So they made you a lead; now what? (Part 1)

Original Author: Oliver Franzke

What to do after you get promoted into a leadership position should be a trivial question to answer, but in my experience the opposite is true. In fact sometimes it seems to me that leadership is some kind of taboo topic in the games industry. Making games is supposed to be creative and fun and people would rather not talk about a ‘boring’ topic like leadership, but everyone who has had a bad supervisor at some point will agree that lack of leadership skills can be incredibly harmful to team morale and therefore to the game development process. That’s why, when I was first promoted into a leadership position, I set myself the goal to be just like the awesome supervisors I had in the past. But what made these people a great boss? I had no idea, but I assumed I would figure it out myself along the way. Looking back at it now I have to admit I was quite naïve.

After learning more about the theory and practice of leadership I realized that I was unprepared for this role and I’m not the only one with this experience. Before I started writing this article I talked to several leads (or ex-leads) and none of them had ever received any kind of leadership training. Some people were lucky enough to have a mentor, but even that doesn’t seem to be the standard. To me the most troubling fact is that none of the leads were ever told what was expected of them in their new role.

Given how important this role is you would think that game studios would invest some time and money to train their leads, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The optimistic interpretation is that the companies trust their employees enough to quickly pick up the required skills themselves. The pessimistic interpretation on the other hand is that management simply doesn’t care or know any better. The real reason is probably located somewhere in between these extremes, but it doesn’t change the fact that most new leaders are simply thrown in at the deep end.

For example when I was first promoted into a leadership role I really had no clue what I was doing or what I was supposed to do. I was a good programmer and a responsible team player (which is why I was promoted I guess) and I figured I should simply continue coding until some kind of big revelation would turn me into an awesome team lead. Obviously I never had this magical epiphany and after a while I realized I should probably start investigating leadership in a more methodical way.

My goal for this two-part article is to share some of the lessons I learned myself while adjusting to my role as a lead programmer. If you were recently promoted into a leadership position hopefully you’ll find some of the content in this post helpful. If you had different experiences or have additional advice you’d like to share, then please leave a comment or contact me directly.

I want to emphasize the fact that leadership isn’t magic nor do you have to be born for it. Leadership is simply a set of skills that can be learned and in my experience it’s worth the time investment!

What is leadership anyway?

At the heart of a leadership position are people skills which make this role different from a regular production job. Being a great programmer, designer or artist doesn’t necessarily mean you are also an awesome team lead. In fact your production skills are merely the foundation on which you’ll have to build your leadership role.

But what exactly are these necessary people skills and what makes an effective team lead? Depending on who you talk to you’ll get different answers, but I think that the core values of leadership are about developing trust, setting directions and supporting the team in order to make the best possible product (e.g. game, tool, engine) with the given resources and constraints.

In order to be an effective lead you’ll first have to earn your colleagues trust. If your team feels like they can’t come to you with questions, problems or suggestions, then you (and the company) have a big problem. Gaining the trust of your team doesn’t happen automatically and requires a lot of effort. You can find some practical advice how to work on this in the ‘leadership starter kit’ in part 2 of this article.

Similarly if your supervisor (e.g. project lead) doesn’t trust you, then he or she will probably manage around you which is a bad situation for everyone involved. In my experience transparency is crucial when managing up especially when things don’t go as planned. Let your supervisor know if there is a problem and take responsibility by working on a solution.

Making games is complicated and it would be unrealistic to assume that there won’t be problems along the way. Dealing with difficult situations is much easier if everyone on your team is on the same page about what has to get done. Setting a clear direction for your team is therefore a crucial part of your role.

A great mission statement is concise so that it’s easy to remember and explain. For an environment art team this could be “We want to create a photorealistic setting for our game” whereas a tools lead might come up with “Every change to the level should be visible right away”. Of course it is important that your team’s direction is aligned with the vision of the project, because creating a photorealistic environment for a game with a painterly art style doesn’t make sense.

In addition to defining a clear direction for your team one of your main responsibilities as a lead is to provide support for your team, so that they can be successful. This might seem very obvious, but the shift from being accountable only for your own work to being responsible for the success of a group of people can be a hard lesson to learn in the beginning.

Almost all leads I talked to mentioned that they were surprised by how little time they had for their ‘actual job’ after being promoted. It is essential to realize that the support of your team is your actual job now, which means that you’ll have to balance your workload differently. Some practical advice for this specific issue can be found in the second part of this article in the ‘leadership starter kit’.

Support can be provided in many different ways: Discussing the advantages and disadvantages of a proposed solution to a problem is one example. Being a mentor and helping the individual team members with their career progression is another form of support. A third example is to make sure that the team has everything it needs (e.g. dev-kits, access to documentation, tools …) to achieve the goals.

As a lead you might also have to support your team by letting someone know that his or her work doesn’t meet your expectations. A conversation like this isn’t easy, but it is important to let the person know that there is a problem and to offer advice and assistance to resolve the situation.

What leadership isn’t

In order to avoid misconceptions and common mistakes it can be quite useful to define what leadership (in the games industry) is not. This topic is somewhat shrouded in mystery and there are many incorrect or outdated assumptions.

For example I thought for the longest time that leadership and management are the same thing. This is not the case though and when I talked to other leads about what they dislike about their role I found that most aspects mentioned were in fact related to management rather than to leadership. Of course it would be unrealistic to assume that you will be able to avoid management tasks altogether, but getting help from a producer can reduce the amount of administrative work significantly.

Another misconception that is often popularized by movies is that you have to demonstrate your power as a leader by barking out orders all day. This might work well in the army, but making video games requires collaboration and creativity and an authoritative leadership has no place in this environment. An inspired team is a productive team and autonomy is crucial for high morale.

Equally as bad is to ignore the team by using a hands-off leadership approach. This mistake is quite common since most team leads started their career with a production job. It can be tough for a new lead to accept the changed responsibilities, but in my opinion this is one of the most important lessons to learn. Rather than contributing to the production directly your primary responsibility is to support your team. Having time for design, art or programming in addition to that is great, but the team should always come first.

As a lead you are responsible for your team, which means that you’ll also have to deal with complications and it’s inevitable that things will go wrong during the production of a game. Your team might introduce a new crash bug or maybe you run into an unexpected problem that causes the milestone to slip. Whatever the issue may be you are responsible for what your team does and playing the blame game is the worst thing you can do, because it’ll ruin trust and team morale. Instead of shifting your responsibility to a team member you should concentrate on figuring out how to solve the problem.

End of Part 1

The second part of this article focuses on practical advice for newly minted team leads and it also discusses effective strategies to develop leadership skills, so please check it out once it is online (very soon).

I hope you enjoyed this post and thank you for reading.

PS.: Whether you just got promoted or have been leading a team for a long time I would love to hear from you, so please feel free to leave a comment.

PPS: I would like to thank everybody who helped me with this article. You guys rock!