By Daryl Ogden
March 16, 2022
On the eve of her retirement from Xbox Studios, Shannon Loftis sat down with Kenning Partner Daryl Ogden
On the eve of her announced retirement from Xbox Game Studios, longtime Microsoft veteran Shannon Loftis met with Kenning Partner Daryl Ogden to discuss her storied career. Shannon talks about the early days of gaming at Microsoft, and what it was like to be a woman in that hard-driving environment. She explains how Microsoft’s culture has changed in the intervening years, and how she has as well. A timely talk by Melinda French Gates provided some rules to live by for Shannon, guidelines she still shares with the women she supports today.
Daryl and Shannon dig deep into how she arrived upon own leadership philosophy–one defined by the values of individual development, diversity & inclusion, and respect. They talk about how to handle failure gracefully, and how to support individuals proactively. Shannon identifies some of her favorite career moments. She then examines the challenges posed by pandemic to the culture she and her team had built, and how they overcame those challenges.
In wrapping up, Daryl and Shannon explore the impact of coaching–for Shannon, and for her team. On the eve of her retirement, she feels good about her team’s readiness to step up to fill the void she is leaving.
Daryl Ogden: I’m Daryl Ogden a partner at Kenning Associates, a leadership development consultancy, and this is Knowing Kenning. This is part of a sub-series where we are talking to leaders with whom we work. And more specifically our guest today Shannon Loftus, who is the head of studios of World’s Edge, which is an Xbox Games’ studio. World’s Edge was founded back in 2019 to bring to the world a consolidated version of the “Age of Empires” franchise. The World’s Edge studio is part of the portfolio of game studios that Microsoft owns as part of the Xbox business operation. Before founding the World’s Edge studio, Shannon was the head of third-party publishing at Xbox. Shannon was responsible for the development and the publishing of literally hundreds of games within the Xbox universe. Shannon, welcome.
Shannon Loftis: Thanks, Daryl.
Daryl: This is an opportunity to talk about leadership in gaming, where I end up spending a lot of my time as a coach and leadership development consultant and Shannon is one of my favorite all-time clients. And so I’m really honored to have her join us today and share with us her experience as a leader in gaming and her experience as a pioneering woman in technology and high tech.
Shannon: Daryl, you’ve been one of my favorite coaches and thank goodness that you’ve chosen to focus on gaming. You made a huge difference.
Daryl: It’s been a pleasure and it’s been a lot of fun. Before we gathered today, we were just talking a little bit about the serendipity of the timing of our recording session because you announced your retirement this week from Microsoft and from World’s Edge after a long and incredibly successful career. And you’re figuring out what’s next for yourself in your life. When we scheduled this session today, I don’t know that we imagined exactly, but that’s what transpired. So this is coincidental and serendipitous and incredible timing in a way, as you’re probably reflecting on a long career. Tell us about what’s going on for you right now and how you’re thinking about this moment in your life.
Shannon: It’s been a very emotional week. I’ve been at Microsoft for 29 years and I’ve been making games at Microsoft since 1995. To say that I’ve grown up and become an adult within the kind of warm embrace of this company is not an exaggeration. So yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about what life holds after Microsoft, what it has meant to be in the gaming industry for as long as I have, what matters to me, what I want to take from my experience at Microsoft, and what I want to leave behind.
Daryl: Well, you’ve left a lot behind. I have seen that interacting with you and your leadership team. The incredible admiration and respect that team has for you and the excitement that they have for you about what’s next and also the sadness that they have about not being able to work with you going forward. I think the word we used was bittersweet. You and I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about the whole sweep of your career. And I’m excited today just to have an opportunity to do that because our focus has been so much on starting up the World’s Edge game studio. And I know that we’re going to talk about that today, but I’d like to go back to your early days at Microsoft and your early days in gaming.
Shannon: Believe it or not, Microsoft wasn’t my first job. It wasn’t even my first career. I actually did a few things on the east coast before life took me to the west coast. My husband at the time got a job with Microsoft. We moved out and we split up and I needed to get a job to earn enough money to move back east.
So, I joined the force and I was immediately struck by how at this company everybody was smart. And in fact it was very unusual for me to be among the smartest in the room. And I loved the pace, I loved the intensity, and I’d love the opportunity to build and succeed.
I was at the company for about a year and a half before a friend of mine said, “Hey, I’m in this new group, it’s the entertainment product unit the EPU, we’re hiring PMs, so you should come.” I was a program manager. I joined, I think the group was 40 people at the time, and we were working on games like, I think we had just acquired “Flight Simulator”. We had a sports line. We had a game that we were getting ready to ship with Windows 95 called “Hellbender”.
So I joined specifically to build card games. Partly because card games are basically a database with queries, and I was a database architect. I was able to kind of from the ground up help direct both the technical and the development schedule part of this project.
And there was a legend at the time, and I don’t know if this is true, I like to believe that it is, that we needed a card game because we were getting ready to launch MSN, which at the time was called the Microsoft network, as a competitor to AOL and Bill Gates was playing bridge online with apparently Katherine Graham and Warren Buffet and a bridge expert, whose name was Fred Gitelman. And he was playing on a service called OK Bridge. And he didn’t want to use OK Bridge in MSN; he wanted his own service. And so my career in games was born!
Daryl: Because Bill was playing bridge online.
Daryl: That’s probably not what you expected when you charted your career.
Shannon: It was immediately apparent to me that games are an incredibly creative way to tell stories and engage people. At the time that I joined the group, games were such an afterthought for Microsoft. We were not a rounding error. We didn’t have a purpose.
Everybody thought I was committing career suicide by going to this little backwater group that didn’t have any relevance to the greater purpose of Microsoft. And, maybe for a couple of years that was true. But I knew immediately that the games industry was the industry I wanted to be part of.
I had had “purpose” jobs. My first career out of college was working at a think tank in Washington, DC. It was an agricultural economic think tank. And our purpose was to solve world hunger. At the time enough calories were produced on earth every day to feed every human, but they just weren’t properly distributed. World hunger, what a great cause.
After that I fell in love with just the whole earth day movement in Washington, DC, where I was living at the time. And so my next job was cleaning up hazardous waste, working with the EPA to create planning, processes, and long story short, I didn’t succeed there either. We still have quite a bit of it floating around.
So games were sort of the perfect antidote to that. And it didn’t take me very long to figure out that the heroes that I held in highest esteem needed to take a break every now and again. And if you can’t be a hero then getting to put smiles on the faces of your heroes is a pretty darn good way to go.
Daryl: Even Bill Gates plays bridge.
Shannon: That’s right.
Daryl: What was it like to be a woman at Microsoft? I went to graduate school in Seattle in the late eighties and early nineties. Many of my graduate student colleagues from the University of Washington ended up going to Microsoft. Microsoft was always a place, I think that recruited women and valued women, but women in technology and women in gaming, I think, was a kind of minority status, it was a little bit unusual. Tell us more about what that was like for you and what your experience was.
Shannon: It’s interesting because the person that I was then, and the person that I am now–two very different people. I’m not really sure I would have been friends with myself 29 years ago.
The Microsoft culture has evolved much in this time. And so when I talk about Microsoft, understand that it’s changed. It was a very aggressive culture. It was a very, you know, smartest person in the room culture. It was quite common at Microsoft for multiple projects to start out in the same product area and compete with other people internally at Microsoft. The most popular code name for those projects was Highlander, because “There can be only one.”
Microsoft was a company that had more people wanting to come work for the company than we ever had jobs. And so to a certain extent, there was this mentality of upper out, and good behavior, kindness, wasn’t core to the value of the company at the time. And I fit right in. I loved the aggressiveness. I love the fast pace. All those nerdy inside jokes, the table pounding and everything.
What was it like to be a woman at Microsoft? Honestly, in some ways I think I was more from Mars than from Venus at that point. It was difficult. I mean, I mentioned that my marriage had ended and being a single woman, sometimes I felt a bit like bloody chum in a shark pool. I definitely had to draw very hard boundaries at work and be protective of my time
Daryl: Shannon, I’m wondering, was there a particular moment that helped shape your view of what it meant to be a woman at Microsoft?
Shannon: Early on in my career, I attended a talk given by Melinda French Gates. Melinda and I had attended Duke university at the same time. And while I knew her slightly, I didn’t know her well, and I had planned to get in touch with her when I moved out to Seattle, and she announced her engagement. And so I let her be, I did hook up with her every chance I got, she always had such great insight to offer.
And she gave a talk where she basically offered three pieces of advice. They still apply today.
The first piece of advice was don’t try to be one of the guys, be true to who you are. If you like skirts, wear skirts. If you need to take a day off to take care of your kids, take the day off to take care of your kids because they’re not going to come halfway to meet you. You’ve got to just be who you are and defend that.
And then the second piece of advice was, no tech company is going to give you permission to take care of yourself. So, you have to do that. If you need to go for a run at two o’clock in the afternoon and spend the rest of the afternoon in meetings, just do that. It’s critical.
And then the third piece of advice that she offered was build your network and find yourself a sponsor. And she talked about the difference between mentors and sponsors.
Daryl: Shannon I think that people would find it really useful if you could define the important distinction between mentors and sponsors.
Shannon: A mentor is somebody that you engage with on problem solving, you know just a safe place to go with things that are challenging you at work. And then a sponsor is somebody who will think of you when a job comes open and recommend you for the position, and bring you along on a career trajectory on the basis of your skills.
Daryl, you’ve mentioned a couple of times that Microsoft has always recruited women and I am proud to say that there have always been amazing women in the games group. We haven’t always been treated equitably. There have certainly been cultural challenges for us as women.
But I started out early on, with Bonnie Ross, the head of 343 Industries. Kiki Wolfkill joined us pretty quickly. Laura Fryer, who was a long time game industry person. She’s retired since then. Because there were not that many of us in the hallway, it was very easy for us to form our network. That network has been sustaining for me for the entirety of my games career and hopefully beyond.
Daryl: I know Bonnie and Kiki well. What a remarkable cadre you were, all at one time. Microsoft was very fortunate. Here you are still today having this huge impact on XBox and on Microsoft and the gaming industry.
One of the things I’m curious about is, it may have been the case that when you were starting to make a bridge game, for instance, that you were doing that more as a member of a team or an individual contributor, but at some point you made a shift into management and leadership. I’m curious if you could talk about that shift for yourself, where you started overseeing teams and leading teams, and then obviously became a top leader of organizations in terms of running Xbox publishing and also starting World’s Edge.
Shannon: Darryl, I have been, I think, the luckiest human being on earth. Because all through my career I’ve had managers, bosses, leaders around me that were amazing examples of leadership and terrific role models.
My first kind of real job was working for Booz Allen and Hamilton. My manager from my Booz Allen days is still a dear friend. She was just such a great role model. So I knew I wanted to be a manager.
Microsoft had at the time a tendency to promote the great technologists. You had to prove your mettle with the products that you created, the technology that you created. It came slower than I wanted it to come, but eventually I was the last person standing to become a lead. And I inherited a small team of producers on a set of racing games. This was actually before Xbox, we were making recent games for PC.
The last game I made as an individual contributor was called Motocross Madness and Motocross Madness 2, I did as a lead. And it did not come naturally to me. I knew that there were people that I had loved working with and for, but what made them great wasn’t necessarily going to be what would make me effective as a manager and as a leader.
It took me a long time to figure out that there was a difference between management and leadership. I think I was always pretty good at the management part because that’s a lot of process, i-dotting, t-crossing, directing daily work. Leadership is figuring out what you stand for, what values you’re going to infuse your daily work place with. And it took me a surprisingly long time, and in fact I think it was a training course at Microsoft that taught me that’s as important, if not more important than the management part of the job.
Daryl: So talk to us about that. We have been working together for a few years now, it’s been an incredible pleasure. As with all my clients, I grow I think as much as I hope they do from that experience. But when our work began you were a mature leader. You had a leadership philosophy. You stood for things. Very clearly you stood for things. Tell us about what you stand for and what the development of your leadership philosophy was. How that culminated for you.
Shannon: This is a tough question to answer because can I articulate what my leadership philosophy is? I shifted from product to people probably five, seven years ago. My focus has been on team and on individual development.
I trust the teams that I build to deliver the products if I create the right environment for them. Particularly in a creative endeavor I think it’s critical to remove fear. I don’t think anyone who’s afraid can do their best creative work. I make a lot of decisions based on that. Everything from what sort of budget are we going to ask for? How aggressively are we going to try to grow? To, what do we do when somebody makes a mistake and how do we learn from it? Don’t gloss it over, learn from it and move on.
I think another aspect of creating a fear-free workplace is welcoming people of all voices. The modern term for it is diversity, equity, and inclusion. But I was the youngest in a big family and constantly getting left behind. It’s always been important to me for people to know that they are important and that they’re valued and that they’re part of something.
Creating that sense of team has been super critical. I think respect is another one. And respect doesn’t mean you can’t tease people and respect doesn’t mean that you can’t challenge people, but to do so with the right motivation is absolutely critical. The motivation of making things better, making them better, giving them more opportunity to grow, succeed, create, build.
And authenticity I think is one of the other crucial values. I think back to Melinda Gates, this first critical piece of advice, be who you are. I didn’t want anybody to feel like they needed to fit themselves into a mold to be part of the teams that I’ve managed.
Daryl: That is a well-developed philosophy. And if you didn’t feel like you were comfortable talking about it and you are certainly articulate about it.
One of the things I’m impressed by you is your willingness to be self-reflective and your willingness to learn from things that didn’t go as well as you would’ve liked them to have gone. I wonder if you could share a story of a leadership decision or a leadership choice that you made that on reflection, you say gosh I would’ve done something different now based on what I’ve learned, based on what I know, based on what I stand for.
Shannon: I think honestly the entirety of my career has been making mistakes and trying to do better. What is it? Maya Angelou said do your best?
Daryl: I think that quote sounds something like, “Do the best you can until you know better; then when you know better, do better.”
Shannon: I love that. I used to be afraid of failure. I hated to be wrong. I hated to be corrected. I hated to get input. Microsoft taught me pretty quickly that’s a good way to circle yourself down the drain. You’re blocking off the best source of growth that you possibly can have.
When you asked me that question, something that I would do differently now. I mean, basically almost everything, along the way every aspect of leadership has been sort of a work in progress for me. You were actually there for me during one of the darkest times of my career.
I’ve always been outspoken about not just my values internally, but my values externally to Microsoft. And I got a little mouthy on Twitter and wasn’t respectful. The perfect storm, the worst of all worlds happened there. There was a–I don’t even know what to call them–Internet hate mob that focused on women in gaming for a long time. They picked up my bit of disrespect and they turned it into a headline. And then the headline got retweeted by somebody with a lot of followers and it became a news item.
I was embarrassed, and I was terrified, and most of all I realized that it was a good opportunity for me to learn and do better and be a lot more careful to make sure that I reflect the core value of respect in everything that I do no matter how angry something makes me no matter how little I understand the decisions that other people make. I have to assume that they’re coming from a place where that decision, that position, makes sense to them. Who am I to judge whether or not that’s right or wrong.
That’s a little bit of an overstatement, but that drove home to me that I hurt myself when I don’t respect others. In a lot of ways, I had no choice at the time but to pick myself up and move on. But thank goodness for you, thank goodness for your counsel. I think at that point you were performing the role of therapist as much as anything. And together we got through that.
Daryl: You had a great support system and people rallied around you because of how much they admire and respect and love you. What I recall from that, Shannon, was a combination of courage and resilience and then also humility and openness to doing better, as you say. And that combination, I think, got you through that in a way that is characteristic of the kind of leader you are. Where you were able to lean into those values and those personal characteristics. That was inspiring for me to see and to be part of, you know, peripherally supporting you through that.
Shannon: I did quit Twitter though, just for the record.
Daryl: Smart, smart. Yes. One of the things that I’m struck by in the work that I do within Xbox studios, I just coincidentally run into so many women and they will say Shannon Loftus is my mentor. Shannon is the person that I look up to, she’s my role model.
I have an impression that you have lots of conversations with women, probably within Microsoft, but especially with Xbox game studios, where you’re offering them counsel, where you are serving the role of mentor. And I know also you serve the role of sponsor. And so I wonder if you could talk a little bit about you know what your counsel is to women in gaming today?
Shannon: Microsoft offers training on a book and a method of coaching that’s called The Coaching Habit. It’s so good. What I love about it is that the most important questions that people have, the answers already lie within The Coaching Habit.
The training kind of focuses more on that mentorship, more on the tactical, like, oh, I have this logistical problem at work and I need to solve it. So you coach them through trying to figure out, cause they generally already know what the options are and what the best option is. And it’s just for some reason blocked, because it’s a high cost or a particular challenge. But I find that works incredibly well for the philosophical style of mentoring as well.
What do I say to women entering? Obviously the big three from Melinda, be yourself, take care of yourself and build your network. And then, there are a couple of other just tactical pieces of advice that it’s important to keep in mind. There are just habits, there are behaviors that make it difficult for anyone who’s maybe not an extrovert Type A to thrive in a tech environment.
Make sure going into a meeting, you’ve got an ally at the table. If you say something you need to get glossed over, this person’s job is to say, hey, hang on a minute. Did you hear what Darryl had to say there? That’s an important point. Let’s not miss it. Barack Obama actually did that in his White House. The women in his White House noticed that their points were being picked up by men and not being acknowledged until the men had said them. So, they made a pact with each other that they would echo each other at the table. A few weeks of doing that without actually making a case of it and they were finally able to point out that it made a difference. So that became codified behavior in the Barack Obama White House.
I think the advice for anybody who isn’t the majority in the room, is specifically to own who you are, to own your authentic voice. Because what you have to say is super-important. And the people in the room deserve to hear your voice. It’s about feeling like it’s your right. It’s not just a right, it’s actually critical to the success of the business for these less heard voices to be part of the conversation.
So what I try to do when I’m mentoring women is just empower them to be who they are, to bring their best selves, their whole selves to the job every day. To own their womanhood, their parenthood if they’re parents, their singlehood, all the things that make them, them.
Daryl: I wonder, is there a before and after story about that where you provided counsel like that. Encouragement, advice, courage, and then you saw on the other side, wow. Look at the impact of that. Look what she did. Look what’s happened as a result of that.
Shannon: There’s a woman that you work with actually in our billion dollar business who wasn’t really convinced that she deserved the seat at the table. She had imposter syndrome. I’m super pleased to say that she’s a very empowered leader now and she’s doing great, innovative work.
Daryl: What was the path and what were those conversations like that led to that? Was there a breakthrough moment?
Shannon: It’s a series of conversations. Sometimes there’s wine involved.
It starts out with, I think, expressing the frustration that you feel, because no matter what, if you don’t bring your whole authentic self to every conversation, you’re going to build up a pile of unexpressed thoughts, unsaid things. The worst feeling is uncontributed value.
And so, starts out with a good old fashioned bitch session. You know, I couldn’t make myself heard, I couldn’t have the impact that I wanted to have. I don’t think they understand, and then there is a lot of, just mutual, why? What’s holding you back? How do you make yourself heard more? Who’s there at the table to back you up who needs to understand your value better? How do you build that relationship?
It’s not just women. I’m going to say anyone who’s sort of othered end up doing a lot of emotional engineering for crucial conversations. What baggage is the person on the other side of the table bringing in? What’s their mindset? What are their goals? What are their values? How do I relate what I have to say to those goals and values? It’s great work. It’s hard work, but we do a lot of talking about what it takes to have that impact. For critical conversations, we will literally rehearse them.
Daryl: What I hear you doing there is something that we really value at Kenning which is, imagine the person across the table who you’re trying to engage, who you’re trying to reach, imagine who they are, imagine what’s on their mind and then craft your message for that audience. It’s more than just about you, it’s about thinking about the whole system here. There’s something about growing your own courage, your own strength, your own voice, but it’s also about imagining the other.
Shannon: It’s not a tax, it’s not a penalty. This is collaboration.
Daryl: You’ve got this long, remarkable career. I don’t even know how you would keep track of the number of games that you have been involved in and played a role in bringing to the market. I know based on our conversations over the past few years, that you really value your experience with Kinect. And I think in fact you’ve identified it as a real highlight of your career. Can you tell us more about your involvement in the origins of Kinect?
Shannon: Nintendo had come out with the Wii, and the Wii changed gaming. It added human motion to gaming and it made gaming a good thing instead of like a shameful curse upon the youth of the world.
Kinect was just such a great physical challenge, because we had to eliminate A B, X Y thinking. Those are the buttons on the controller. Kinect is an input device where you use your entire body as the controller and it tracks your movements and you can be a character placed into a world, or you can control things with gestures. It was much more than just a gaming input device. It was a step forward in human computer interaction.
But mostly what I loved was building the team around a culture of different thinking for game design. It was super fun, again very intense. I know there are people in the gaming community that think that Kinect was not a great direction, but I’m still super proud of what we created and even more so that we created something that allowed other people to create things. So the Kinect technology lives on and a lot of the Connect thinking lives on in HoloLens and in VR and AR today, which is great.
Daryl: I’d like to do a double-click on “Age of Empires” and on World’s Edge, because that has been such, I think, a rewarding and satisfying experience, certainly for you for me, as somebody who’s, played a role in supporting you and your team through that.
Shannon: The capstone of my career was building World’s Edge. World’s Edge focused on a game franchise called “Age of Empires”. “Age of Empires” is 25 years old. It was a big game back when Microsoft was in PC gaming. And then we neglected it for many years when we were focusing more on console, but the community stayed there.
And so this awesome small group of people put together a plan to unite the community because they had become quite fractured across many different versions, some legit, some not legit, of the “Age of Empires” games. We brought all of the community together by re-releasing the elderly “Age of Empires” games with some quality of life improvements in a common backend, invited that set of gamers in to help up give new life by releasing “Age of Empires 4.”
And then Matt and I made this deal that I would focus entirely on team and culture. And team and culture would produce the games and the franchise that we wanted.
Daryl: That’s Matt Booty who runs Xbox game studios, who I’ve worked closely with for years and who you’ve worked closely with for years. And is himself a remarkable and wonderful leader.
Shannon: So, the team turned around basically an entire franchise. I love these up into the right charts about the number of people and the revenue and the engagement and the streaming that we’re seeing two and a half years from just a few thousand people playing the game to a million MAU.
Daryl: That’s MAU, M-A-U, or monthly active users, which is a common measure used especially in gaming and in the online world more broadly to measure user engagement. Our work together has mirrored that whole process. It’s been just wondrous for me to see what you and your team have done together.
Shannon: Daryl you’ve been a critical part of it. You gave me permission to focus on leadership and team.
Daryl: Well, that was the smartest thing I ever did, I guess. What’s interesting about it for me is that what you guys have done has completely overlapped with a worldwide pandemic. Not necessarily the best environment or circumstances to embark on a new adventure together, but it turns out that you guys figured it out.
And I wonder if you could speak to leadership and a pandemic. So many leaders are looking for examples of success in this moment in time. You guys didn’t just maintain something and keep something going that existed. You created something brand new. I wonder if you could just speak to your approach to leadership in this environment.
Shannon: It was a great opportunity to try and fail, and then try better. I think the hardest part of leading in a pandemic is maintaining consistency of culture, consistency of product, vision, forward progress.
It’s funny, we learned how many of our processes depended on people being in the room. So systematically, we bumped into wall after wall and we had to redesign these processes, to work better over teams. Microsoft uses teams: great example, towards the end of any product development cycle, you have a period where you are just reviewing hundreds, if not thousands of bugs every single day and deciding which ones get fixed. That’s been a process. It’s always been very intense in terms of people in a room. We had to refactor that entire process to work on teams. Ultimately, I think, it led to a lot of people doing more of the bug evaluation work ahead of time because being on teams for hours and hours and hours is a very exhausting process.
Being on camera for hours and hours is an exhausting process. I think humanism really matters when you’re in a situation like the one that we’ve been in for the last two years. You don’t know what’s going on at home, but you can pretty much guarantee that it ain’t all work. There are kids that are homeschooling, there are people working at a kitchen table on a chair that’s not as comfortable or suited for the work that they’re doing. There are people that don’t have the best internet, and blink in and out. There are people who are worried about friends and relatives, and there are people that are sick.
So it’s really, like take a deep breath, realize that the work that you’re doing only gets better if you incorporate all of those human factors into what you’re trying to create. And yeah, it means that maybe the game or the product runs late, goes a little bit over budget. But if you approach creativity with a spirit of generosity and joy, the end product is always going to be better.
Daryl: Speaking of interruptions. My 12-year-old son just entered the room to collect the Xbox. So this couldn’t be, you know, more propitious.
Shannon: What’s he gonna play?
Daryl: I think Minecraft, so, yeah.
Shannon: Excellent choice.
Daryl: Shannon, I’m curious. And this is on the minds of so many people right now, is that we essentially went through a revolution in the last couple of years of working within a physical office and mostly working directly with other human beings in the same space to a virtual culture. I think that has posed lots of challenges. I’m curious if you could speak to the kinds of tactics and strategies that you and your team have employed to ameliorate that situation.
Shannon: In pandemic when we’re all working on teams, meetings are virtual, it’s all camera facing. The thing that you lose are those casual conversations, the serendipity that comes from going to get coffee at the same time or taking a walk and running to lunch or shouting something over the edge of your cubicle to somebody else.
So we found ourselves as a team first trying to force, and then naturally finding ways to reestablish those loose connections. It started out with creating a whole bunch of Teams channels around shared interests. Like “The Witcher” is a TV series that came out and we had a discussion on “The Witcher”.
For a while, people had like a Teams channel open just for company, but that proved to be fairly honorous. Plus, Teams doesn’t allow you to have more than one channel open at a time. There’s no way to run it as a background thing. We have a Discord that’s not necessarily work-related.
Ultimately, we found that some combination of just recreating the coffee experience on Teams and then also playing a lot of games together, and increasing the number of unplanned conversations whether you know, it’s hey, you got a second on teams or, just like a text, we text each other quite a lot, was a way of trying to keep the informal energy and conversations flowing.
When vaccines became a thing, we did, get together physically in a safe way, outside, masked that sort of thing. And the sort of ceremony to being physically together, made it super precious time and super effective time.
And so I rethought, what is the role of the office in the way that World’s Edge works? I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to a world where that team has to get up and go into the office and be there for some fixed set of working hours. Instead, we’ve been revisualized, it as like a college campus, where you might go for a lecture, you might go for a study work group.
But in general, you’re going to find a place where you’re comfortable doing your own individual work, whether it’s curled up in your bed with your laptop or going to a coffee shop, if that becomes a thing again. And the office is a place for touchdown. It’s a place for communal learning, but it’s not necessarily the default for where you go and do your work.
Daryl: I so appreciate those thoughts. And I think that leaders in every industry are reflecting on what is the right combination of environments and interactions and organic conversations as opposed to planned conversations and everything has moved so much towards the planned conversation that what you guys have done to spark something that’s more organic and more natural and that might initiate new ideas or new human connections is just so important.
I’m going to shift us here in the last portion of this conversation to talking a little bit about our work together. That includes both our coaching time, our one-on-one time together as well as what I, with my partner, Cathy Boeckmann, did with you and your leadership team in terms of what we came to call strategic capacity building. I wonder if you might just speak to a little bit about your experience of our coaching relationship and what you have liked about that, what value that has brought. I’d love feedback about what I could learn and do better and do differently.
Shannon: Darryl, you were value-add from the first conversation. This probably goes without saying, but leadership is work. It’s tasks. It needs to be scheduled. It’s not necessarily writing code or creating PowerPoints, but it’s directed thought and decision-making and being mindful about how you present, what you present, what you stand for, what you’re going to fight for and what you’re going to leave behind.
When you and I first started working together, I was in a different role, and I was overwhelmed. I was fighting a toxic culture. I had empowered a leader that wasn’t representing my values. And we were trying to dig ourselves out of some very big product holes.
The first thing you did was you had me go through my calendar and remove meetings to create white space. I had known intellectually that leadership needs time and it needs thought, but the first thing that you showed me was to value my time appropriately. I was perhaps mentoring too many people. I was definitely devoting too much of my time to trying to appease a lot of different elements in my team, not fixing the problem but trying to put band-aids on the cultural problems that we had long enough so that we could finish the products that we were working on. And although I had known Matt and been friends with him for quite a while, I hadn’t worked for Matt before.
You were also instrumental in helping me define my relationship with my manager and all of these are leadership decisions. There’s this phrase, developing your leadership voice. It’s probably the most important work that a leader can do. And that’s where you and I have focused for the last several years in my own development.
I joked before about how you’re a therapist, but I’ve had a lot of executive coaches, and I’ve had some pretty good ones. But I’ve also had a lot of coaches that didn’t get out of that relationship what I wanted to, but I’ve never had a coach where I cried as often as I did in our meetings. Just knowing that you have a tremendous amount of empathy, you’ve actually developed a working knowledge of the critical elements of our team, and you have a massive tool kit that you can bring to bear in any kind of leadership situation, whether it’s the important versus urgent matrix in terms of deciding what we need to focus on. Or even just taking a look at an important PowerPoint deck that I have to put together and pointing out where maybe I’m making an assumption that people understand things that they don’t.
You are a person that functions in your coaching role at the center and the circumference of everything. You seem to understand that crucial parts of like the human relationships that make people effective in their leadership roles. And then also just have a whole lot of neat tricks that you can employ in many situations to lend a little bit of structure to thinking and decision-making. I just know that I’m coming out of our coaching relationship not just a better leader, but a better person. I’m better with my family and I’m better with my friends.
Daryl: Maybe I should put a tagline on our website that says Daryl Ogden executive coach, he will make you cry.
Shannon: No, Darryl Ogden executive coach, he will let you cry.
Daryl: There you go. That’s a nice distinction. Part of our coaching work we did, we talked about strategy and development of strategy. It’s very different from an interpersonal challenge or a culture challenge; you wanted to build your own toolkit and your own skill set around strategy. Those were really fun individual conversations. We had frameworks and things to think about there and ways of making sense of strategy. And then you said, wait a second. I want my team to have access to this. This would be good. And so I wonder if you could just speak to that experience and what drove that?
Shannon: We built teams consciously or unconsciously, as a mirror image of ourselves. And I’ve always been a good tactician, a good technologist. And strategy I wouldn’t say has been my strong suit. I hired people that are excellent at what they do in terms of producing games, coding games, designing games, managing community, not necessarily with a big strategic capacity.
And so, I learned so much from you about how to break down the business problem into its barest elements and execute on some yes no decision-making, but you have to have the right set of yes no questions. And identifying those questions is the art. And I realized that I wanted to set my team up for long-term success. I wanted them to have those same capabilities.
And so, we engaged in a series of workshops, strategic capacity building workshops, where you introduced to my team all the tools, and the decision trees, and the pivotal questions, and breaking down any scenario into as many questions as MECE requires, and then figuring out what are the branches that come out of that and then how to walk those decisions.
Daryl: For those folks who didn’t pursue management consulting as a career, that’s MECE, M-E-C-E, or “mutually exclusive; collectively exhaustive,” a tool we commonly use for strategic problem solving.
Shannon: In the course of learning that, we also learned that there are two different kinds of strategic decision-making, that there’s strategic problem solving, which is basically where a space as well understood and the challenge is to try to get to the end of that space, optimizing for the factors that matter most.
And then there is strategic ideation, which is where you don’t know what the right answer is and the right answer most likely requires culture change. It’s also known as an adaptive problem space. We were lucky enough to get to wrestle with both with you.
Daryl: Have you seen your team, your leads have different strategic capacity as a result of it?
Shannon: I am retiring. I am leaving that team behind. I feel so confident that they are set up for long-term success because they use the skills and the tools that we talked about every single day. They break down decision trees, and they are very deliberate in taking the time upfront to determine whether a certain decision or challenge is a strategic problem to be solved or requires ideation. Yeah, I would say you changed the entire approach.
Daryl: I think that we did it together and it was really a collaborative effort. So, Shannon, this has been as all of our conversations are such a fun and rewarding conversation, which I’ve enjoyed very much. And I just want to thank you for your generosity at a very busy and interesting time for you, to have taken the time to do this for us and for our listeners.
Shannon: Thank you. It’s been a complete pleasure. It’s a great time for me to do some reflecting and start thinking about, you know, what it means to me to be a former studio head. I love talking about these topics and I hope to keep talking about them for a long time. So, if anybody wants to reach me, ever the corporate girl, I’m on LinkedIn: Shannon Loftus on LinkedIn.