6 Techniques to Model Leadership Intentionally And Not Panic

Poker Face” by Vitamin String Quartet, based on the original by Lady Gaga 🎵

Nothing interesting happened in the industry last week.

Also, I found out people I like and care about actually read this. Oh no.

This blog post is 100% about leadership modeling and nothing else what so ever (and, as promised, at least one reference to flowers).

Modeling “Going First”

It took me a while to realize that sometimes others won’t always follow unless you go first and in the process may miss out on all the fun. They won’t know it’s safe – they want to see how others react to our choice, our mistakes, our successes, our ideas.

For example, if you saw me put on a human size inflatable ball and run into another person last week, also in a human sized ball, I kind of knew that if I didn’t, it’d be really hard to get others to do it. I evaluated “I’d rather get stuck in this 5 foot ball when I get taken out” against “I spent $400 on a joke and what if no one laughs or does it with me.” The 2nd seemed a lot worse.

It felt a lot safer doing that though than going first in a business decision that affects thousands of games – something I’ve had the pleasure (fear) of doing for 5 years. Going first takes courage. Going first at scale and changing what your business is known for takes fearlessness – that has to be part of your culture.

You may get it wrong.

Modeling “I was Wrong”

If going first screws up, it is important to very quickly model “I was wrong.” It’s important to model because if you can’t let go fast you can’t move on to the better ideas, the better process, the better tool faster than business moves.

“I was wrong” and “This didn’t work” are extremely important words to wield at the right time and it’s on your highest leaders to reward those so teams can move on quickly for good decision making.

For example, if a game doesn’t make a lot of money, you must sunset it and not hold on to it. It’s on the leaders of those games to model and feel safe saying “I was wrong” not “I need more” and know when is the right time to do so.

Modeling “I Don’t Know”

Both managers and individual contributors who model “I don’t know” want to encourage learning. They want to fail fast often and let go. They also want to make sure they have good visibility. Leaders model “I don’t know” when they want to encourage extreme ownership, accountability, and autonomy in others.

An ownership culture has three ingredients. Its leaders (1) model “I don’t know” at the top so others are encouraged to get the answers and (2) delegation by asking people to go get the answers and (3) doing that delegation in front of their peers so teams don’t create a culture of silos. It lets them know their answers are valuable because you have the problem (you don’t know), not just we and here is the opportunity I want you to own because I don’t know.

To develop accuracy teams need practice – The only way to make that safe is to reward modeling “I don’t know.” It’s a good place to level set as well if people are quite angry, take a step back, stop trying to answer all the questions and focus on building the tools to actively listen (for example, Mattel building an advisory board with representatives of their customers).

Modeling “Focus and Stability”

I once saw an executive leader, not at Zynga, write down all his visions on a piece of paper, hop on a 50 person call in another division, distribute that paper down to everyone on that call by airdropping it into a bridge. That collection of visions had not been informed by really anyone as far as we could tell. Everyone in the audience left that call confused, no idea how to execute it, and unsupported. Nothing happened. He was unsuccessful. The entire division ignored his vision for the next 6 months.

Modeling focus isn’t writing down what you want to see and then giving it to other people. Modeling focus is collecting, based on an overall mission, the needs and ideas from other people over time, and then aligning those contributions. This may take 6 months but can also take 3 years depending on the mission and the change you need to make.

That’s why if you predict that there is a real problem in your industry or in a market, you needed to start working on it years before the trend culminates into an actual problem by first acknowledging there might be one as demonstrated from a pattern of behavior.

Modeling “Diversification”

If you work for a company, make sure you choose to work for people who know how to model diversification and who can think long term on where to plant seeds in a field of opportunity and – even better – companion plant in a portfolio.

As a hypothetical example, I may be a Director of Engineering for Kubernetes (as others have pointed out to be a very specific role no one else has but has great boundaries and scope), but even I’m okay with a couple of people using abstracted managed services like Fargate. I want to know what happens. I want to find out >>> Because I don’t know what happens when you do.

However, if you have 10 tools for the same thing, that’s fragmentation and have maybe gone too far and need to think about companion planting a little bit better. Diversification keeps companies safe because it means they can’t get tool, idea, or market locked as easily – and at any moment, instantly have exceptional, tenured leaders they can level up to pivot the rest of the company by having led and organized around that leadership principle.

Modeling “Uncomfortable Silence”

Uncomfortable silence is when you choose not to say anything at all.
It can also be through action or inaction.

Maybe because you’ve said it before, you’ve made those choices before, and the results speak for themselves.

In Conclusion

If you asked me what good leadership looked like at any company, I would look for the above before joining it. Through this you would know if their managers and individual contributors model leadership intentionally.

I feel that both in my team, but also in our executive leadership – we have exceptional leaders and want everyone to have those skills – we care a ton about getting better and it was easy to see from the outside before I joined all of the above to be true. This is, of course, a personal opinion, but I do love my job and my team both locally and broadly. While this blog is personal, I am confident in the choice I made now a year ago to join Zynga.

We won’t always know what the results will be,
But we definitely know how to lead – that makes all the difference. 🙂

Header Image by Michal Vrba from Unsplash.