere else.

We are fortunate in the games industry that the more heinous and contemptible form of politics is not welcomed.

I have worked in large corporations, where politics and influence building were the most important part of any day job among senior managers and leaders. One of the reasons I keep returning to this little world of ours is that it is almost wholly filled by bloody nice people who do not wish to spend their days backstabbing each other and vying for promotions. However, do not let this fool you – politics must be understood and utilised by you in a positive and powerful manner, for you to generate the most good for your teams. Do not shy away from it but embrace its potential to aid you.

At the very top, you can wonder how the hell you managed to end up where you are. Imposter syndrome is rife among producers. A few years ago you were having a laugh with a bunch of game devs and creating awesome boss fights, now you are expected to look after 200 people and a few games while the recruitment drive is so aggressive you don’t know half the people working for you anymore. It is at this point that you can look around terrified and wonder if the people who put you there will swiftly realise what an awful mistake they have made.

In this state, this is when you need to remember to come back to this series of articles and look at the mindset shift needed.

On the flipside, you may feel that the elevated rise to godhood is entirely within your right, much as Caligula the Roman Emperor may have felt. You are clearly trusted to make a whole load of important changes and fix all those stupid processes that have been holding you all back. Pause, look up the definition of hubris, take a deep breath and really think hard about how much upheaval anyone needs right now. Your time will come but look to the mindset article next to see what else needs to happen internally first.

The final problem as you near the heavens of production is that you can lose touch with the people around you. You will be so busy with stakeholder management, crisis management, budgets and the like that you might be too distracted to remember the values that catapulted you up here in the first place. Keep caring, keep engaged with the teams, be their champion and role model, not a stressball locked in your room all day.

If you have forgotten the joy of being alive and how fortunate you are, check out the CEO of Three of Cups Games, Marina Diez:

So in the next part we will finally talk about the Mindset of Success!

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