How to Transform into an Epic Boss
Read Time: 6 Minutes
Bad people management is a topic that comes up over and over again. Many people have bad bosses. Almost all of us have had a bad boss. Line leaders report being disconnected, rarely seeing their boss, or needing more clarity on how to progress in their careers.
To make matters worse, many of the studio leads we talk to are starting to avoid hiring junior talent because they simply don’t know what to do with them. This is drawing further attention to the fact that our skills and systems here are underdeveloped, and it will cause a lot of pain for our industry mid-term.
So having a good manager is a massive accelerant, and having a bad one is an extreme obstacle. Self-admittedly people managers don’t have the skills to do their jobs, there is little-to-no training available, and sometimes they don’t even necessarily want the job; it was just a prerequisite to moving up the chain.
Our thesis is that this is a “code red” issue, and if we can address it, it will go farther toward the bottom line in our game studios than almost any other change we could make. I reject that the epidemic of poor management in our industry is a necessary evil, and I also reject the idea that we don’t have the time to solve it.
I chose to become an epic boss a while back because I never grew faster or added more value than when I had an epic boss. Let’s talk about what it means to be an epic boss and the four key principles you need to transform into one yourself (or help your boss).
Light a Path (Growth)
A manager needs to illuminate a clear path for a direct report. This means guiding them along a journey that merges the company's interests with the report's personal career goals.
In my career, I’ve experienced what it’s like when the path is dark. It feels like a shadowy cabal will decide whether I get promoted or not based on unknown criteria. I’ve been in situations where I had no career goals, no agreements with my manager, or perhaps barely even spoke to them. I’ve at times felt like my personal goals didn’t matter and others didn’t know how best I could help the company. I’m not alone in those experiences; almost everyone I’ve spoken to, at every leadership level, has experienced them as well.
One day, a manager got in front of a whiteboard with me and asked where I wanted to be in a year. He told me where he thought I could have the most impact and visibility. We collaborated and came up with three target goals for the next year and a list of deliverables that would go to the bottom line of those goals. It was the first time I’d had a clear path ahead of me. Suddenly I was more focused, the game felt winnable, my manager was more confident I would be an asset to the company, and I felt seen. It was wins across the board.
Identifying and lighting a path for your direct reports is critical for every person you manage. It’s the foundation of a successful conversation about performance, promotion, compensation, and employee satisfaction.
Create 2-4 goals for each direct report you have that combines impact on the organization AND their personal career goals.
Create a list of key deliverables (or demonstrable) that ladder up to those goals and prioritize them so the report can focus their efforts.
Build A loose plan every 90 days that includes items from the above list, check-in points, and details on what will be/has been delivered.
Attach material rewards (like compensation, promotion, etc.) to achieving those goals and get YOUR LEADERS on board with making good if the employee delivers.
Make Your People-Management System “High-Integrity”
One of the critical things managers need to understand is that anything you aren’t deliberate about doesn’t just sit there as a blank canvas. Something WILL emerge in that space, and it will likely NOT be something you want. This is the case with people management, just as with culture.
You can probably see that following some of the steps above, what “performance” looks like becomes apparent quite quickly. When that clarity isn’t there, less desirable things like politics, relationships, personal favors, competition, etc., will be behind things like credibility, reputation, performance, and value. Then you have what we call a “low integrity” system.
This is the system where the person who throws fun parties every Friday for the team but hasn’t delivered a project in over a year gets promoted. This is the system where the men on your team might be perceived as “go-getters” because they do a lot more talking even though the women are delivering (perhaps with less noise) more value for the company.
If you don’t put a knowable, equitable, and value-based system in place, you will get another one based on other (read: less good) things. If your people start to get wind that incentives are not related to the goals you set up with them when you’re “lighting the path” and instead things like making sure you’re on excellent terms with the VP, you will not get where you want to go. The system is rigged.
So what do you need to do to ensure you have a high-integrity system?
Write down the goals for your overall team and make sure that they are visible to every one of your reports, that you’ve spoken to each of them, and that those goals are integrated into the individual growth plans.
Ensure everyone’s growth plans, progress, and top-level goals are transparent to your direct reports. (Shared documentation) That means more accountability around the system. People can raise challenges or concerns when needed.
Ensure that you follow through with promotions, comp increases, or remediate action for underperformers, or people will quickly realize that there are no consequences for excellent OR bad results. This will destroy the integrity of your system faster than anything else.
Use the data you collect from the individual planning process when discussing someone’s performance. Ensure those conversations are anchored inaccurate data instead of “She seems nice, and everyone seems to like her.”
Accountability is the tool we will use to calibrate our journey down an individual direct report's path toward the goals we set. We have regular conversations, make commitments, follow through, and collaborate. When accountability is tight, and a person is making and meeting commitments, it provides the most potent platform a manager could have when arguing for that person to be rewarded.
Follow these four steps repeatedly as you check in with your reports on their plans, and you will find yourself in a transparent and effective system for staying on track.
When taking deliverables from the master plan into the 90-day plan, talk with your direct report about how you will support them, what they need, and what they are comfortable committing to. Once that negotiation is done and the 90-day plan is complete, you should sign at the bottom of the doc to “shake hands” (read: commit) to the plan.
There must always be positive consequences for delivering against commitments and remedial consequences for missing commitments (even if it’s more effectively committing next time). There is no accountability without consequence. Without accountability, the paths you lay out with your reports are useless.
Celebrate team members/reports who are doing an excellent job working through the accountability process and making clear commitments. If you’re trying to help your boss show up more effectively, work with them to make YOUR commitments clear and visible.
Advocacy is the active role you take as a manager to ensure visibility around your people’s wins, where they need support, and how they add value to the company.
Too many managers are passive, perhaps afraid to spend their political capital or “rock the boat.” They wait for others to affirm or denounce their reports, then follow instead of lead in those conversations. This is devastating. Perception and the court of public opinion are generally poor judges of a person's value and performance. They are not meaningless, but if we, as managers, leave a person’s reputation purely up to public opinion, we’re failing them horribly.
Your job is to actively advocate for the company's interests in your reports and the company for your reports. You must be doing both to be an epic boss. This is why the data you collect in the steps above and your regular touchpoints with your people are critical. It makes the conversation less subjective, more equitable, and more results-based. After all, your people made commitments, they delivered, and it’s documented. What else is there to say, right?
I also want to be clear that poor advocacy isn’t just NOT making it known when your people are kicking ass; it’s also disingenuously advocating for your team even when people aren’t performing or when you’re unsure if they’re performing. This is why we need clear commitments. We don’t want to see people getting promoted because “well, everyone seems to like them.”
Make sure you have regular checkpoints with your boss where you discuss your people's performance in concrete terms (use those 90-day plans/goals!).
Ensure you’re on the same page as your manager regarding what good performance looks like for your people.
When discussing promotions or compensation with other managers/peers, show your data points and ask your peers for theirs, ESPECIALLY if there is debate or comparison.
Actively engage in conversation about how your reports are doing, and make sure there are not “gossip” conversations happening without data backing them up, and interject if you do see that happening.
As I close up, I want to mention some crucial points about this transition toward better management.
This takes a lot of time and effort. We don’t want to BS you. People don’t do these things because they believe they don't have time or energy for them. Don’t fall into that trap; understand this will be a big part of your job.
The remote world has intensified the need for this skill set further and emphasized management skills, like coaching. Building those skills will help your organization navigate the uncertainty of remote.
Remember the four management principles and use the tools here to give you an edge on your journey toward becoming an epic boss. The best way to retain your top talent and accelerate your people to higher performance is to step up as a manager. The best way to relieve your anxieties, frustrations, and obstacles at work is to help your manager manage YOU better. This is a game-changing opportunity for all of us. Moving the needle here is even more critical now that many of us are working remotely, and we don't get much of this “for free” anymore.
Whenever you’re ready there are 2 ways we can help you…
—>We’ve helped many high-profile game studios save a ton of money & time through building clear vision and leveling up leadership. If you’d like to work with us, please reach out at [email protected].
—>Regular deep dives on critical game development topics on the BBG podcast