How Video Games Prepared Me for People Leadership

Transferable Soft Skills You Can Use Every Day

Mark Shapiro
Jan 11 · 9 min read
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“You Are Not Prepared!”

ise words indeed from Illidan Stormrage. Just jumping into being a people leader is not easy, there are many new strengths and competencies you need to learn. Many years before I transitioned from an individual contributor (IC) to an engineering manager (and later into a director role leading other managers), I spent a lot of time playing one particular video game. The other day I was reflecting back on that time and came to the realization that many of the skills I use at my job I had been leveraging to be successful in the game. While becoming a people leader may seem daunting, it’s also likely you have more practice than you think from other aspects of your life.

So what was this video game? In my case, I played World of Warcraft. For those who don’t know World of Warcraft, or WoW is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing game (MMORPG) with millions of players across the globe where you take on the role of a mythical race with magical abilities in order to save the world of Azeroth from destruction from by the current “big bad guy”. Since its release in 2004, WoW offers players a wide variety of gameplay options. You can do simple story-based questing (killing boars like in South Park), battle against other players (PvP) or, for a larger challenge, choose to group up with your fellow adventurers to brave dungeons and monsters that require large scale coordination to defeat.

So what does this all have to do with growing your leadership skills? While most of these tasks can be done leveraging tools within the game to find a group for you, many players choose to take fate into their own hands and create a formal group (a Guild) to take on the ultimate challenge: raiding. This involves bringing 10 to 25 people into an environment that requires intense coordination, planning, and teamwork all while being in separate cities, states or sometimes countries. Starting to sound familiar?

More Than Just a Video Game

Some of you may still be thinking, “That’s great, but you’re talking about characters in a video game, not managing the careers of real people.” You would be right, the results may be different, but the soft skills and competencies used to achieve those results are actually similar. I’ve broken these down into categories:

  • Communication
  • Creating a Culture
  • Mentoring and Coaching
  • Feedback, Retrospectives and Empathy
  • Planning and Strategic Decision Making
  • Recruiting and Networking

I’m going to break down how these are leveraged within the game and the corollaries to being a People Leader IRL (in real life for those not down with the acronym). Earlier I mentioned that players form guilds to participate in raiding. This led to two jobs being created: a Guild Leader and a Raid Leader. These roles can be filled by two separate people or sometimes the same person. While somewhat unplanned, I ended up doing both of these for almost two years.

Communication

This skill comes up all the time in my professional life. One needs to be able to talk to others and tailor your communication methods in order to effectively get your point across. Whether it’s sending emails, Slack messages or creating presentations, if you’re not able to communicate effectively, projects suffer, requirements will be missed and your growth will suffer from it. In WoW, a lack of communication leads to a number of negative outcomes. The failure of an encounter, increased frustration, or the disintegration of your guild.

Another important aspect of communication is setting expectations. At work, as a manager you should be doing this with all your direct reports (and other coworkers). If you don’t do this, you’re leaving outcomes up to chance and interpretation. This is seen in failed goals or misalignment in viewing performance. In the game, these expectations are needed both at an individual level and at the guild level. Problems will arise if someone is looking to enjoy the game more casually but your expectations are that everyone logs in at 7pm sharp every day.

In both cases, you should communicate your expectations clearly and continuously. This will make sure people are aligned. If there is misalignment, take the time to reset.

Creating a Culture

Now that you’re communicating and have set your expectations, you’ve started to create a culture. You need to decide what is important, how you want to lead, and what interactions with your team is going to look like. In the game, players often rate themselves by the statistics they can achieve. In WoW this often displays itself as DPS (Damage Per Second). The higher the DPS, the faster an enemy dies. You can get a group of the highest DPS players available, but if their attitude doesn’t align with the rest of the group, you may not achieve as much as bringing in others that compliment the rest of the group.

When building your teams at work, you can encounter similar situations in that you might be able to hire the greatest software engineer on the East Coast, but if no one else can stand them, your organization is not going to perform as well as it could, which will often lead to dissatisfaction on the team. At an off-site a few years back, we had a speaker that called this the “No Asshole Rule” and it’s something I’ve thought about often when trying to make hiring decisions or assessing team make-up.

My personal style tends to be pretty laid back and sarcastic and I try to make people enjoy the time we have together, be it in a game or at work. However in both situations, there are instances when I also make clear there are specific goals to be had. I will take a different tone when we’re facing a difficult new encounter for the first time, or on an incident bridge looking to resolve a client impact. Help build that culture so that people know the expectations of how to react to different situations.

Mentoring and Coaching

A big part of being a leader in any space is helping your team grow, identify opportunities, and attain their goals. This may take the form of learning about different aspects of the game not applicable to you, but will help others improve their performance. Maybe someone is struggling with a particular game mechanic and you have to think of different approaches to handling it. Any of these will help that person become a better player at the game, builds trust and will elevate the group by doing so.

As a people leader, this isn’t just something you should do, but is truly a requirement of the role. You are responsible for people’s careers and something you should not take lightly. You can coach people based on what you’ve learned over the course of your career and help them achieve their potential. That could mean doing what you can to prepare them to become a manager themselves one day, become a better engineer or just keep them feeling challenged and content in their current role.

While the details of what you’re teaching may change, how work with your team and identify the opportunities are the same.

Feedback, Retrospectives and Empathy

Giving and receiving feedback is one of the most important (and sometimes hardest) things to do regardless of your position. There can be times when your group is attempting to defeat an encounter and there is a single person who just cannot grasp the mechanics and is causing the group to fail. You need to be able to provide that constructive feedback, find how if there is something you can do to help. They might not even realize that they’re making the mistake and it could also be something simple like using the wrong ability for their character and if you provide some simple input, they’ll get over the hump. Also remember this is a two-way street. If you’re continuing to struggle with an encounter and there’s nothing glaring to change, take a break and ask the group what they’re seeing and get feedback.

At work, the same applies. Make sure to give your team feedback as appropriate (both timely and constructive) and make sure they’re not surprised by anything later in the year. Even more importantly, listen to any advice your team gives you. Maybe projects have been lagging or sprints haven’t been as effective because you’ve just missed something. Never assume you always know best. By both listening and acting on feedback given to you, you will earn a higher level of trust, be it coming from your team, your peers, or your leadership.

Planning and Strategic Decision Making

I spent many hours reading about new encounters, mechanics and zones online when they came out to prepare both myself and the team for what we were going to face. This involved watching videos, reading message boards, and even drawing up diagrams (posted to our private message board!) on how the battle would work at a high level, even aligning our team members to specific roles within it. Knowing what the group’s strengths and weaknesses were helped me to pick/create the best strategy for success ahead of time. As discussed earlier, both culture and feedback are important, but sometimes you also need someone to make the hard calls. This means knowing when to take a break for the night or just not spend more time on a strategy that isn’t working.

In the paragraph above just replace “raid encounter” with “business strategy” or “incident management” and you’ll see how this relates to team management. Managing a team requires you to be ahead of things, have a vision for what you want to do and help enable the group to reach that vision. But to get there, you need to put thought into where you’re going and help bring that path to reality. This involves research, discussions, and negotiation. Be it learning about the business, the appropriate technology tool for a solution, or just positioning the team appropriately based on the current landscape.

Recruiting and Networking

So you’ve built a great group, there’s an awesome culture, everyone is really getting along well, and you’re successfully defeating all the monsters that stand in your path — mission accomplished, right? Wrong! You never know when someone in your group may need to leave, take a break (go on vacation!) or decide to join another group. Whatever the reason, you now find yourself short on people and need to get a replacement. My advice — don’t wait until this happens, you should always be recruiting from across the game to have some bench strength ready to go when needed. You can post in world chat, leverage online game forums, or leverage the players you meet in the game itself. As you make contact and gather interest see if they would be interested in joining your group, either now or in the future. Should the need arise, you now have a potential candidate pool to reach out to and reduce your search time.

As a leader of a team, you should always be networking and on the lookout for talent, even if you don’t have an open role and are not actively recruiting. You never know when you’ll need to fill a spot, need to staff a new team, or just help fill roles elsewhere in your organization. The above items are pretty much exactly the same, just replace the locations to local meetup groups, Slack channels, and LinkedIn. Your network will always be one of the best ways to find talent and you should always be looking to grow it. You never know when you’ll need to call on it to fill a spot or even find yourself something new. The more you get your name out there and available, the easier it will be to be successful.

Becoming a Better Leader

I may have not been an expert doing all of the above during my stint as a guild and raid leader, however it was a great learning experience and something to make me more familiar with those competencies at work. It also makes you appreciate that in both cases, the soft skills you use to work with other people are important to being able to accomplish your goals. You can’t just be a dictator barking out orders and expect compliance.

Hopefully you can see how many of the things you need to do to be a successful leader of your guild/raid group translates into the same skills needed to lead your team. Now, this doesn’t mean that you should put “Raid Leader” on your professional resume or that Activision-Blizzard is going to start their own MBA program any time soon (although that would be an interesting business model).

The main take away I would ask you to think about is (aside from learning the specific tactics and game knowledge) is not to discard your interactions with people as just playing a game. Almost any skill in learning how to deal with other real people, especially around organization, planning, and motivation should not be taken for granted in how you can apply that to managing people in your day job. And at the end of the day, things may not always go as planned, be flexible, adapt and just remember Leeroy Jenkins.

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Mark Shapiro

Written by

Director of Software Engineering

Professional Growth

A community of storytellers documenting the permanent journey to career and personal growth.

Mark Shapiro

Written by

Director of Software Engineering

Professional Growth

A community of storytellers documenting the permanent journey to career and personal growth.

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