Take Care

Two weeks ago, I was in Paris for meetings and the kick-off of the League of Legends World Championships. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip in a beautiful city, but on my last night there recognized that I was picking up a cold. My eleven-hour flight the next day was one of the most arduous I’ve taken, and by the time I crawled into bed I had developed a 102-degree fever. I spent the next day in bed.

Yet a day later I was on a plane again, and throwing myself into work. I then flew back home, and on the flight back my ears hurt. A lot. By the time I’d landed, I couldn’t hear out of my right ear at all. That night, half-deaf, I went to an event at my son’s school. Thankfully I’d regained my hearing when I woke up the next morning, so I proceeded to have a  normal day of work, and then a weekend of early-morning soccer games (a warning to any parent whose kids play competitive soccer… your weekends are not your own).

Nearly two weeks since I first noticed my stuffy nose, I’m still dragging myself around. I’ve got a hacking cough and at various times throughout the day want to curl under the table and fall asleep. I’m drinking a lot of water, using a neti pot, and having a lot of Vitamin C. But for the most part I’m pushing myself just as hard as before my trip to Paris.

In this way, I am absolutely a “do as I say, not as I do” leader. If anyone on my team was showing signs of being sick, I would send her home and not expect her to participate in meetings even via phone. I would tell her that it’s better to lose a couple of days of productivity and fully recover than to prolong whatever nasty bug she’s got and work at 60% for several weeks. I would also remind her that being in the office means exposing everyone else to her nasty cooties, so all the more reason to stay away and recoup.

What’s frustrating about this is that I don’t actually admire leaders like me. When I see someone pushing themselves to exhaustion or through an illness, I think ungenerous thoughts. I think the person doesn’t have his priorities straight and should set a better example. I mentally wag my finger.

And, dangit, I know better. I’ve taken a sleep seminar by Dr. James Maas. I’ve done week-long energy management workshops by both The Energy Project and The Human Performance Institute. I’ve read two full books on nutrition. I am a firm believer that we can’t manufacture more time into our days, but we can absolutely get more energy out of the time we get. And, of course, the primary source of energy is our physical body–taking care of it is an important and first step towards thriving as a human. I so firmly believe these things, in fact, that I think they’re necessary elements of any good leadership development course.

Despite all of this knowledge, my habits and routines are… average. I sleep okay, but probably short myself 1-2 hours per night compared to what I need. I eat okay, but certainly not in the ways I know are best. I exercise sporadically. And when I’m sick, I clearly do exactly as I would advise others not to do, jumping back into my frenetic schedule as soon as I’m able instead of as soon as I’m healthy.

While I’m fine being average at many things, I ask myself, why would I choose to be average at taking care of myself? Seems like, oh I don’t know… maybe I should have my priorities straight and should set a better example.

There’s a certain arrogance to my current approach, as much as I hate to admit it. Maybe I think that I don’t need to be as diligent about health because I’m tougher, or more capable. Or maybe I think that I’m too important to miss time, that the world can’t function without me, even for that extra hour of sleep or exercise. These statements are all silly when I write them down, but then not stopping to recover and not doing what I know to do when taking care of myself is sort of silly too.

I know these things are hard. Getting enough sleep is tough. Eating healthy–especially in the United States, where fatty foods and sugar are everywhere–is tough. Exercising regularly is tough. And, when sick, staying in bed instead of tackling the growing pile of “to do”s is tough too. The more responsibilities you add into your life–from bigger jobs, to spouse and children, to volunteer activities–the harder these things get. It’s so easy for the urgent to crowd out the important.

Would anyone argue that health isn’t important, though? Don’t we all agree that the best way to thrive, and to be capable of tackling big responsibilities year after year, is on a foundation of a healthy body? Easy to say, hard to do.

I would love to say that I’ve learned my lesson. Almost having my eardrum burst on a plane was my body rattling its sabre at my brain. But, as I say, these things are hard. I’m working on it, trying to remind myself of what’s important and trying to build increasingly healthy habits. It’s a lifelong journey for me, and something that will clearly require a lot more attention from me. Writing today’s blog is pretty much just a reminder to myself.

So, do as I say, not as I do. Build a foundation in your life to thrive.

Take care of yourself.

-jms

A Lack of HR Talent, postscript

Well, that was interesting.

Four weeks ago, I published my last blog post, expressing just a weeeee bit of frustration over what I’ve perceived as a shallow HR talent pool. I also posited a couple of theories as to what might be contributing to this lack of talented Talent folks. At the time, I knew it was a bit edgier post than my usual stuff.

But I didn’t anticipate quite the reaction I received. More people read that post than when Riot hit #13 on Fortune’s “Best Place to Work” list, for goodness’ sake, and the essay-length comments from all sides of the debate raged for two weeks. Clearly, I hit a nerve.

Then, unfortunately, I also hit a buzzsaw month of work. See, I only set aside ninety minutes each week for my blog–an hour to write and thirty minutes to edit and publish it. If something else eats into my ninety minutes, I lose my window and the blog has to wait another week. Apologies that my postscript comes so long after the original brouhaha.

I’m not even going to try and summarize the many comments nor react to them. Suffice it to say, I thought the debate my post sparked was excellent and I enjoyed the diverse perspectives from HR leaders, academics, consultants, other professionals, and students. If you took the time to weigh in over the past month, thank you. In a lot of ways, the comments paint a far richer picture of what’s going on in HR than my original post.

On only one point did I feel misunderstood. I want to make it clear that I said we are experiencing a shallow pool of HR talent. Somehow some people thought I meant that no talented HR people exist. I’ve worked in excellent functions and had truly outstanding colleagues throughout my career. In my experience, however, finding good HR people is simply tougher than finding good other-kinds-of-people (and finding those who are also gamers is even more difficult!). And I maintain that I don’t think it’s a sourcing or recruiting issue, but rather an insufficient pipeline of talent that is and will continue to lead to a lack of quality HR leaders.

Enough of rehashing my argument, though. What’s really cool is that my postscript to that little rant is a hopeful one. Here are three excellent–and surprising–outcomes from my last blog entry…

First, since the post I’ve received almost two dozen impassioned cover letters of people wanting to work at Riot Games on the Talent team, people who take their craft seriously and who want to be part of building a better future. I admit I’d hoped to create a bit of a recruiting beacon through my post, but it worked a lot better than I had anticipated. We’ve found some interesting individuals from this bunch and may end up getting a hire or two out of my mischievous pot-stirring. Cool. For someone still building out the function, this is a terrific outcome.

Second, many many previous colleagues have reached out to me to reconnect. This was a consequence I hadn’t expected, and it’s been wonderful. A ton of those aforementioned outstanding colleagues apparently share my frustration, and we’ve found an excuse to swap stories. I have almost a year’s worth of coffee, phonecalls, and lunches waiting for me now (and apologies to everyone who wrote and is still waiting for a response… see the earlier point regarding my buzzsaw month. I’ll respond! um…eventually). Because of Riot’s growth and pace, I’d become pretty insular this past year. It’s terrific to feel more interconnected with old friends.

Finally, my post sparked a lot of conversation within my existing Talent team. Maybe I’m naive, but this conversation has both surprised and delighted me. Members of my team are thoughtfully considering how to deepen their craft expertise and how to take a more analytic lens to our work. I’ve been absolutely thrilled that a couple of them are volunteering to put some thought into what building an “HR academy” at Riot might entail. Apparently I can not only complain about problems, but also be part of the solution.

Huh.

So basically, I’m pleased as punch (yes, eventually I get curious about the etymology of a phrase) with the anthill my critical post seems to have kicked over. I’m sure that this is a topic to which I’ll return periodically when I have something new to say.

For now, expect me to continue to meander through topics related to HR, the games industry, Riot’s weird-and-wonderful culture, and my own journey into League of Legends, with no discernable pattern whatsoever. In turn, please keep the thoughtful comments and discussion coming.

Have a great week!

-jms

A Lack of HR Talent

I spent yesterday in Chicago with John Boudreau, Ian Ziskin, and fifty other Human Resources leaders discussing “The Future of HR.” We covered a lot of ground under this broad umbrella of topics, but the one I found myself most animated about is the state of HR talent.

Get ready… I’m going to be pretty harsh about my colleagues. But let’s be honest, if you start a sentence with “Most HR people…” I can almost guarantee that you end that sentence disparagingly (it happened at least half a dozen times in the room yesterday, in fact). Human Resources is not a field that top MBAs choose to pursue. CHROs do not become CEOs. Every few months we get articles in Harvard Business Review or the Wall Street Journal about the need to blow up HR. John told a true story yesterday about two top CHROs (Chief Human Resource Officers) at major companies whose kids were getting ready to graduate college. When asked what field they would encourage their kids to enter in order to change the world, neither could in good conscience recommend HR.

Instead, Human Resources has become the Island of Misfit Toys, the place where you go when your other profession stalls or you have nowhere else to turn. Too often, I hear people want to enter this field because they “like people,” which is a necessary but woefully insufficient reason for building a career.

This topic is acutely painful to me because I’m currently trying to build a world-class HR team at Riot. I spend two to four hours a day interviewing potential HR people. I’m meeting folks just out of school, seasoned professionals, and everything in between. And my conclusion after a full year of constant interviewing is that the talent pool in HR is just not very deep. Neither is the depth of craftsmanship we are bringing to our roles. The metaphor I’ve adopted is that I find myself kissing a lot of frogs in my pursuit for Prince Charming.

It’s depressing.

What happened here? I have two theories, both of which crystallized a bit yesterday.  My first theory is that, a few decades ago, we had the luxury of several “HR academies.” Companies like IBM, General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, Pepsi, and others hired and trained their HR people rigorously. They took talent seriously, both in their company values but also the expectations of their HR functions. Many of the HR talent who came through these academies represent a who’s who of CHROs of the past decade, and most are now either retiring or are retired. The problem in backfilling them is that the academies no longer exist. Google is about the only place you can reliably point to and say that “good HR” is happening, and one reliable company is not enough. If you dump a hundred resumes on the table, each person with around ten years of work experience, I honestly couldn’t tell you which is likely to be the best HR professional just from scanning his or her experience. That didn’t used to be the case. Our HR academies have toppled.

To add insult to injury, I don’t see any HR academies in “the Academy” either. Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations school used to be the primary place to get a rock-solid degree for HR, and I could point to a handful of other institutions behind them. It’s not as true anymore, and there aren’t schools filling the void.

I don’t think many high school seniors target Human Resources as an awesome profession. But even if they did, no one could tell them what to do about it. We don’t have universities taking the cultivation of HR talent seriously, nor do we have companies who are committed to training top notch HR masters. There is no “HR talent machine” anymore, and there used to be.

My second theory is that if you go back sixty or seventy years, HR (then “Personnel”) and Marketing were very similar disciplines. Both were the soft, fuzzy functions you invested in as a CEO because you believed in them but not because you saw a clear return on your investment. Fast forward to today and somehow Marketing has legitimized itself. Top MBAs do, in fact, want to pursue Marketing, and CMOs do become CEOs. Meanwhile, HR is still the soft, fuzzy function you invest in because you believe in it but not because you see a clear ROI.

My belief is that what changed between HR and Marketing is that Marketing got religion around analytics. There is an art to Marketing, but now there is a science too. Decisions are hugely data informed in Marketing in addition to the taste and judgment you need. HR is still mostly an art (because, hey… we like people!), and HR professionals don’t have analytics as part of their fundamental toolkit. I’m seeing a lot of venture capital and private equity-backed “big data” start-ups entering the HR space, because HR sits on a metric ton of data they never seek to properly understand.

By not adopting more scientific rigor, Human Resources has lost a sense of craft. Do you know when those HR academies were thriving? When they were partnering with top professors and universities to do applied research. Today, we’ve lost our link to rigor. We dip into economics, anthropology, finance, and, yes, marketing for models and theories to help prop up what is a lack of real foundation in our profession. So my second theory is that there is a technical craft that we managed to lose or—more likely—never fully develop. Without a craft, we’re just benign people-people.

Right now we’re caught in a vicious cycle—a lack of talent isn’t bringing legitimacy to the function, and that lack of legitimacy is scaring away talented people.

Whether my theories are strictly true or not, my strong sense is that we don’t have a talent pipeline carrying amazing people from school through their careers and on their way to be awesome heads of HR. Meetings like the one yesterday are helping to shine a light on this problem, and I can feel the energy to fix it brewing. That’s the good news.

In the meantime, I’m realizing that I may need to be fishing in some pretty nontraditional waters to make a world-class Talent (what Riot calls HR) team, because I’m tired of kissing frogs.  That’s the bad news.

Sad mummy.

-jms

A Wife-Saving Game

[Special Thursday edition!]

Last week my kids were finishing up two weeks of sleepaway camp, giving my wife Sarah and I unprecedented freedom to be spontaneous with our time. On Thursday, she floated the idea of dropping by Riot in the late afternoon to play some League of Legends with my co-workers. As I’ve said several times, Rioters don’t need an excuse to play League, so after a quick office poll we arranged a time and got a group together for her visit.

Sarah’s one request: She wanted to play with players of her same level. See, my wife has recently been crushed when playing with me and the kids. The rest of us are all level 30 (the highest level you can reach in League, and the entry point to Ranked play) and log a lot more hours on the game than her, so when playing with us she gets matched up against people of our skill level. As a result, the game just isn’t as fun, which makes her want to play less, and thus the divide between us widens.

On Thursday, we all gathered in our “PC bang,” a huge PC cafe on our campus modeled after the ones found all over Korea. We’d found enough people for three full teams–four players for me and a full nine other players between levels 10 and 25. We even found two awesome folks, Sung Ho and Brandon, to coach the two teams of “noobs.”

I jumped into a game with Tristan, Elisa, Paul, and Alex — all Silver or Gold ranked players, making me clearly the worst player in the bunch. I played Fizz mid, though it had been quite awhile since I’d loaded up a game with my main Champion. We fell behind in the game, and at one point I was 3-9 (three take-downs of opposing Champions versus nine deaths), but we swung the game in our favor later and I ended 12-10. I was a fun game, and we all fist-bumped and high-fived afterwards.

“What the–?” one of my teammates said, as we all turned around.

The other teams were literally roaring. Five voices raised as one were chanting “Go! Go! Go!” while six other voices were screaming “No! Noooo!” and then all at once ten players and two coaches erupted as one into a hysterical explosion of noise.

At the center of the cacophanous maelstrom — My wife Sarah. The other players hugged and high-fived her. She was red-faced, panting, and smiling from ear to ear.

So what happened? Apparently it was a back-and-forth game. As Sarah’s team made a push to win (which means destroying the other team’s base, called a Nexus), a big team fight broke out. Sarah was the only survivor–nine other players littering the floor–and so she turned and started thwacking the enemy Nexus with her big sword as Garen. She singlehandedly won the game.

There were a lot of notable things about the game Sarah played that day. First and most obviously, she had a chance to play with and against people of her same skill level. I’m not sure she’d ever experienced parity before, and it was FUN. Apparently feeling a little competent is a key ingredient to a game’s allure.

Second, it was the only game anyone in the room could remember pitting two all-female teams against each other. League’s player base is overwhelmingly male, so it was refreshing and unique to see ten women competing. In fact, one of the coaches snapped a photo before the game started (Sarah’s the one with the visitor badge):

IMG_0546

League of Legends is a social game, and playing in a PC bang is a particularly social experience. The women exchanged summoner names and are now friends in game. They’re talking about getting together regularly to play and level up together. It was a powerful bonding moment for Sarah, and I think the other women too. Why does League have such a vibrant global community, the reasons were on full display.

Finally, it was a reminder to me of why this game is so friggin’ fun. If I had closed my eyes and listened to the noise, it was like a dramatic championship final in any sport–like an extra time goal in soccer, a hail mary pass in American football, or a last-second three pointer in basketball. All twelve participants were totally into the game and invested in the outcome, and all were beaming afterwards. Yet unlike most sports, that same sort of dramatic energy doesn’t exist in pick-up games of soccer, football, or basketball. Last Thursday captured the energy of a championship in a meaningless afternoon videogame. Awesome.

Sarah has been talking about that game throughout the past week. Her interest in League is waxing again, and she may have even made a new friend or two.

Life is good.

-jms

My 2015 Performance Review

As I mentioned in a previous post, in June Riot Games kicked off a very different performance review process compared to most companies. Our goal is self awareness and development, with no ratings, 360 feedback from peers and direct reports, and full transparency (meaning, you know who said what about your performance). It’s our annual time of year to go deep on the impact you’re having at Riot, looking for themes and exploring what development you need to be even better. The whole process this year has been branded with a tagline: “Better Feedback. Better You. Better Riot.”

When I wrote that earlier post, it occurred to me that if the goal is self awareness with a focus on transparency, I should post my performance review here once I received it. Don’t worry: I’m not going to cut-and-paste the whole nineteen-page document. Instead, I’m going to highlight themes and say what I’m taking from this year’s review.

Two caveats here: First, my review this year was pretty positive. I would have posted it even if it wasn’t, but I get the sense that Riot and I are still very much in our honeymoon phase. Second–and related–I pretty much hate talking about my strengths and results. I don’t mind talking about my experiences (obviously, he says, pointing to the blog), but dissecting what I’ve done and what I bring to my role feels icky and way too self-important. As a result, this post more than any other feels a little torturous to write. Let’s all acknowledge that I’m uncomfortable, shall we?

Without further adieu…

Culture

Well, good news here. Our two co-founders, my peers, and my direct reports all give me high marks in terms of being aligned to Riot’s culture and values. Whew. People seem particularly happy with my gamer empathy (meaning, I am a total gaming nerd), integrity, communication skills, my positive attitude, my curiosity and orientation towards growth, and humility. People see me as a harmonizer, someone who is actively trying to get rid of toxicity and focus on team health. They give me credit for being a good listener. To be honest, I feel very at ease and at home at Riot, and it’s nice to see that reflected back at me.

That said, I’m stretched way too thin and so a general theme is that people don’t see me as much as they’d like (it’s not much use being a good communicator if I never get the message out). I’m a good listener, but sometimes listen too much and need to be more ruthless with my priorities and time. So yes, the message here is that I both need to spend more and less time with people. I take this as a sign that in general I’m not using my time well, so need to think about my weekly priorities and calendar.

Also, I’m direct and not conflict averse, but I do wait quite awhile to give people tough feedback, because when I sense something wrong my instinct is to go gather more information instead of send a flare up. As a result, people can flounder unnecessarily long on my watch. In a heavy feedback culture like Riot’s, I probably need to put my thoughts on broadcast more often.

All in all, though, thumbs up.

Craft

More good news: people at Riot see me as a deep “HR craftsman.” They describe me as “T-shaped,” meaning that my expertise is both broad and deep. In general, it seems that people are comfortable that I know what good likes like in Talent and keep a high bar on quality. On the specific attributes we’ve identified as important to being in Talent–things like approachability, interpersonal savvy, and business acumen–I get high marks. I’m a good people manager, and that too is a craft where I can (and do) apprentice others.

As one reviewer said after extolling my craft expertise: “Huzzah!”

Results

And then there’s results, the bottom line impact.

On one hand, I’ve spent my time onboarding, learning Riot and the games industry, and building relationships across the company, which are all start-up costs in a new company. I’ve made several changes to the Talent team–some offboarding, some restructuring, and some hiring–and all of these changes have been seen as positive. We’ve shipped some sweet products (including performance reviews!) that are largely seen as wins across Riot. Pretty much everyone sees the trajectory for Talent as a good one, with us building momentum and credibility month in and month out.

That said, here is what I said in my self review:

Sadly, I think at best I met expectations for my first nine months here. Partly this is because the expectations for me coming into Riot were high, so it was going to be difficult to exceed them.

That said, I’m pretty critical of my impact so far. I’ve been spread too thin, and often focused on the urgent rather than important. I think in a month I will have filled three of my six open direct report roles, but that’s taken nine months to accomplish. Without those roles filled, I’ve been playing sub-discipline leader and product lead across Talent constantly, and moving a lot of work slowly forward. Several projects are in the same place as when I arrived. The one complaint I know is constant about me so far at Riot: No one feels they get enough time with me.

The Talent team is in a better place than when I got here, but not dramatically so. The products have been good, not great (and several sub-par). There is a good foundation there, but I hope this next year will be significantly more impressive than this first one.

That may sound harsh, but I also see it reflected in the comments from those around me. People see me as an awesome culture fit, as a T-shaped craftsman, and are truly happy that I’m here at Riot. But do they think the needle has moved in significant ways at Riot around Talent? Has there been a sea change? Have we done anything that has blown Rioters’ minds?

Nope. Not yet.

My confidence is high that the next nine months will deliver a heck of a lot more results than the first nine months. But from a purely scoreboard kind of way, I still have a lot of room to improve.

That’s what I took from my first performance review at Riot. Again, I’m posting it here for transparency (many of the people who read my blog are Rioters), and also because writing all of this down continues the depth of my reflection on the themes so far. As advertised, this process has been ripe for self awareness and learning, and an important moment in time to pause and look around. Also as advertised… sheesh, uncomfortable.

Here’s hoping your own annual performance review has brought similar insights, and that you’re sharing those insights with others!

Taking Play Seriously

Pretty soon we’ll be having our Riot Games summer picnic, called the Summer Olym-picnic because it involves all sorts of fun-but-competitive games along with the normal picnic fare. In the afternoon, I’ll be one of several senior leaders sitting in a dunk tank as Rioters take aim to try and send me underwater. Rumor has it that there will be ATVs. The whole experience should be a hoot.

Meanwhile, I had an interesting e-mail interchange with a candidate for a senior Talent role. Before we proceeded to a day of interviews, he wrote, he wanted to make sure we were aligned on two very important points: First, his potential for wealth creation at Riot. Second, doing amazing work (in this section, he outlined a role significantly larger than the large one we had been discussing in person).

I don’t usually mind people talking about compensation early in a hiring process, and obviously we want everyone to want to do amazing work at Riot and have a huge impact. But this guy’s e-mail made me reflect on the two in-person conversations I’d had with him, and I suddenly realized why it felt like we were grinding gears in our interchange.

He wasn’t fun. Passionate, yes. Ambitious, surely. And absolutely creative and talented. But he didn’t feel like a Rioter in a very important way: I don’t think that “fun” was at all a part of why he worked.

Cheesy as it is, we try very hard to live our Riot Manifesto. Part of that Manifesto reads:

Take Play Seriously

  • It’s never just a game.
  • We play lots of games and proudly call ourselves gamers. Even at work, we make time for daily play and fun.
  • We’re professionals, but don’t take ourselves too seriously.

I’ve talked previously about why we hire gamers and when and why we might bend that rule. Part of the reason we’re gamers is because we’re a player-focused company and the best way to have empathy with our players is to be players ourselves. Another–rather large–part of the reason is because we actively and regularly play as part of our work.

The Summer Olym-picnic is a big expression of our orientation towards play and fun. I fully expect to see Rioters and their significant others running three-legged races, spiking volleyballs, swimming, and throwing horseshoes. The day will be full of silliness and laughter, including a line of people trying to dunk me (and lo, I will be taunting them while they try!).

But the picnic is in no way our only moment to play with co-workers. All throughout each day, Rioters in Los Angeles play pick-up games of basketball, match wits with the various game stations around campus (chess, Connect4, and Jenga, to name a few), and spend time in our arcade (with lots of classic games, plus air hockey, billiards, and console games). And then of course there are PC games–countless League of Legends battles every day, plus Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and any other game we’re individually or collectively playing these days. Once a week I meet up with Rioters to play Magic: the Gathering. We routinely have Talent team board game nights. Honestly, I don’t think I could properly catalog the constant and varied ways that Rioters express their playful selves every day.

To say we take time out of work to play is framing it the wrong way. “Play vs. Work” is a false dichotomy, at least for us. Play is integrated into our working lives.

We’re a game company, so maybe our focus on play is obvious. There are good reasons why play is important for adults for all companies, though. More and more research suggests that healthy play leads to healthy adulthood. As Psychology Today recently noted, “play is a banquet for the brain, a smorgasbord for the senses, providing nourishment for body and spirit: sad then that as a society we seem to be starving ourselves of it.” The idea that we age out of play, that we at some point calcify into creatures focused on earning money and pulling hard on the oars, is simply wrong. Also, the idea that we clock out of work to go play by ourselves or friends equally strikes me as silly because it’s trapped in that false dichotomy.

Which is why, I realized, I’m looking so closely at candidate’s facial expressions and body language when we bring them onto our campus. Play is oozing out of our organizational pores. For some people, there is a wide-eyed, is-this-really-happening? sort of look people get that tells me Riot might be a haven for them, a place where they can thrive. Equally, some people look past our silliness or, worse, appear disconcerted by it. For these people, I spend extra time understanding why they want to join Riot.

There’s obviously a balance to all of this play, because each of us has deliverables and deadlines we need to meet for our players. Making time for play does, for example, mean I can’t answer e-mails as quickly all of the time. We expect people to be weaving play into their days in a way that is enhancing, not distracting. Staying hungry, too, is part of the Riot Manifesto. We all have stuff we need to get done, and done with both urgency and quality.

But my experience at Riot has convinced me that making time to play throughout each day leads to better work, not worse. It’s part of what gives me deep wells of energy each week, and a big reason why I feel more connected to Rioters than I’ve felt to other collegial work teams. Play hasn’t just been good for me, but I fundamentally believe it’s good for Riot and part of our secret sauce.

Now, please excuse me while I go grab my swim trunks and goggles…

-jms

Starting Ranked

It’s quite a week for my inner (and increasingly outer) nerd. I spent some time Monday playtesting new stuff at Riot. This morning I head off to two days at San Diego Comic Con with members of Riot’s leadership team. About a dozen folks from the Talent team and me are attending the LCS on Saturday at Riot’s new Battle Arena. And then on Sunday I cap it off with the Magic Origins pre-release. I’ve outlined my week to a handful of people–crazy smile plastered across my face–and so far every single person responds with “You’re living the dream!” I don’t think I can reasonably expect many weeks like this one, but the fact that I even get one is pretty special.

And last night, around 9pm, I decided to play my first Ranked game of League of Legends.

Now, I’ve previously talked about my anxiety and confusion about when to wade into Ranked play (that article also outlines what Ranked play is and how it works). It’s apparently highly stressful, filled with toxic players and long hours of climbing League’s tiers on a seemingly endless hamster wheel. And yet the more I’ve played, the more I’ve wanted to know where I fit into those tiers. How good (or bad) am I in the universe of North American League players?

As I sat in queue for my first Ranked game, my mouse hovered over the “Exit” button. I almost chickened out at thirty seconds in the queue, and then again at forty. At forty-five seconds, the game had started and the proverbial die had been cast.

I don’t know if I’ve ever done a Draft in League of Legends, but I’ve seen it enough time to know how it works. I was third in the pick order for my team, which saved me the a lot of worry about who to ban and also being on the bottom pick order where I was stuck with whatever role wasn’t selected.

Thankfully, the roles sorted themselves with minimal haggling. I still usually play Fizz mid or top, but those were the first two spots called. I explained that I could do anything but jungle, so ended up with support. Oddly enough, I’ve been playing a ton of Taric support — he’s the second Champion after Fizz that naturally made sense to me, and accounted for my first five S+ ratings in the Champion Mastery system. It’s fair to say that Taric is my second-best Champ (in fact, the image above is my current desktop wallpaper). So, okay, not a bad way to start.

As the load screen for the game started, I noticed that most of my teammates were ranked Silver. Um… what?! Hoo boy.

For the first fifteen minutes of the game, both teams fought to a stalemate. My Ezrael lane-mate was super aggro, dying and killing with abandon while I frantically tried to help. I accidentally stole a kill (which I find happens sometimes with Taric’s Shatter ability if I mistakenly follow it with a basic attack), but otherwise was neither the reason we were winning nor losing our lane. Their jungler, Xin Zhao, started camping out in bottom lane, which I guess is as flattering as it was annoying.

As the lane phase broke down and we started to group up, the game swung in our favor. By eighteen minutes we had a 2k gold advantage, and after that the towers started to fall on their side. By thirty minutes we had a 12k gold advantage, had a sizeable lead on take-downs, and we destroyed the enemy Nexus at almost exactly the thirty-eight minute mark.  I ended the game with an “A-” from the system, scoring 2/7/18 (two take-downs, seven deaths, eighteen assists). Not awesome, but certainly not my worst support game ever. My best personal moment was destroying an enemy Inhibitor while four of their team beat on me. I last-hit the Inhibitor with my dying breath.

And here’s the thing: My team barely spoke in chat, and when they did it was basic information sharing or encouraging “nj!” (translation: “nice job!”). Ezrael didn’t yell at me when I stole his kill. Neither team trash-talked throughout the game. It wasn’t a cheerleading, gungho positive team experience. It was… innocuous.

I had a few witnesses to my game–members of the Talent team who were working late and lingered when they heard I was playing my first game of Ranked. Afterwards they congratulated me and smiled weary, endearing smiles.

“That was fun!” I said.

“Ah, you’re in the fun stage,” they responded. I had the feeling that if they felt comfortable patting me on the head, they would have done so.

“People were nice!” I said proudly.

“Yeah. Just wait…”

“But–”

“The highs in Ranked are high. Enjoy it. You did great and won. You’ll rage-quit sometime soon, though, and swear off League for a week at some point. Just wait…”

So I went to bed last night a little giddy and a little uneasy. If Ranked is really that bad, why do people do it? Are those tired, shake-your-head smiles of my teammates inevitable? Am I going to pat some padawan on the head some day? Can’t I just have fun? Maybe I’m older than and wiser, and have better perspective despite my slower reflexes. Maybe I can keep this all just a game.

Whatever happens, I’m definitely in a honeymoon phase right now. With Riot. With League of Legends. With my inner gamer-nerd who is finally being let out to play. Maybe my coworkers are right and those hardened, grizzled days are ahead of me. This is all part of the process, they tell me.

Maybe. We’ll see. I don’t see any harm keeping hopeful optimism alive.

-jms

Two Wonderful Wednesdays

You’ll notice that I’ve missed a few posts recently. My weeks are generally jam-packed, so I literally only set aside ninety minutes on Wednesday mornings to write and post these entries. The weeks I don’t post anything are simply days when something else eats up that timeslot.

My previous Wednesdays which interrupted this blog were actually pretty noteworthy. First, I recently spent the entire day with Riot’s CFO and General Counsel talking to folks at Google in their Mountain View headquarters. The three of us have also spent time visiting Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter (right before they changed CEOs… yikes!). In all four visits, we met with long-tenured leaders from the company’s HR, Finance, and Legal functions and toured their headquarters, talking in-depth and scribbling in notepads.

Why on Earth would the three of us be touring tech companies in Silicon Valley? Simply put, all four companies have experienced incredibly high growth in the recent past. We thought that we could learn a lot about the choices they made when scaling and growing exponentially. How did they keep their cultures alive as they grew and hired at such a fast clip? When did they start seeing the need for more “traditional” processes (at Riot, we don’t have budgets, or headcount approvals, or, well… lots of things that are normal faire at other companies)? What are decisions they made when scaling that they wish they could take back? What are decisions they made that paid unexpected dividends? What advice would they give a pre-IPO, high-growth start-up? These trips constitute a learning journey for Riot Games, because we understand that the daily dilemmas we face as we grow are, for the most part, anything but novel.

At some point in the near future I’ll probably take space here to outline what we’re discovering. The similarities in the four stories are fascinating, despite four very different companies (for what it’s worth, we share the most cultural DNA with Facebook and Google, so those stories were particularly powerful). Each of us took away tons of lessons for our individual areas (the Talent learnings… they are many!) and we’re collectively seeing themes that will help us grow. Before I share anything here, though, we’re gearing up to visit one or two more companies, and then summarize it all for our two co-founders Brandon and Marc.

My reason for mentioning the visits today is my continued amazement that we’re even having these trips. All three of us are in critical, key roles at Riot. Our calendars are jungles, full of urgent, hair-on-fire problems present at any company—particularly one in our maturity stage. Yet the three of us cleared our schedules to take days out of the office for these trips so that we can learn and prepare for the future. We literally bombarded our hosts with questions, so much so that one company quipped that we were like excited siblings.

On the plane back to LA, I reflected on the very act of these trips. Pretty cool. I continue to be impressed at Riot’s innate humility and desire to learn, and it’s those two attributes that make me most optimistic about our future.

And then, one week ago today, I spent the day at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, a huge videogame annual trade fair. Even though I’m a lifelong gamer, I am new to this industry so have never experienced conventions or conferences dedicated to games. This, too, was a learning journey.

Being at E3 was like spending the day in a big, loud, gaming playground. Movie screen-sized monitors filled the convention center, each showing trailers to new videogames. Each booth competed for the crowds’ attention through promotions, often involving cosplay, animatronic robots, or parade-like displays. For example, for the new Walking Dead game, there were creepily-realistic zombies shuffling at random through the crowd the entire day, which was especially funny at they shambled by the Disney Infinity or Skylanders booth. Speaking of Disney, there were also Disneyland-like lines. People waited for hours to play fifteen minutes of an unreleased game. I think the Star Wars: Battlefront line crept up to three hours at one point.

I left my day at E3 with a headache from sensory overload, footsore because of constant walking, and entirely giddy. I’m a pretty niche gamer; I’ve never played console games (with the exception of Wii, which we have in our house for jump-around sports and dance games), don’t like horror games or first-person shooters, and have switched my attention away from solo gaming experiences. I like superheroes, PC MMOs and role-playing games, arcade fighting games, and now MOBAs like League of Legends. Even with these fairly narrow gaming interests, I was in heaven. I now can’t wait for Gigantic and Battleborn, both of which feel like first-person League experiences. Lego Avengers looked a lot cooler than I expected. Street Fighter V was just as cool as I expected. And instead of long lines, I spent a ton of time going to the smaller-company booths and playing smaller-distribution games that I probably won’t buy but which made for a hoot of a day.

All the while, I was absorbing the landscape of videogames today and meeting people who populate that landscape. It was not only a complete nerd-immersion, it was pretty darned valuable for my actual role too.

Sum up both Wednesdays, and it’s pretty easy to come to one conclusion…

I love my job!

-jms

“That Time of Year”

Summer is here! My kids have finished school and spring sports commitments. The weather has turned from an unseasonably cool (for California) May into a full-on hot June. The days are noticeably longer, the sunsets prettier, and the beaches more crowded. It’s officially time to frolic. Life is good.

Summer also means that, at Riot Games, we’ve kicked off our annual performance review process. Yes, it’s that time of year.

I’ve mentioned before that Rioters values feedback highly, and we consider Riot as having a feedback culture. We tend to hire, as our co-founder Brandon Beck says, “growth-minded autodidacts” who want to know how to improve and have a bigger impact. As a result, performance reviews take up a rather large part of our collective consciousness when they kick off.

Most of my career has been at large, global, Fortune 500 companies with a ton of infrastructure and process. In those companies—despite highly disparate industries—performance reviews were more or less the same.

…which is to say that they were consistently painful. “That time of year” usually meant a groan or a wince or a deep, deep sigh. Lots of effort from managers and HR went into assigning ratings, documenting results, and making compensation decisions. Everyone, it seemed, was equally unhappy about the process, how much time it soaked up, and how much stress and demotivation performance reviews injected into the atmosphere. In a word… Blech.

I’m finding myself marveling at how performance reviews are unfolding at Riot. Here are some cool things about our process that feel both noteworthy and refreshing:

  • No rating. No direct ties to compensation. Riot’s performance reviews are intended to build self-awareness. The tagline for the process this year is “Better Feedback. Better You. Better Riot.” Again, we have hungry learners who want to get better. Rather than try to assign ratings (which is just fraught with psychological peril), all of your feedback here is qualitative. Our annual process is in June to separate reviews from compensation decisions (which happen at end of year). The point of our reviews is not to boil down your year into a number or assign a formula to determine a bonus (indeed, we don’t have bonuses). Instead, we want to create a moment for you to pause, look at your performance holistically, and reflect on how to have a bigger impact in the future.
  • You launch your own review. Since the point is to build self-awareness, we put the power of the review in each Rioter’s hands. Our expectation is that once we’ve armed you with the tools to do so, you can pick your reviewers and launch your own review. It’s a process that is essentially self-motivated.
  • Everyone gets 360 feedback. Your manager provides you feedback, of course, but so do your peers and someone we call a “Results Reviewer,” a person outside of your management chain who you believe can best speak to your results. If you’re a people manager, your direct reports give you feedback too.
  • All feedback is transparent. Last year feedback was anonymous and Rioters pretty much freaked out with how un-Rioty that felt. We value transparency almost as much as we value feedback. This year, you’ll know exactly who said what in your review.
  • It’s not just about results. Yes, one section of the review asks about results. Results matter. But you’ll also get feedback on how well you represent Riot’s fundamental attributes, and also the mastery of your specific discipline craft. Two huge benefits of these sections are that a) we had to articulate what we mean by “fundamental Rioter attributes” beyond our Riot Manifesto, and b) each discipline (for example, Engineering, Art, and, yes… Talent) had to define what “craft mastery” means and looks like.

None of these aspects of our review process are revolutionary. Companies like Microsoft, Adobe, Juniper Networks, and others have made headlines for their attempts to overhaul their performance management processes or just do away with them altogether. There seems to be a collective consciousness rising that says that performance reviews aren’t—gasp!—actually creating high-performance cultures. I fully expect more and more human resources functions to throw out their Industrial Age tools and processes in favor of something more… I don’t know… human. Riot’s advantage is that we aren’t tied to a formal process of yesteryear. We get to create what works for us from pretty much scratch.

Riot’s reviews have just launched, so I’m still holding my breath a bit about how this will all play out this summer. Certainly there’s a lot of potential pitfalls with our approach. I wasn’t at Riot during last year’s process, but there is lore about how much time people spent writing reviews (since we value feedback, some people write novellas), how clunky our tool was, and how some people got stuck writing a gazillion reviews. We’ve tried to improve this time around, but we’re still fundamentally learning what works and doesn’t work. I expect that both our tool and process will need to get better. I expect that our definitions of Rioter Attributes and each discipline craft will need to be refined. And, above all, I expect we’ll need to invest time and effort educating Rioters what good feedback looks like in a review – just because we value feedback doesn’t mean we’re necessarily good at it. In other words, we’re still quite a ways from something awesome.

Still, “that time of year” at Riot doesn’t make me groan or wince or sigh deeply at all. I’m queerly optimistic that our process matches our values and aspirations. Heck, I’m personally looking forward to the feedback I’m going to receive and am thankful for this moment to pause and look at things more holistically so that I can have a bigger impact here. When was the last time I found myself looking forward to performance review time? (hint: never)

-jms

Riot Dames

Last week I stood in front of an auditorium full of women, holding a microphone. The “Riot Dames” is a self-organized group at Riot Games that initially started as a social forum and has expanded rapidly. Recently, they’ve gotten more interested in the development of their members and have started a speaker series. I was the invited speaker this month.

For the first ten minutes of my hour with them, I tried to convince them that while I obviously wasn’t a woman myself, I was an ally. I was raised by a single mother, I said. As a first generation college student, I attended Occidental College, considered in the early 1990s to be the most successful multicultural college in the country by the Wall Street Journal. While I was there, the Rodney King riots broke out, and the incredible paradox of being immersed in multicultural curriculum during this time wasn’t lost on me. It’s probably why, in a Sociology class at Oxy, I was so inspired by the book “Men and Women of the Corporation” by Rosabeth Moss Kanter. It was that book that convinced me to go off to grad school in organizational psychology.

My dissertation at University of Michigan was on organizational change around issues of diversity. It was while earning my Ph.D. that I also met my wife Sarah, then getting a joint Ph.D. in Psychology and Women’s Studies. Thanks to her, I’ve spent twenty years immersed in postmodern feminist critiques of… well, pretty much everything.

Throughout a meandering and long corporate career, I’ve consistently been involved in “affinity groups” like the Riot Dames. I’ve worked in the male-dominated world of investment banking and looked closely at the lack of female leadership there. I’ve also worked in the female-dominated world of apparel retail and tried to find solutions to problems such as, for example, 20% of the corporate workforce concurrently on maternity leave. I led global diversity & inclusion efforts at Gap Inc. and Starbucks. I’ve done joint research projects with Catalyst, an organization focused on women in corporations. I’ve also served on the Board of Directors of the Mosaic Project, which provides inclusion training for fourth and fifth graders.

So, yeah. I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about inclusion generally and gender issues specifically. My hope was that walking through the above with the Dames provided me some street cred amidst the sea of female faces.

For the next fifty minutes after my intro, I ran all around the large room with the microphone. Women asked me questions. They asked each other questions. They made speeches. They responded to each other’s comments. I talked a lot (maybe too much), but so did they.

The topics over that hour varied widely. We discussed being a woman in the games industry, and about the presence of “bro culture.” We talked about how to attract more women to Riot Games, and how to keep them once they get here. We talked about images of women in our game and how to best describe League of Legends’ target audience. We talked about how better to support working mothers, and how we can use our scale to influence more women in engineering and the gaming industry. The group discussed how to grow more women leaders at Riot, and in fact the last ten minutes or so consisted of people giving each other coaching and advice in this regard (this was my favorite part of the session).

The tone across the hour varied as much as the topics–some of the comments expressed pain and vulnerability, while others expressed optimism and strength. My sense as we wrapped up was that if you entered the room with an axe to grind, you probably left frustrated by how few answers we supplied. Meanwhile, if you entered the room looking for hope and inspiration, you left hopeful and inspired that we were having the discussion openly.

In the days that have followed, a consistent sentiment I’ve heard is that the Riot Dames are hungry for more conversation. Awesome. That’s great, and the best outcome I could have hoped for. Whether I’m involved or not, I hope that the group will continue what I think are hugely important discussions.

The truth is that the topic of women in games is a real thing, and something anyone in this industry needs to contemplate. Riot Games aspires to be a true meritocracy, devoid of issues of hierarchy and the bureaucratic nonsense present at most companies. One way to check how well we’re living up to our values is to talk to groups like the Dames, to ask openly how equipped they feel to make awesome happen every day.

My verdict at the end of last week’s conversation is that we have some work to do. To be honest, it would be utterly shocking if we didn’t. Creating a true meritocracy is tricky business, and we’re facing a combination of societal, industry, cultural, and demographic hurdles when it comes to gender.

But–and I fully admit to being on the “hopeful and inspired” part of this equation–I feel more excited about this discussion at Riot than anywhere else I’ve worked. The fact that a meritocracy is our goal is something special. Will we ever get there, really and truly? I don’t know.

It’s a worthy goal, though.

-jms