Finding Clarity of Purpose as a Leader (Part 1 of 2)
As 2021 begins to take flight, I have been reflecting and processing everything that happened last year. There was no playbook for how to deal with the pandemic. No amount of planning in my role as Chief Operating Officer or my years in the workforce could have prepared for this.
However, it has reminded me to always focus on my “true north,” which is to create a more joyful and inclusive world by bringing people together to learn, laugh, and play. This has helped me navigate this unprecedented year as a leader. The concept of finding my “true north” comes from Bill George, who is a bit of a legend to me.
His book, Discover Your True North, is considered to be one of the best on leadership and is the key piece of content that drove a course I took a couple of years ago at Harvard Business School. As a lifelong learner, revisiting those teachings and putting them into practice during this unpredictable time was even more important.
I want to share a little bit about my background, how it shaped me as a leader and person, and how I hope everyone finds value in discovering their “true north” to lead to a more fulfilling life at work, home and everywhere in between.
Discovering learning is magic
As a big fan of fantasy fiction growing up (shout out to my fellow Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms aficionados out there), there was nothing I wanted more than to learn how to wield magic. I eventually discovered that the fantasy version of magic wasn’t real, but there was something even more magical in our reality: computers. In the mid-eighties, little was known about these magical contraptions that were able to transport us to new universes (like some of my old Sierra and Infocom favorites).
I started learning how to program when I was seven years old by developing a text-based, choose-your-own adventure style game (thanks to that little turtle and the Logo programming language). Reading books and experimenting with computers eventually led me to realize that many mysterious, complex things in life were unlocked through knowledge and understanding. This began a lifelong love for learning and technology, and as a result…school. It eventually led to choosing computer science as my major at the University of Kansas (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!).
Making games as a lifelong pursuit
I engaged in graduate studies part-time at Washington University, pairing classes with what I was working on at my day job, including database design, digital security, and software project management. I also took video game programming — the first time it was offered — as I had started building games on the side for fun.
After five years, my M.S. in computer science was finally complete, but my future in pursuing games didn’t take shape until seemingly random events set it in motion:
- a one-evening read of Masters of Doom (David Kushner’s inspiring story of the “Two Johns” from Id software), which demonstrated the power of pursuing your passion and made it impossible to further ignore the part of me that wanted to make games.
- a tech talk I co-presented at JavaOne that serendipitously led to a job offer for building the game platform behind two MMORPGs, including one based in the Star Trek universe (the setting for one of my favorite TV shows growing up)
This was an offer I couldn’t refuse and I soon found myself heading west to join the game industry in California.
Learning on the job
It’s been fifteen years since I finished my last course of graduate school. Since then, I’ve worked at six start-ups in multiple capacities, ranging from programming to team leadership to full-time management to executive technology leadership to operating a global company at scale. I initially didn’t have any aspirations for managing people; my early career goals focused around building products that helped make people’s lives better, all through the lens of actually writing the software. My first management role came out of necessity, to help support my team in a time where they weren’t getting the support they needed. I quickly found that helping my teammates, through unblocking their impediments, giving them challenging goals, and ensuring they had the support they need to succeed, was far more fulfilling and impactful than my own personal accomplishments. A related quote that really resonated with me was from our guest speaker at the 2016 annual Riot Games Technology Summit, Greg Brandeau, the former SVP of Technology at Pixar and CTO of The Walt Disney Studios:
“My job is to set the stage, not to perform on it..I hire a bunch of smart, diverse people and let them have at it. It’s not that the leader has the idea of what to do; the vision is an emergent property of the organization.”
Once my leadership journey began, I was set on a path that faced many of the difficult transitions managers encounter during their careers: from individual contributor to manager of individual contributors, manager of ICs to manager of managers, and eventually executive leadership of a function (Technology) to general management across functions and business units.
Over the course of my journey, I did not find many resources or “playbooks” to turn to for help in navigating these transitions and no one around me had already walked a similar path. Most of my training and growth resulted from real-world experience during Riot Games’ fast transition from a small start-up to a global company with thousands of employees. Given Riot’s rapid growth over the last several years, I invested most of my time into evolving our flagship game experience, League of Legends, and the company. There was little space for formal training along the way.
Seeking Out Authentic Leadership
Through my years at Riot, we’ve been fortunate to work with some pretty amazing professors from the Harvard Business School, including Frances Frei, Youngme Moon, and Boris Groysberg, who have all inspired me and reignited my passion for academia. As a result, in 2019 I decided to pursue a Certificate of Management Excellence at Harvard Business School, starting with one of the most meaningful learning experiences of my life: the Authentic Leadership Development course.
There were two things that stood out to me about this course in particular.
- Bridging my experiences with my passion for life-long learning:
In the fast-paced world of technology, leadership is generally a skill that is learned on the job. My experience was no different — I gained increasing responsibility across a number of tech and gaming companies as my career advanced. I discovered early on that I have a passion for rallying folks around a shared purpose and helping them unlock their full potential to achieve their goals. I’ve dove into management materials (like one of my past favorites, manager-tools.com) and observed successful leaders over the years, but have not actually spent focused time on the subject in a classroom setting to understand the context, the social science and data that would help me be a more effective leader.
- Addressing the root of my wobble:
As Frances Frei wonderfully illustrates in her 2018 TED talk on the trust triangle, authenticity, logic, and empathy are all essential for building trust, and trust is a critical component of leadership. Most people have at least one shakier, or “wobbly”, element of this triumvirate and, as I learned growing up, authenticity can be my wobble.
The challenge I’ve had with authenticity most likely stems from my childhood in the ’80s, growing up as a scrawny Jewish kid in the Midwest who loved computers and video games. Back in those days, most people saw computers and gaming as a waste of time and not something worthy of a life pursuit. During that period, I was regularly bullied, called “geek” and “nerd,” and had few friends. For most of my childhood, I felt like an outsider who didn’t belong.
During my later teenage years, I eventually learned to fit in with others through finding a passion for common interests (e.g. sports, music) and making people laugh (occasionally at my own expense). My desire to be “part of the group” turned me into a bit of a social chameleon; I became the person I thought others wanted me to be. When encountering a new group’s dynamic, I’d often conform to their norms and adapt to blend in.
Over the years, through a lot of introspection, life experience, and lessons around mindset and confidence that I learned through exercise and weight training, I’ve worked to overcome this need to be the social chameleon, and instead always strive to find the “true me” in all situations. I’ve taken steps as a leader to ensure everyone on a team feels included and safe to bring their ideas to the table; I don’t want anyone to ever feel the way I did growing up.
I’m constantly on this journey of self-improvement. Even as my role and scope have grown at Riot, I still have challenges with being my true self in public speaking settings. Some of my childhood fears of being judged harshly by others occasionally lead me to overthink and over prepare for presentations, which can then come off as too rehearsed and thus, less authentic.
The HBS Authentic Leadership Development course was an opportunity to both pursue my appetite for knowledge and improve as a leader. In my next post, I’ll share my experience of the weeklong course.