November 30, 2022

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Reflecting on A Career in Gaming

Philip Holt

Kenning Partner Daryl Ogden speaks with Philip Holt, head of Undead Labs, about his experiences running a gaming studio within the Xbox empire.  Philip explains his unusual introduction to the business of gaming, and why he found joining Undead to replace a charismatic founder both challenging and rewarding.  Daryl and Philip explore the deeper meaning of “State of Decay”, and how it might reflect on our own pandemic world.

They go on to discuss how Philip worked with his team to develop and codify working values for the studio, and the role that DEI concerns played in that effort.  Daryl asks Philip how he has dealt with “The Great Resignation” and the ongoing challenge of attracting and keeping the highly skilled talent needed to create great games.  They explore the value Philip has found in his own coaching, and what it might offer studio leaders more broadly. Philip reveals the 7 books that made up his original leadership book club, and points to where the club will go next.  Finally, Philip and Daryl discuss how being a goalkeeper in his youth shaped the way Philip still sees risk and reward.



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Daryl: I’m Daryl Ogden, partner with Kenning Associates. And I’m really delighted to welcome Philip Holt to the Knowing Kenning podcast series. Philip is the studio head of Undead Labs, which is a game studio in the Xbox game studios portfolio, owned by Microsoft. Philip is speaking to us from his home office in Seattle today. Hi, Philip, how are you? 

Philip: I’m great. Nice to see you Daryl. 

Daryl: Great to see you as always. Philip, as we were thinking about this conversation, and we talk frequently, typically a couple of times a month. But when we talked about this conversation, I think one of the things that we discussed doing was just having you talk a little bit about how you came to gaming and how you came to Undead Labs. 

Philip: The origin story of how I got into gaming is probably quite unique amongst my peers and colleagues across the industry. My parents started a game company in my house when I was a kid. So this is going all the way back to 1980 roughly, back in the apple two plus era. My stepdad was an engineer at the Boeing company and he was writing flight test software for 747s’ and bought an Atari 2600 gaming system for Christmas one year and was like, I can make one of these.

So he quit his job, and bought a computer and hung a shingle up outside and was like, let’s make some games. Part of it was really neat to grow up in that kind of a creative environment and see my parents be entrepreneurs and the ups and downs of what that entails.

Daryl: What was that like?

Philip: There was nothing very glamorous about it. You know, impossible hours and, we never took vacation as a family. They were just always working through the weekends. We never made much money. So there was no mystique about the games industry. I was kind of a lost hippy kid and I went to the Evergreen State College, which out on the west coast people know of is a quite experimental, call it liberal arts college.

So I feel like I’m qualified maybe for grad school. And my mom offered me a job, I think mostly to force me to graduate and become an adult. And so I recognize that opportunity is better than waiting tables and that’s how I got started in the industry. 

Daryl: So it’s family business, you know, and I think that that’s unusual because so many people in gaming still it’s first-generation you really firmly are in a second generation of gaming leadership. I know you’ve had a long career in gaming, but I wonder if you could just describe maybe the last few years, what brought you to XBox and specifically Undead Labs.

Philip: So the summer of 2018, Microsoft did acquire a number of game studios. Undead Labs was one of them. And what was really appealing to me was seeing an independent game studio that sort of operated at that double A level of industry quality value price games  ascending to real first party status. The very best of XBox game studios, the very best as Sony game studios. And to be a part of that ascent that climb that ability to reinvent yourself is rare and was really attractive. 

The other thing that was super attractive to me was the IP itself, the game itself. State of decay, when I saw the game in I guess it was 2018, I’d say there was a little bit of indie flavor and vibe. You know, it was a little rough around the edges, but it was definitely a game that made you wanna root for it. And what it showed to me was that it was a team, It was probably facing pretty significant constraints and how to make some tough choices about where they wanted to spend their time and their focus.

And so things like production values were maybe just not quite there. But clearly their emphasis was on delivering a player fantasy that really put you in a zombie apocalypse. And it showed me that this was a savvy team that given more resources and more budget, maybe a little more time and support, they could really credibly climb that hill to first party status. I want it to be a part of that. 

Daryl: I’d love for you to just speak to the state of decay IP and what it means to you. You, I think you’ve alluded to it about surviving a zombie apocalypse. We’re all trying to do that, I think, in 2020 to survive a certain kind of pandemic apocalypse, but what does the IP represent for you? And what does it represent for the community of players that love your game?

Philip: After working in the industry for a really long time and working on a whole variety of games, I think that the work that we do is art. I think it has a really important, significant role to play in culture. 

We socialize our audiences around mechanics and a point of view that the game represents. And I think State of Decay has a very particular point of view sitting on the other side of kind of an apocalyptic worldview, a world status. I think it can reflect back to the players, certain ideas. And I think embedded in any apocalyptic game is kind of a condemnation of the ways in which society has failed. So that’s present just in the setting of. 

What I love about State of Decay is that it is not dystopian or nihilistic and its overall tone. It’s actually quite hopeful. There’s this idea that, of course, zombies have altered the world and your survival is at threat on a sort of moment by moment basis.

But there’s this enduring belief that you will prevail in the end. And that tomorrow could be a better day that the world deserves to be saved. The community of survivors that you’re with deserves everything that you can bring. So that’s, I think, the tone of the game, the heart of the game. 

Daryl: So if that’s at the heart of the game, what other cultural implications might there have been? 

Philip: I think there’s a couple of important contributions to society at large. And the first is the things that make you unique and different are the things that your community will most value. You got one plumber, you got one engineer, you got one electrician, you got one doctor. All of those differences, whether they’re trades or character traits make you valuable to your community. Your diversity is the thing that people select mechanically in the game.

The other idea is there is no lone wolf strategy. That we are mutually interdependent with the other people around us. And we see this today, when we see, you know, usually weather based tragedies, hurricanes, or tornadoes, or things like that. When everything is on the line, we fall back to the people immediately around us, our neighbors, our family, our local community, and collectively we help each other.

We put aside whatever tribal differences we have and we come together to push back the night. And I think those ideas are deeply embedded in what state of decay represents. And I think important messages to communicate to the world, especially in these days.

Daryl: Well, Philip, it’s too bad that you don’t believe in this IP. You know, I’m, I’m, I’m really sorry that you’re not animated by the game and the studio that you lead. Let’s double back and we’re going to talk more about the game and especially how the game expresses the studio’s values, and you thought a lot about values in terms of leadership and in terms of the culture you’re trying to build, but let’s go back and let’s talk about your path into the studio.

You joined the studio not too long ago and in a very different role as chief of staff, to the former studio head and the founder. There was a particular pathway in here and you chose that. I wonder if you could speak to that progression that you went through in an initial role and then how you became elevated to studio head in what that means to you to be the studio head.

Philip: First of all, I think it’s unusual in the games industry for people to get hired off the street into studio head roles. Usually those are cultivated positions. you develop a succession plan for leaders in your organization. So it’s rare to find opportunities like that.

And I recognize that. And so instead, I think, as I was thinking about the next move in my career, I was looking for opportunities that potentially had that kind of pathway for growth. But I was mostly interested in joining an organization that I thought was set up well for success. And that had the support and patience and investment horizon that a company like XBox would have with a newly acquired studio. 

You’re right, I did join his chief of staff. That’s kind of becoming a more popular role across industries, and I think there’s a lot of variety in what that entails. And the way that the founder and I sort of negotiated the responsibilities was really as a second charge, a second to him and he immediately gave me all, but one of his direct reports. And I think he was really looking for a successor for himself to move on to the next thing after he had sold his business to Microsoft.

That was a valuable component of me evaluating the opportunity. And I thought that I would have time to learn the organization, learn the culture, learn the product, accomplish a few things, establish reputation inside of the broader organization of Microsoft, such that when he might eventually transitioned on or whatever he was going to do next that I would be well-regarded as a qualified successor.

Daryl: And that’s what turned out to happen. I think that organizations that are led by founders have particular dynamics and they often are very founder oriented and that’s appropriate, I think. But when you have leadership like you, who succeeds a founder, there are opportunities and challenges attached to that kind of transition.

From our conversations and the work that we’ve done, much of it has been about making sense of that and developing an approach and a strategy that was authentic to you and authentic to the studio that would represent a healthy transition. I wonder if you could talk about some of those challenges and the opportunities that you’ve discovered within those challenges?

Philip: The first thing that comes to mind is that there wasn’t a really clean handoff. When the pandemic hit the world in March of 2020, the founder had not yet fully transitioned out of the organization. 

Daryl: And that founder was Jeff Strain.

Philip: He lived in another city and was commuting into the studio and so that dynamic itself had its own unique challenges around it. Like suddenly it accelerated, I think, his intentions and his bosses probably had recognition of a need to make a formal change. And so as the number two, trying to hold things together, as we all went through this really unprecedented experience of pulling up in our homes and trying to, you know, wade out the storm.

Recognizing this suddenly I was like, it was probably all on me that maybe the founder wasn’t coming back. So that was a unique aspect of it, but then just more generally, I think the biggest thing is you’re right, that Jeff had a very charismatic personality. And I think there was a lot of the studio and the culture and the values and the methods of operating that were connected to his personality. I knew enough going into the role that I can’t out Jeff, Jeff. Like that is the road to failure. I have to bring my own special flavor to the role. 

And actually our early coaching sessions, that’s when you and I were introduced, as I was moving through that transition, I knew I needed some support. And you gave me a bunch of really strong encouragement to not view the role as just holding for Jeff, but really instead, establishing my own instincts, my own style. Identifying the problems that needed my attention, and being confident and comfortable in veering the ship in a different direction if that was necessary.

Daryl: So Philip, I’m wondering what did you see in terms of the studio needing a new path to sharp?

[00:11:04] Philip: I think after the acquisition, the mission of the studio changed, whereas prior to the acquisition we were an independent company. We would find a publishing deal with a publisher who would fund the development of the game.And so there was a lot of collaboration across the publishing developer relationship. 

And now suddenly we’re a first party. We have maybe ironically more autonomy as a result of being part of XBox game studios. And trying to achieve a higher level of execution and quality and ambition and state of decay, and whatever was coming next.

There were a number of changes that were required just to manage through that sort of transition, regardless of who was leading. But because I was the new guy and because people had not yet had a chance to fully understand who I was, as I started leading through that transition related to just charting a new path for State of Decay, I became maybe the personification of all of the change that was taking place as a result of the acquisition. 

Daryl: And in a way, this journey that you and I have taken together in our work, one of the things that, I think, you have discovered, and that we have worked on together is. Essentially leading a new studio because there has been a kind of rebirth in a way,of this studio that is about a dystopian game, there has been a kind of rebirth within the studio itself and a kind of a regeneration in a sense, just in terms of the composition of the studio and people maybe saying, hey, this a particular phase of, undead is over. That’s attached to this charismatic founder, Jeff Strain. And now there’s a new, generation here 

You’re leading a studio today that probably looks and feels very different from the studio that you joined. Cause there has been so much dynamism and so much change in that period of time. Pandemic related, leadership, transition related, and you have really shepherded that process  in a way that I think is extremely exciting and that represents a really bright future for the studio.

But I wonder if you could speak to that journey, which was not always straightforward and not always easy. And what challenges were attached to that.

Philip: So I think one of the first things that really helped me a lot, switching out of this mode of being the steward of somebody else’s business and really trying to put my own stamp on it, I was listening to this interview with Reid Hoffman and Fred Kaufman, who’s an author that I really admire. 

They were talking about, at some point well into the history of LinkedIn, Reid had hired a CEO I don’t know, five, 10 years into the history of the company. And Fred was really curious about, why didn’t you just hire a COO and keep that title for yourself? And he referred to ’em as a late stage founder, and I just never. 

And I had never heard of those two terms combined in that way. And I just found it to be really eye opening. It really clicked for me that, oh, you can join a company that’s had some history, but have an impact either because of the role or because of the nature of the journey the company’s on that’s similar to a founding event or a refounding event.

And so that became a really valuable lens to view things through that this is in a sense a refounding, or at least a significant enough pivot and direction that it was a useful framework. 

Daryl: And that framework’s continued to guide your thinking about leaving the studio.

Philip: Yeah, for sure. And I think where it led me was initially to really understand the founding impulses that Jeff had. And on the other early employees, both around the company and the values that would govern behavior and why state of decay? Why was that the game that was important to go make? 

I could manage the continuity from the past to the future. But also that it was important for me is the person at the top of the org chart to be able to go tell that story in a way that was deeply convicted, right? That I believed in the worthiness of that mission. And I can attract other people to contributing to executing on that vision. 

And through the changes that the acquisition brought to achieving that vision. So that became, I think, really important. And then that led me to a re-examination of the values that Jeff brought to the founding of the company and whether those were serving as well as we were trying to achieve this new vision, and whether those are things that, again, I was deeply convicted in and would support and believed were the most important things to emphasize for the company going forward.

Daryl: And I wonder if you could speak to that, that was an area that we worked on quite a lot together. And then you obviously, built a team essentially that became a kind of a team of consultants and advisors and co-developers with you of a new set of values that were meant to represent the new direction of the studio and the new orientation of the studio in a way that would, to your point honor the the founding values, but would be relevant and vital and dynamic for the new version of the studio, and what the future would hold.

I wonder if you could just speak to that process a bit and characterize the direction that the values took. Because that was, I think, an incredibly important shift in the studio.

Philip: I think with the values work, it was, again, this is this place where you got to have some confidence of conviction to go do something like let’s rewrite the values of a company. I mean, it feels like a daunting task to take on and not something to do lightly. So part of it was just a reflection on the context in which those values mattered and were probably vital for the company’s success and the resulting acquisition that took place. 

But it was easy to sort of look at them as startup oriented values and founder funded values. So they really spoke to ideas of accountability and pragmatism, certainly valuable attributes in any company. not to be deemed as unworthy, But as I reflected on what was going to be required of the organization going forward, I felt that they weren’t the things that I would emphasize as the most important behaviors to help us achieve the vision that we were after. It was important then to create new values and I knew that I couldn’t do this on my own. They can’t just be my values. They have to be the values of the organization.

There has to be a line of continuity from where we started to where we’re going. So we pulled together a team, about 10 or 11 people. Some of them were members of the leadership team, the folks that reported to me directly, and then a couple of hand selected individuals from across the studio. From across tenure, from across teams, from across disciplines, some gender diversity to get a group that reflected this various stages of the company. Very veteran to almost brand new. And then we began work on how do you rewrite new values? 

Daryl: You went through a highly participatory, very iterative process. I think that we started working on that process in January. And I think that it was not completed until December when the values were rolled out to the full studio with lots of iterations and lots of advice and consent, and a process that I think was a kind of a masterclass in developing a point of view, but then engaging in a dialogue and a conversation with your studio, so that everybody felt a sense of ownership and kind of, co-development of the values. As a result, I think, It really has put you on a very nice, positive course.

Philip: That’s very kind of you to say, and it would be remiss for me not to call out how involved you were in that entire process in guiding me through each of these steps. In fact, I recall you asked me, you know, do you wanna go fast or do you want people to adopt this?

Daryl: And what’d you decide, Philip?

Philip: It reminds me of that old, I think it’s an African proverb that is especially relevant here, that if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Daryl: One thing that I would just want to highlight about the shift in the orientation of the values. Those values were very individually oriented. And I think that the new values are to my mind, they’re very team and community oriented.

They’re much more about the collective than they are about the individual. And in that way, I think that they speak so beautifully to the communal values that you spoke about earlier in the state of decay game. And I think that they also speak so well to something that I know is so important to you as studio head, which is about really building a diverse, equitable and inclusive studio.

I know that concerns and focus about DEI are so prevalent today, but that concern is just so infused in not only the values that you developed, but also the process that you developed. 

Philip: So let me just first say, as it relates to the values, the reason that I think I went there first, one of the first things that I tackled the studio head was that a values led organization becomes a more predictable place for employees. And in a creative enterprise, every person on the team is going to make hundreds of decisions every day. And they have to be using their judgment and using a set of values to guide their decision-making so that their decisions are highly aligned with what the overall organization would want. So there’s a predictability that comes from having a values-led organization that allows people to feel like, oh, I can make this decision autonomously because I know it’s aligned.So the values have to govern behavior. 

The other thing is that I think with the values, we have four of them. They build on each other. So that they almost feel like a creed or even like a set of instructions for how you would tackle a problem, how you would resolve a conflict, how you would build a game, how you create culture.

Daryl: So Philip, you and your team developed four core values at the lab. I wonder if you could talk to us about them.

Philip: The first is “be humble, be curious.: The second is “make things better”. The third is “help the team thrive,” and the last value is “rise to the moment.”

And it starts with a really tight iteration loop around openness to always being able to improve the first ones. Be humble, be curious. So it’s this, I recognize that I’m a work in progress and that there’s probably a better way and that the other person who I might be in disagreement with has a valid perspective that I need to get curious about.

Daryl: We sometimes call this at Kenning, we call this perspective taking, and perspective taking requires a deep curiosity about the other.

Philip: And then the second one is about making things better. So it’s this tight iteration loop of. I know that I don’t know everything, and that if we make small improvements forever, we will achieve breakthrough performance. That’s I think very deeply embedded at the heart of what the values communicate.

And as it relates to DEI, it’s so central to our view of how we unlock the creative potential of our organization and how we achieve breakthrough results in real innovation by having an environment that is supportive, that values differences, that values unique perspectives that come to the table, just like the game does.It mechanically values the differences that each of us brings, and recognizes that our ability to manage through conflict and find the best possible options is directly linked to our ability to execute at a high quality level. 

So DEI for us is important because it brings diversity into the organization. It addresses systemic inequalities that exist in society, but it’s also central to our view of unlocking our creative potential. It’s not a program that we run because we should, or it’s part of HR. It is central to our view of how we develop games, how we build the best possible products. 

Daryl: And I think that’s what makes it so exciting, because I think that there’s a social justice element of course, to DEI work that is core to what it’s about, but it, in a business context it’s even more compelling when there’s a strong business case to make for it. And when those two things are joined together, from a values perspective, as well as from a strategic perspective, you have a very formidable, common. 

And I think that you guys have cracked that, to a large degree. So Philip, I know that, creating this set of values for you was important to, in a sense, create a north star for the organization about what the studio represents, what it’s all about. That’s joined together with your IP, which you’ve already spoken about extremely eloquently already. 

But like so many organizations you know, maybe every organization. You have faced the tidal wave of what has become known in popular culture as the great resignation, and for a variety of reasons and nobody has their arms fully wrapped around all the components of the great resignation, all the drivers of it. As we’ve gotten smarter about what the meaning of the great resignation is, I think we see overall the job market is still really tight and there’s still a very significant war for talent going on, and that’s especially true in high tech and creative industries like the lab.

The competition for people in highly skilled areas is still really tough, but you’ve experienced it in some sense, you’ve also come out the other side of it, in a way. I know that there are so many business leaders out there that are looking for solutions to the great resignation, or at least approaches to the great resignation that would have results. And I think that you guys have figured some things out. 

Philip: Well, I think we’re figuring things out. Again, it’s like an iterative, incremental approach to all things, this included. So the first thing is, I mean, we certainly had a period of time where we had historically high levels of attrition. It’s bewildering, it’s confusing, it’s unprecedented. I’ve never seen anything like this in my career. 

Some of this I think has to do with unique circumstances that are taking place inside of our company. And some of these things I think are broad industry trends. And so the first thing I did is I just really dug into the data and tried to track as many dimensions around why people were departing, where they were going, what was influencing their decisions as I could, so that I could look for what are their trends in the data.

Daryl: So what did the data tell you?

Philip: I think the first big thing I realized is that there wasn’t really any one trend. There were lots of different factors. And I can speak to maybe some of the factors that we saw.

Daryl:  I think our listeners would love that. 

Philip: The first is I think the circumstances of the world around us are becoming increasingly dire. And as a person that’s involved in making a zombie apocalypse game, like maybe I’m just more attuned to sort of recognizing negative trends and the broader society, but things are not good in the world. Whether it’s the pandemic, it’s the war in Eastern Europe, its social injustice, it’s mass shootings, it’s the sort of political environment that we see rights being taken away, like there’s just a lot happening, and all of that has a compounding impact on our people. 

One of the things that we also do is we survey our team pretty frequently to try to have another anonymous source of feedback from our members. And one of the things that I find quite alarming is just the quality of people’s mental wellness is quite low. And I don’t think that’s unique to us. 

Daryl: For us at Kenning, and I think you know more broadly, this is part of a larger trend that we’re facing. 

Philip: I think that’s a reflection of the world just being a tough place to endure right now. So that has, I think, a lot of ramifications and how it shows up with people reprioritizing how they spend their professional time. We had people who left the industry, who were doing very different things.

And I think it is a reflection of them reprioritizing their time. I think in late 20, early 21, the game industry was performing really well. Like people were stuck at home and they were playing a lot of games. All of the hours were up, all our key metrics were up. The industry was a wash with funding, and VC money.

So there were plenty of opportunities like once in a career opportunities that were suddenly presenting themselves, the opportunity for remote work suddenly became on the table for lots of people. So they could go work for somebody without ever moving, leaving their bedroom. It became easier to take a new job and it became easier in a video environment. So all of those factors, I think, influenced our interest and then unique things to us. 

Daryl: So you’re tackling this and so what are you doing about it? 

Philip:I think one of the aspects of that attrition trend is that the founder had left and, you know, he was a very charismatic leader. And I think a lot of times people join a founder-led company because of the founder. And here I’m the new guy suddenly in charge during the remote period.

Philip: And not everybody knows me really well. And I can’t replace that sort of personality that the founder had. And so I was looking for other things that people could connect to. That would be enduring and more mission oriented. Things that they can contribute to because they believed in it and they could give themselves to it.

So that became, do we articulate what state of decay really represents and how do we frame that as a mission that’s worthy and noble, that people are going to be called to pursue, contribute to. That was number one. Our values also became a way of giving people something to latch onto. I believe in what these values represent. I believe that these are worthy and unique. I want to be a part of this organization and make these things come to reality. I think that became really important. 

Also one of the things that I’ve tried to spend a lot of time thinking through is how do I build up trust equity in the organization. How do I reveal who I am in a way that’s consistent, in a way that people can inspect and judge for themselves and make peace with, this is who’s now running this place. One of the easiest ways, probably the first lever I elected to choose, I dunno if this is right for everybody, but candor and transparency became I think a way of demonstrating trustworthiness.

Like I’ve got nothing to hide here. I’m eager to answer any question. We can talk about any issue. If there’s something that’s sensitive that I can’t disclose. I’ll tell you that it’s sensitive and I can’t disclose it and I’ll tell you why. But otherwise everything is fair game, let’s talk through the issues that we’re facing. That’s how we’re going to go solve it. 

It comes back to that. Be humble, be curious value. And so making those kinds of trust deposits around transparency and candor, I think were really helpful in the early days and getting people to believe that there was mechanical organizational trustworthiness here, and this isn’t a cult of personality, there’s multiple things that people could believe in. 

Daryl: And so you know, that creates just a sense of purposefulness and a sense of identity. And, you know, I think that where before you were describing something where people would identify with the founder, now they’re identifying with a set of company values and a purposefulness at the company level, rather than in an individual. And you may represent that new vision for the company, but they’re attaching themselves to something larger than an individual. That’s quite compelling. 

Philip: That’s what I believe in. That’s what I want to follow. And I think it’s more powerful for leaders to be able to point to a vision or view of the future that we can all contribute to. They point the way. And I just think that’s a more compelling and enduring approach.  

Daryl: I would be remiss in this conversation if we didn’t explore a little bit our relationship and how coaching has played a role for you in helping to shape your leadership of Undead Labs.

We have been working together for a couple of years now, and I wonder if you could just speak to what you were seeking out of coaching and what has transpired and you know, what kind of value you get out of that? 

Philip: So you’re the third coach I’ve ever had.

Daryl: So tell me about the previous coaches.

Philip: The other two points were inflection points in my career as well. At one point I had joined a new company and I had a very different sort of set of colleagues and peers at my level, people that didn’t do the same thing that I did. And I found myself in conflict with them. And I was looking for a way to resolve that conflict, hired a coach to solve a particular problem. 

And another time I had succeeded a founder at another company and stepped into the big leadership role. I was looking for support. But this has been the most important coaching engagement that I’ve had and the most enduring I think in part, because of what you bring to the table. 

And in part, because of the circumstances that I’ve faced. I think I told you this at the beginning of our engagement, that I was anticipating the next year to be the most challenging and the most rewarding of my career. And so I knew that I needed support as I navigated unpredictable waters in front of me.

One of the things that’s probably true amongst anybody that sits at the top of an org chart is that it’s a pretty lonely experience, like my problems, I can’t really share with my team. I don’t like sharing downward that way. My boss has a huge scope of responsibility, so I’m pretty targeted with what I bring to him as well .

So there’s a middle ground of just all of the stuff that I deal with on a daily basis, that there is no sort of organizational support around. So bringing in an external person with your background, your sort of experience of running companies, the fact that you have relationships with many other people like me who have been through similar problems and have those reference points, it just becomes so valuable.

Partly to test ideas, partly to get feedback, you asked challenging questions that they get at core assumptions that I hold. I just can’t imagine having made it through the last two years without having a coach by my side. 

Daryl: For me, it’s been an incredibly rich relationship and I think that we have been able to connect on a lot of different levels and there’s many similarities in our background, in our approach, but also differences.

But one of the things that I just really value about clients like you is an openness and a curiosity. And I see you modeling and living the values that you’ve helped, cultivate and support and now amplify with an Undead within the lab. So it’s always inspiring for me as a coach to see a leader who is walking the walk and talking the talk as well.

I see you doing that. And so it’s a rich experience for me as well. And I think that kind of reciprocity is what you’re often looking for in these kinds of relationships. Hopefully you’re getting more benefit than I am. But, uh, if your not I’m in trouble. I’m curious, do the things that we end up talking about or approaches that we ended up talking about, do you end up flipping those with your team in terms of approaches that you have with your team about developing them the kinds of conversations that you have with them. So it’s a kind of a turn-key approach. I’m not sure ‘cause we haven’t really talked about that so much, but I’m curious about it. 

Philip: Yes. In two ways that I can think of very specifically. So one is that for many months, I was the only person in the company that had a coaching engagement. I think now there’s probably six or eight people in the company that have coaching engagements, so we’re starting to recognize the value of a deep and lasting relationship with a coach that is a form of investment and development for our most senior leaders.We’ve found coaching to be an excellent tool.

I think the challenges that we face typically revolve around how we’re managing, leading, inspiring our teams, and not really like technical or mechanical process issues. So supporting our most senior leaders with an investment in their growth is just a smart thing to do. 

And so that’s become a really valuable tool for us to deploy. I think the other thing is that, through our engagement, one of the things I was recognizing is that a slight difference of opinion, versus like what the founder viewed is his product, he used to tell me that the studio was his product, he was very much focused on creating the company and the culture and all of those things, which I agree with. Particularly when you’re starting a company. 

But I think at the stage that I joined, or assumed the leadership of the studio, I shifted my thinking slightly in my product became developing leaders, developing a model for leadership inside of the studio that was highly aligned with the values of the company, highly aligned with what my expectations are for leadership, informed by our discussions. And so that led to, I think, some specific thinking about how we more deliberately cultivate a model of leadership inside of Undead Labs. 

Daryl: Are things that you’re doing that are actually programmatic, I would say. You know, they’re not just simple coaching engagements, although those coaching engagements are very valuable, but you’re doing some things I would say at scale. And I wonder if you could speak to those things, because I think those are some of the most interesting things that I see you doing in terms of cultivating the next generation of leaders and making investments in people in the lab.

There’s a range of things, but one of the, you know, more sort of experimental novel approaches has been to create what we call leadership book club. This is a sort of a traditional book club that is an opt-in experience for people in the studio. I’ve selected seven books now, that have become cannon, that were highly informative or influential for me throughout my career, that I drew inspiration from, and I wanted to share those books with colleagues in the studio and then use the opportunity to step in through book club, to extract the core lessons that I had intuitively absorbed so that we could develop specific curriculum around those core lessons and create a leadership development training program, kind of a cohort experience that’s intensive and multiple months that reinforces the studio’s values tied to leadership development text that, supplements what we’re doing. The book club’s been super successful, and we’re starting to build out the curriculum. 

Daryl: I think our audience will be up in arms, Philip, if you don’t share the titles of the books that have been so important to you and to the studio.

Philip: So we started with Ryan Holidays, “Ego is the Enemy.” And then we read Alfred Lansing’s “Endurance”, which is the story of Shackleton’s journey to the Antarctic. And then we read Brene Brown’s “Dare to Lead”. Followed by Doris Kerns Goodwin’s book called “Leadership and Turbulent Times,” and then Stacy Abrams book, “Minority Leader” or “Lead from the Outside”. It seems to have two different titles depending on where you buy it. And then, we wrapped with “Conscious Business” by Fred Kaufman, one of my favorites. And lastly, “Creativity Inc”. by Ed Cammult, which is sort of an industry staple. 

Putting together that initial list I realized is that most of the leadership literature I read had been written by. White older men so I was a little embarrassed to realize that I wasn’t as widely read amongst a more diverse set of authors. And so for season two of book club, it’s a much more traditional approach where we’re selecting books as a group, with a particular focus on reading from diverse authors.

We just wrapped up, Hispanic Heritage Month, in September and October. So we read Javier Zamora’s memoir called “Solito”, about his immigration from El Salvador to the United States by himself at the age of nine. And it’s just an incredibly profound and humanizing story of the immigration crisis facing the US. The next book we’re reading, we just selected, is called “Bias” by Jennifer Everhart. She’s a professor at Stanford and really looking forward to starting that book.

The big difference between season one and season two, season one I brought books that I had read and so it very much kind of felt to me like I was sharing things that had influenced me, maybe a bit like a teacher or a mentor. What I’m really looking forward to with season two is I get to be a student along with my team and I think being able to model the act of learning new things, particularly around diversity and inclusion, I think is so important ‘cause we’re all, I think on a different place along that journey, maybe as cliche as that sounds. But I think recognizing that and getting humble and starting where you are and doing the work is really important to show the team. 

Daryl: And I think that, again, what you’re doing here is you’re showing that these values that you developed were not just put up on the wall, of you know, a studio that maybe not everyone’s using yet, because now people aren’t back from the pandemic, but it’s not just something that’s window dressing, but it’s something that’s really core and that you guys are putting investments in it every day, in terms of the way that you manage your teams in terms of the game development, and in terms of the way that you choose to be together and spend time together. 

And to do that in a way that I think is very authentic to you, which is, that, you are an extremely self-reflective leader. I think that you have a very strong intellectual dimension to your belief about leadership and a historical dimension to your beliefs about leadership and that’s reflected in, in your book club syllabus, in a sense your cannon. I wish that everybody could be in that book club because it’s a rich and powerful experience for people.

But you have to be in the lab to get in the book clubs. So join the lab. Yeah. You gotta join the lab. 

Philip: I was on my walk last night. And I was thinking about like formative experiences through my youth that might explain a certain approach. I was a very competitive soccer player and I played in goal. 

And so as a goalkeeper your success or failure is evident immediately. Like your mistakes, results in a ball in the net behind you and as a fairly elite player as a kid, I had a lot of private instruction, goalkeeping coaches. A lot of it was recorded video so you’d play back and you would see your mistakes, as I was thinking about it just last night, that probably was really formative to open yourself up to trying to analyze what just happened. What was the mistake I made? What do I need to try different? And then let’s do it again. And, is there a better outcome now? Hire ex goalkeepers is maybe a suggestion. 

Daryl: What you’re describing we do at our work at Kenning. We do a lot of videotaping of leaders at work helping them see the difference between reflective and reflexive responses. And it’s very much modeled on the video recording of athletes and showing that back. But I do think the core lesson is hire ex goalkeepers, especially those who were video recorded.

So what is it about Goalkeeping that’s unique in terms of thinking about leadership?

Philip: Well, I think one thing that you’re trained to do as a goalie is constantly evaluating risk, and having to execute judgment quickly around, am I gonna go for that ball or am I gonna hold my line?

Daryl: And how was your judgment when you play goalkeeper?

Philip: Well, you know, back to the beginning, when you made a mistake, the ball was in the back of the net, and so it was a rapid iteration, right? You learned as you played and in practice, the kinds of chances that you could take and how to, I think, measure the risk reward.

And so you brought that forward in your thinking about leadership today. I think it means that I’m comfortable with taking risks because as a younger person, I had a lot of experience having to evaluate it and seeing the consequences of being right about it or being wrong about it.

Daryl: So Philip, always love our conversations and I want to thank you for your generosity, and joining our pod today and engaging in this conversation. I know our listeners will really appreciate your insights and your perspective. So thank you very much. 

Philip: My pleasure. It’s flattering to be asked.