An integral part of the IGDA Leadership Summit this year was the support from Keith Fuller, who is one of the most inspiring and knowledgeable employee engagement consultants in the industry. He gave an incredible 3-hour workshop at the LS and will also be presenting at the Montreal International Game Summit (MIGS), which is quickly approaching. He was also a natural choice for our second interview.
Jillian Mood, IGDA: First, I wanted to say how amazing it was to meeting you at the Leadership Summit! Could you explain what your role was at the event and how you found the whole experience?
Keith Fuller, Fuller Game Production: It was a pleasure meeting you, too!
I was approached many months ago by a few different leaders within the IGDA. They told me a new event was being planned as a successor to my all-time favorite industry conference, the IGDA Leadership Forum. Would I be willing to help organize it?
With nary a concern about the time requirements involved, I gave an unequivocal yes. For the next several months I had the pleasure of working with folks like Kate Edwards, Tom Buscaglia, and Tristin Hightower in finding the best and most diverse cast of proven industry luminaries to participate as speakers and panelists. Start to finish, it was immensely satisfying for me for two main reasons, the first being it was a hugely successful event! The sessions were exactly what I was hoping for in terms of breadth, depth, and concrete takeaways, and many people told me afterward they look forward to attending again next year.
The second reason I found the event fulfilling is that I got to meet many Facebook/Twitter/email friends in person for the first time. I got hugs from fabulous speakers and industry legends the likes of Jen Maclean and John Vechey! I mean, come ON.
JM: What inspired you to start your own consulting business?
KF: I worked as a AAA studio developer for 11 years at Raven Software, shipping a dozen titles across multiple platforms. As a producer on titles like Call of Duty, I treasure the time I spent with enormously talented teams. However, I also experienced more than my share of dysfunctional leadership. After being laid off, I wanted to see what I could do to fix the sort of leadership problems that had plagued me and my teammates for so many years. Encouraged by others who had gone before — friends and mentors like Sheri Rubin, Clinton Keith, and Adrian Crook — I struck out as a consultant. This venture has been personally fulfilling to an extent that few ever get to experience, and incredibly challenging. Supporting a family of five with an entirely unpredictable income in an industry populated with leaders who predominately think they have no need to improve — well, it wasn't the most financially sound move, shall we say. I hope to never go back to living on food stamps, but I'm also very appreciate of the freedom and fulfillment I've experienced over the past five years.
JM: Out of all the industries, why the video game industry?
KF: It sounds — corny? cliche? — but these are my people. My first paid gig out of university was as a programmer at a game company. I've spent almost 20 years in the industry. Game developers are fun. We make products that entertain men, women, and children all over the world. Why would I focus anywhere else?
OK, I'll answer that one myself: I'd focus elsewhere because trying to get people to recognize a need for leadership improvement in games is the *opposite* of lucrative. But for me that doesn't outweigh all of the pros listed above.
JM: When a studio has reached out for your expertise, what are your first steps to help improve the culture?
KF: Every gig is different. Actually, out of all the clients I've had over the past five years, less than half approached me. Usually, I have to reach out to them, offering initial free examinations or really lightweight services as an effort to start a relationship and establish trust.
To actually improve a culture you need leaders on-board. I define culture as "the set of decisions that employees make automatically because they see leaders doing it every day". Ergo, if you want to modify the culture you need to modify the actions of the leaders. A telling first step is to ask the CEO, et al, "What are the values of your company?" If they can't tell you straightaway in clear terms, or if they don't have them explicitly written down somewhere, it's evident there isn't a well understood set of priorities driving decision making. So that's pretty much step zero.
JM: In the game studios you've worked with, what do you believe to be the top three areas that needed the most attention?
KF: Possibly the most common problem we have in the industry is our believe that being a really good contributor means you're automatically qualified to be a leader of contributors. Great programmer? Let's promote you to lead programmer. No training or mentoring needed, because clearly you have amazing leadership ability. Actually, the skill sets of contributor and leader have only the tiniest overlap, so if you don't train a new leader then the only education they get is from watching other leaders in the company — all of whom are also untrained. It's a downward spiral of inbreeding leadership incompetence.
Second, I would provide this analogy. Would you buy a car and spend every last dollar of your monthly income on the car payments, without setting aside any money for fuel, oil changes, and maintenance? Well that's exactly what we do with our leaders. Every hour of every day they spend keeping plates spinning, with no time left for developing the team members for whom they're responsible.
Lastly, I'll share the single most common response I get when I tell people that I help improve leadership. "Man, that's GREAT, Keith! Our industry really needs that! It's a rampant issue! Our studio's fine, mind you, but the rest of the industry? Totally dysfunctional! Best of luck!" I'd simply advise studio leaders to consider, for just a moment, that there is a chance — infinitesimal, astronomically improbable though it may be — that their own fecal matter might emit a slight aroma.
JM: What advice would you give to job seekers to help verify the company they are interviewing with has a great culture that they would fit in with?
KF: Man, is that a good question. I have students ask me that frequently, too. "If all of this 'values' stuff is so important, Keith, how do you expect us to know which company is worth our time?" And I think that response is the best place to start: realizing that it's not just a matter of getting your foot in the door or landing your first gig. You need to approach it with the knowledge that you are inherently valuable. As a person. And that means it's not OK to blindly put up with an environment that makes you uncomfortable or devalues you in any way. The best insight you'll get before working somewhere will come from people who've been employed there, so networking and joining communities ahead of time is a great move. That's how you can learn about the company. But it's also important to learn about yourself. What are the three things you most want to achieve? What are the three values most important to you? What are three things you will never, ever do for a company? If you approach a job hunt with even those questions answered you're already better equipped than most to make a cultural assessment.
JM: Final piece of advice, what is the one thing you would advise the leaders of game studios to do differently?
KF: Require everyone to have regular, frequent one-on-one's with the people for whom they're responsible. The single most important factor in employee retention and in the worker's own fulfillment in the workplace is their relationship with their boss. Make sure they have one.
JM: You had a very inspirational workshop at the Leadership Summit!
KF: In a stunning turn of events, I'll be talking about the importance of values [at MIGS]! Also, a primer on emotional intelligence, motivation of teams, and three tiers of feedback. I plan to tackle this all in a slightly unconference-like way, though, in that I'm giving the attendees an opportunity to upvote the topics they'd most like to explore. We'll do what they say is most important first, which I hope will increase the value they derive from the class and make the most of our time. Also, free hugs.
JM: Thank you Keith for sharing!
Upcoming interview: Allison Stroll, a senior PM at Microsoft Core graphics. Allison has experienced the industry boom and bust, shift from arcade to console, become a "real" entertainment source as Hollywood took notice, shift from PC gaming to console gaming and back to PC again. Get ready for an deeply insightful account of her experience in the industry!
Join the interview series!
If you would like to send a proposal on a subject you would like to hear about, be interviewed yourself, or nominate someone, we’d love to hear from you! Send thoughts to Jillian -AT- IGDA -DOT- org.