January 30, 2024

6 strategies for developing future leaders in gaming

Max Kurton

The gaming industry, known for its emphasis on technical skills and immediate targets, is facing a crucial shift in leadership dynamics. While technical expertise remains a cornerstone, the growing need for more encompassing managerial skills is becoming increasingly apparent. 

Many gaming companies have followed a pattern where technical know-how is the primary driver for leadership roles. However, this approach often overlooks the critical soft skills necessary for effective leadership, such as communication, feedback, and delegation.

This trend has implications not only for team dynamics but also for diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) within the workplace. While the industry is gradually recognizing the importance of these initiatives—with 29% of gaming companies placing significant emphasis on them—there's still a considerable gap. 

Leaders in gaming often mirror their predecessors, perpetuating a cycle that may not always foster diverse perspectives and inclusive environments.

Effective leadership goes beyond technical acumen; it involves creating a culture that values diverse voices and nurtures talent from all backgrounds. Leaders who struggle with soft skills can inadvertently undermine efforts to promote a healthy, inclusive workplace culture, impacting team retention and the overall quality of products and services.

The good news is that all of these things can improve with a strong leadership strategy. 

With the right learning and development strategy, you can proactively grow the skills that tomorrow’s leaders need to succeed in the role. Keep reading to find out exactly what that involves.

How to develop leaders that perform but also care

38% of gaming employees work at least 41 hours during a week. This can lead to a burn and churn mindset, where employees work extra hours, feel exhausted, and leave to look for another job with a better salary or work-life balance. This means the gaming industry has higher turnover rates, compared to other tech companies (10% vs 6%). In this culture, it’s too easy for studios to become filled with overworked employees who will leave as soon as they get a better offer. 

That’s why it’s so important to invest in your leaders. Ultimately, poor management impacts both your employee experience and the overall performance of the company.  Therefore, there’s a real imperative for people teams at gaming companies to get the most out of your managers. Here are six ways to achieve that.

1. ❓ Understand leadership issues in your organization

To find the real cause of poor leadership at an organization, you need to have open conversations with the C-suite, managers, and individual contributors. Otherwise, people teams can only really act on assumptions of what they think the leaders are lacking at your organization.

For instance, if people are working too many hours, you might be under pressure to hire more people. But the root cause of the problem could be something other than understaffing. When managers lack communication, delegation, and feedback skills, it has a real effect on the quality and speed of their employees' work. Insufficient briefing, lack of clear goalposts, unrealistic deadlines, and inconsistent feedback can all lead to stress, poor performance, and overtime.

You can use multiple methods such as engagement surveys, focus groups, or root cause analysis to identify the underlying issue with leadership and which skills to strengthen, source, or teach. If, for instance, you identify a lack of communication or delegation skills, you can use your L&D strategy to prioritize training them.

2. 🎓 Offer leadership development programs and mentoring

Giving training and handing out learning materials is one way of developing your people’s skills. But leadership training should happen in a multi-modal way, which includes mentorship and coaching.

One-on-one conversations with skilled leaders can be helpful to new or potentially inexperienced  managers. Since many people learn how to be a leader from their past supervisors, having access to vetted mentors or coaches can help them pick up good practices. Mentors also act as a safe place for managers to share their unfiltered ideas, work with a good leader to determine the right approach, and get unbiased and objective feedback.

An effective mentorship program should work in two ways: 

  • For existing managers: Help them get better at the job that they are doing
  • For future leaders: Prepare for the shift in skills and responsibilities

Hand-picking and training mentors means you can choose people who embody the company values and have the traits you want to encourage as part of your company culture. It also means that you get to work with managers and employees to identify the best candidates to become mentees  and collaboratively determine which skills to develop. For example, if you have a leader who is very skilled in setting boundaries respectfully, you can pair them up with one who struggles with communication—or the other way around.  

👉​ Read “The Cost of Inaction: What You Stand to Lose if You Don’t Use Learning to Enable Performance” to discover how using the right L&D provider can help you turn your business around. 

3. 🎯 Set clear expectations of leaders and performance processes

If leaders aren’t hitting the mark right now, it might be because of issues with the L&D program, a lack of role models, or not having clear expectations about their responsibilities. Other reasons include limited support or an ineffective performance review process. You want to set your leaders up for success, and a way to do that is by making structural changes to your goal-setting and performance review processes. 

Setting clear role expectations around performance will help guarantee that you’re developing future leaders that people can look up to. Changing your hiring and advancement guidelines so you can recruit or promote people with the right mix of soft and hard skills, will also help ensure fairness and a better culture. For example, instead of simply promoting your star designer who is lacking some necessary soft skills into a managerial role, you can proactively come up with a development plan for them to reach the next level once they’ve improved these skills. 

Setting clear expectations for all of your roles also empowers people to become great leaders—along with the right support and the right review processes.

4.  💼 Identify and develop potential gaming leaders’ soft and hard skills

Not everyone will progress by becoming a manager. You might have amazing developers or designers who have the potential to go far—but might not have the desire to become people leaders. By crafting your performance review process to place the focus both on hard and soft skills, you’ll be able to identify potential team leads. 

These are beneficial characteristics for potential leaders to have:

  • Curiosity. Future gaming leaders have a relentless fascination with their craft. They use information to inspire and come up with comparisons and nuances naturally. They seek to learn and proactively look for ways to solve problems.
  • Humility. People who lead by example and allow their actions and achievements to demonstrate their contributions are often excellent leaders. These are also the kind of people who take feedback and have an inherent understanding that they are on a journey. They have a low ego and celebrate the wins, but also take and learn from the losses. They embrace the power of the answer “I don’t know” and let others become their teachers.
  • Managing up. Future gaming leaders need to know how to manage their managers as well as their teams. They have a natural ability to understand the needs of others and juxtapose them with the right results, at the right time. This is also a sign of having great communication skills. 
  • Respect and kindness. Especially in gaming, leaders need to be respectful and kind. Holding a position of power means others will learn from them, and if they foster anything other than respect, the team will replicate the same behavior.
“There are many studios that want to be diverse just for the sake of meeting a quota. If they want diverse teams, they also need to penalize any kind of micro-aggression or aggression these people experience at work.” — Patricia Plaja, game designer and the person behind @patymakesgames.

Decide which traits suit your ideal culture and look for or come up with an L&D plan to keep nurturing and strengthening them. So, when the time comes, and these people have the expertise to reach the next level, they will be ready for the challenge.

To know which capabilities to develop, it comes in handy to have an organizational skill map with all the competencies people need to reach leadership positions.

5. ✅ Promote a culture of feedback and growth

Great leaders listen and make changes based on feedback. People need to feel comfortable sharing their ideas for improvement or expressing their discomfort with their managers without fearing retaliation. 

Creating a culture of growth and continuous improvement will make individuals grow into positions of power knowing there’s still a lot to learn. A leader who’s willing to move forward and make continuous improvements empowers a team to be better. 

But leaders also need to lead by example and encourage their teams to give feedback in a way that’s actionable, constructive, continuous, and tied to clear performance goals. In parallel, people teams should reinforce the value of learning in the workforce and build processes for employees to give feedback to peers and managers during performance reviews. Another idea can be to allow anonymous feedback through open surveys or adding questions by the end of each team meeting or 1:1 that encapsulates the spirit of: How can we improve this thing we are doing? 

However, for this initiative to work, managers and individuals need to know how to give feedback that actually makes an impact. Offering training and L&D opportunities for them to learn what to say and when to do it, enables this culture to happen. 

6. 🤝 Prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I)

DE&I is a big problem in the industry, and it starts even before people join companies.

“When I was getting my degree, a classmate used to laugh during my presentations or say that he didn’t think women belong in the gaming industry. I raised the issue with one professor, and he said it wasn’t a big deal, and I didn’t need to make a fuss around it, but it was.” —says Patricia Plaja, game designer and the person behind @patymakesgames.  

Only 5% of women occupy leadership positions in gaming studios. Not only is there a structural diversity problem, but this can also make the people they hire feel uncomfortable at work. 

Gaming studios must consider diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of their hiring and development strategies. DE&I isn’t a trend to just keep up with the times; studies show that diverse businesses are more innovative and creative and 25% more likely to have above-average profitability.

To have diverse people in leadership positions, it’s crucial that you guarantee bias-free hiring and advancement options. Some ideas include:

  • Using skills-based hiring and development
  • Having a diverse panel to discuss promotions
  • Giving the right learning opportunities to everyone despite their gender, race, or sexual orientation
  • Offering multi-modal resources so everyone can get the full benefit of an L&D program whoever they are and however they prefer to learn

📈 The down low: How to develop great leaders in gaming?

In the gaming industry, investing in future leaders isn’t a nice to have but a critical need. Too often, gaming studies can be held back down by poor leadership, hustle culture, and poor employee experience. 

The path to cultivating such leaders involves a multi-faceted approach. It starts with recognizing and addressing the problems in the industry. This must then translate into actionable strategies, ranging from leadership development programs to emphasizing the importance of both soft and hard skills.

Fostering a culture of feedback, growth, diversity, equity, and inclusion isn't just about meeting quotas or ticking boxes. To ensure everyone has equal access to learning, try a marketplace like Learnerbly with multi-modal resources from 200+ vetted providers for everyone to come up and go through their unique learning paths. 

By investing in the development of leaders who are as diverse and dynamic as the games they help create, gaming studios can ensure a future where creativity, innovation, and inclusivity are at the forefront. This vision for the future is not just a lofty ideal but a practical blueprint for a thriving and sustainable gaming industry

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