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High Scores in the Leadership Game

November 26, 2003
Not all that long ago, PacMan was the height of video-game sophistication. Compare the primitive dot-gobbling yellow disk to today’s elaborate, complex games such as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, and it’s clear how far the video- and computer-game field has advanced. The mind-boggling success of the industry in recent decades has led to both huge profits and huge headaches. Electronic Arts, a $2.5 billion, 4,500-employee interactive-entertainment company, has experienced both.

    While the organization has been a leader in the field since its 1978 inception, a few years ago it was struggling to keep pace with its own explosive growth. Licensing and product-development opportunities abounded, but there wasn’t enough creative or business leadership to capitalize on them. In a first-generation industry, there was no existing body of knowledge about how to run the business. The company could not simply go out and recruit new employees with the necessary experience, know-how and creative juices. Current leaders in the field are self-taught because no degrees or certificates in the craft are granted; no product-development or operational practices have been established.

    "It was a strategic imperative to internally develop enough leaders for our growth and succession needs," says Andy Billings, vice president of human resources for the Redwood City, California, organization. As a way to locate and groom the best and brightest of its employees, Electronic Arts launched a program seven years ago called Emerging Leaders to develop the company’s next generation.

    The program is achieving its goal: more than two-thirds of the participants have been promoted or have taken on significantly more responsibility. When compared to other employees at the same level, Emerging Leaders are 150 percent more likely to be promoted to director, vice president or general manager, and they have a 50 percent higher retention rate. Building on the program’s success, Electronic Arts began offering the Creative Leaders program two years ago for game designers and others who work on imaginative projects. Though bottom-line or other quantitative results of the program haven’t been measured, Billings says, product reviews and consumer feedback indicate that it’s paying off. In the video- and computer-game fields, both business and creative leaders are critical. "Each product area needs businesspeople, whom we call ‘suits,’ as well as creative people," Billings says. The "suits" understand the entertainment market, can get software products delivered to retailers in compressed time periods and do it at a profit. Creatives are the imaginative designers, developers and marketers of a constantly changing portfolio of licensed and new intellectual properties.

    Twelve employees from throughout the company are chosen to participate in the Emerging Leaders program each year on the basis of their manager’s recommendation and their perceived potential. Once a month for six months, members of the group spend up to three days meeting with the CEO and other company executives. They attend presentations, Q&A sessions and lunch or dinner meetings to discuss problems and give and receive feedback on company practices, opportunities and challenges.

    Participants in the Creative Leaders program meet once a quarter for six to eight quarters. They attend skills-building workshops, immersing themselves in everything from The Iliad and Beowulf to television melodrama, detective stories, comic books, magic shows and modern dance. They study with professors from MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Department to learn how other entertainment genres capture and hold an audience’s attention, and how to apply those techniques to a digital environment. For example, they may read Shakespeare and discuss how the master playwright created a bond with his audience. Then they’ll try to build those elements into the games. Future events will include cross-talk sessions with directors, producers and cinematographers from the film industry. The organization established the position of chief creative officer for the group’s executive sponsor and champion.

    Electronic Arts’ leadership programs are ensuring the company’s future. In a study of 730 CEOs by the Conference Board, a business knowledge network for the world’s largest corporations, participants said that developing and retaining leaders was one of the top three management issues, following only customer retention and reducing costs. "It pays dividends to invest in high-potential leaders. [Companies that do so] won’t later have to go outside the organization to ‘buy’ leaders, which is an increasingly expensive and challenging proposition," says Marc Effron, global practice leader at Hewitt Associates in Chicago. "Companies that clearly identify, aggressively grow and properly compensate their high-potential leaders will see a handsome payoff from that investment."

    Because Electronic Arts wants the programs to show business results, it has placed special emphasis on "promoting transfer of learning to the work setting," Billings says. In between workshops, participants in both programs put their newfound knowledge to work. Emerging leaders try out one new business practice and measure its return on investment; creative leaders take an idea or principle from each session and design it into games in development. "One participant applied several newly learned business-analysis and negotiation techniques, and added millions in sales and increased profitability of a retail partnership," Billings says. "This shows that the program is providing promotable, effective ‘suits’ who are making business contributions. And the ‘creatives’ are upgrading the entertainment value of products with ideas and practices from the program."

Workforce Management, December 2003, pp. 55-56 -- Subscribe Now!