Illustrated by Matt Peet
Like many of us, Brian Pang grew up playing games developed and published by Electronic Arts (EA). Shortly after graduating from college, he joined EA as an entry-level QA tester. At the time, he saw it as a temporary opportunity. The last thing on his mind was contemplating how to develop his leadership style in the technology and gaming industry.
Seventeen years later, Brian has turned in a career as a development director at EA, based in Vancouver, where in addition to developing sports titles he has become a staunch proponent of servant leadership. “I see my role as an enabler of all our different functions to excel, to deliver on their commitments and to meet their objectives,” he says. “Helping other people is one of the reasons why I’m in this field.”
That term, “servant leadership,” gets bandied about as if we should all know what it means. So let’s start with how Brian understands it:
“A servant leader, versus a more traditional leader, is more focused on the needs of the people that work on the team,” he says. “To me, it’s leading with empathy. What that means is prioritizing the team’s wellbeing, the team’s growth and creating an environment where the team can perform at the best of their ability.”
Perhaps the biggest paradigm shift for many traditional leaders taking on servant leadership is away from leading a team the way they think the team should operate toward empowering a team to define its own best approaches. Brian’s role is not to be the smartest, loudest or most experienced person on the team. Instead, he is the team’s biggest supporter. And once his team progresses through the Tuckman stages of group development—forming, storming, norming, performing—his main job shifts.
“Then, as a leader, it's about really getting out of the way and letting the team do their job,” he says.
Servant leaders still have to manage resources and organizational decisions. Those are critical functions. But Brian first moved into leadership because he wanted to help people. And he learned along the way that taking on an empathetic leadership style may not come naturally to everyone—or even in different circumstances. So here, we have compiled Brian’s nine strategies for helping you and other leaders to operationalize servant leadership.
1. Be human about it
Creating a safe environment, where team members can take risks and learn from failures, is the key to psychological safety. Brian has another way to describe that environment: be human.
“It’s a balance between reminding the team what their goals are, and cultivating trust,” he explains. “We have to ensure we’re being human about that.”
Our teammates might work with machines all day, but they are not machines themselves. Mistakes happen, and they’ll increase during stressful times like, say, a global pandemic. Being human means accounting for human needs and variables in our plans and not holding our teams accountable for unrealistic expectations in the face of life events, both global and personal.
That’s not to say that productivity doesn’t matter. But building trust that you will listen to your team’s needs, and factor them in, is part of supporting the team to do their best. “We definitely need to continue driving toward product excellence and ensuring that our teams are able to succeed,” Brian says. “It’s about setting the right expectations and adapting.”
2. Up the service effort when times require it
In the past year, even more tech teams shifted to working remotely. Being physically distanced from his teams didn’t stop Brian from connecting. In fact, he doubled down on the empathy—on being human about it.
“Despite the physical distance, I've been able to grow closer to the people I work with,” he says. “I’ve been able to learn more about their struggles and successes. And I've been able to learn more about their families and, conversely, my teammates have learned more about mine. All of that has just led to a greater sense of trust and a greater sense of humanity.”
Succeeding as a servant leader in any circumstance means getting to know your team members on different levels. That doesn’t change if they’re working from home instead of co-located in an office, or if any other circumstances shift in a way that requires more effort from you as the leader.
“It really comes down to relationship building and ensuring that trust is continuing to be built upon,” Brian says. “There will always be a balance between what's happening in the world and the human aspect of the leader-and-employee relationship.”
3. Level the playing field
One lesson Brian learned during the COVID-19 times is another extension of being more human about it. He found that for all the drawbacks of Zoom calls, they made it easier for the team to get to know each other as people—since everyone was in their natural environment.
That even goes for executives and C-suite, the people typically the hardest to connect with in any company at scale.
“In the past, when meeting with executives in person, you’d enter the room,” Brian says. “Depending on your role and level, you'd have to sit in a certain seat at the table or be in a different part of the room. Those dynamics have shifted. Now, because everyone's at home at their desks, those power dynamics have been relaxed. In that regard, it's been easier to converse with people. And when it comes to things like asking for additional resources or changes, there's more empathy and understanding of the constraints that we're all up against.”
A challenge for tech leaders re-entering “normal” will be to maintain that leveled playing field in a meaningful way—recognizing, perhaps for the first time, that teams are better supported when they can understand that their CEO is a human, too—and when the CEO can share that same connection with development teams.
4. Open the floor on project development
Like many development organizations, Brian and other org leaders come up with the product goals for a given project, in conjunction with some small subset of the team. But unlike many development organizations, soon after that step, they tend to open up the process to the entire team. Everyone has a chance to offer input into the product goals and the team goals.
“The team goals really matter,” Brian says. “Team goals will help the group establish how they’d like to be measured, how they’d like to track their progress toward the product vision. As a result, everyone understands what we need to track and why we need to measure and how it’s going to be done.”
This shifts the team from a compliance mentality to a commitment mentality. Leaders, of course, still remain adept at keeping the team aligned with the vision and the milestones laid out in the project plan. But by involving the team in constructing that project plan, you’ve created buy-in from the start. You’ve gifted your team a sense of ownership that’s nearly impossible to develop when marching orders simply come down from on high.
Leaders still need to work with the realities of delivering outcomes, which means some top-down measurement in conjunction with the team-engineered benchmarks. Ultimately, though, that combination is about empowering your team to create their own ways of measuring themselves, and then weaving those into the top-down level too.
5. Check in to support mental health
Oftentimes, a team’s or an IC’s metrics can point to overwork, intense stress or other burnout factors. But not always, and not reliably. You can’t rely on a decline in productivity as a harbinger of burnout, and there are plenty of other mental health considerations that a servant leader needs to remain vigilant for.
“I have frequent check-ins with my team members—and not just the folks that report to me, but also the people who work across the team,” Brian says. “I spend a lot of my days talking to people and just understanding how they're feeling about various facets of their lives and how these may impact their work. And if anyone indicates that they need support, I will find a way to provide that for them, either through company resources or through my own personal networks. It’s very important to keep a pulse on how team members are doing.”
Brian encourages everybody, leaders and all other team members alike, to consider their mental health. Something as simple as additional time off can mitigate stress factors and help support both individuals and the team long term. Other stressors require other resources beyond unplugging—and even if the company isn’t providing those resources at the moment, Brian will strive to connect team members with them.
“If your company is only providing a certain set of mental health resources, and team members don’t feel they’re adequate, I see it as my role to push for even more,” he says.
6. Cut production waste
“Production waste is a constant challenge,” Brian says. “And the challenge has been exacerbated in this past year with everyone working remotely.”
But it is an issue with co-located teams too, and will continue to be as tech organizations move back into their offices. Brian’s prescription is an increase in tool usage—not just to buy the flashiest new tool, but always to align and sync within teams and between partner teams.
“Our Slack channels have exponentially increased,” he says. “The number of meetings and video conference calls has also exponentially increased. It’s one of those things that we aren’t able to break free from. There is no great solution—but a bad solution would be to not communicate, to not align, to not sync.”
Constantly tweaking and incrementally streamlining processes is the name of the game here.. Ultimately, when your team members feel they are wasting less productive time, they feel more supported, have more freedom to create and develop skills.
7. Cut meeting waste, too
Brian mentioned the increase in meetings and video calls, which deserve their own emphasis for cutting waste. Beyond the distinction of maker time vs. manager time, which describes the need that creative workers (like developers) have for long, uninterrupted blocks of time, trimming the excess from meetings saves everyone time and effort.
“One thing that I’ve seen success with is planning meetings in advance,” Brian says. “In the past, we had a tendency to set meetings with very little agenda and not much pre-alignment. But in this age of so many meetings, it’s important to be very intentional before clicking that send button.”
To trim the fat from meetings, Brian recommends a few things:
- First of all, answer this: Does the meeting really need to happen? “Could it be an email?” he says. “I know that’s a meme nowadays, but it’s actually very legitimate.”
- Provide a well-defined agenda.
- Make sure that attendees understand their role & purpose in the meeting.
- Communicate any outcomes or decisions in writing after the meeting.
- Record the meeting, both for those who could not attend, and for attendees to play back for clarity.
“These are critical ways we’ve changed our meeting mindset and improved our meeting hygiene,” he says.
8. Actually, just go ahead and cut all kinds of waste
Brian describes himself as “passionate about removing activities that aren't critical and doing whatever we can to clear the path for ourselves and also for our team members.” Thus, his operational mindset is one of continuous inspection. Which activities are helpful, beneficial, efficient, important—and which ones are not?
Some examples Brian cited include project reports, operational checklists, daily processes and workflows. When these have excess or duplicated steps, it serves the team well to either remove or automate those steps as much as possible. If a report has several sections containing data and analysis which require team members’ input, it is worth questioning the cadence, and whether all the sections are required. The recipients may only find one or two of these sections useful or necessary.
Through these types of inspections, Brian says, teams can gain efficiencies and can then better manage capacity to take on other responsibilities.
“A lot of the daily operations on a team are passed down from team members who may not even be on the team anymore,” he says. “So we’re doing things, but asking ourselves why they are important. And if there isn’t a clear answer on that, then the next stage is to understand what would happen if we removed them from our daily operations. It’s a big focus on streamlining. While that might be some heavy work up front, the payoff down the road is significant.”
9. Be situational about it
If “Be human about it” is the alpha of servant leadership, then “Be situational about it” is the omega.
“Being a leader requires you to be able to adapt to situations and adjust,” Brian says. “Think through various situations, develop a variety of tools to add to your tool belt and maintain a growth mindset. Adapting and learning are the keys to situational leadership.”
It is necessary for all leaders to learn to operate and navigate through the unknown - to guide and steer, sometimes without much clarity. This does not mean leaders are comfortable with uncertainty – “as a leader, there is no such thing as being comfortable or fearless”, Brian says.
“Learning from those experiences is important. Learn from people who have lived through those experiences. Those situations and learning how to resolve them will help develop and sharpen more tools which can then be added to your tool belt. Then develop the ability to know which tool is best to use each situation”
Situations change all the time, especially in tech and creative fields like the gaming industry. The products change. The consumers change. The personnel change. The tools, the techniques, the environments—they all change. Even each stage of a single team’s development will require adaptability, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
A situational leader develops skills that thread through all the changes, though. Skills like empathy. Like being a servant leader.
“My message for any aspiring leader or anyone in leadership looking to develop at a higher level would be the importance of using your voice to uplift and advocate for the people around you,” Brian says. “It's important to elevate teams and the people that work on those teams. Ultimately you're supporting other people and helping your community members succeed. Being able to uplift your teams and in turn gaining the trust of your team members, being able to influence and attract people to the organizational goals and being able to serve others—that is a superpower of great leaders.”
Be human: Brian explains that creating a safe environment, where team members can take risks and learn from failures just requires being human with them.
Increase effort when times require it: Brian explains that succeeding as a servant leader in any circumstance means getting to know your team members on different levels, regardless of how physically distant you are from them.
Level the playing field: Embrace the benefits of seeing a CEO inside their house on a video conference. When the team can understand that their CEO is a human, and when the CEO can reciprocate, everyone wins.
Open the floor on project development: Involve the larger teams earlier and more often from concept to delivery. This will shift attitudes from a compliance mentality to a commitment mentality.
Support mental health, like for real: Brian encourages everybody, leaders and all other team members alike, to consider their mental health. Something as simple as additional time off can help.
Cut production waste: Constantly tweaking processes is the name of the game here. When your team members feel they are wasting less productive time, they feel more supported, and they have more freedom to create.
Cut meeting waste, too: Brian recommends trimming the fat from meetings by creating agendas and always re-thinking if the meeting could be better served in an email?
Actually, just go ahead and cut all kinds of waste: From documentation to reports, nothing should be untouchable. If a report is creating too much busy work for developers, trim it down or remove it entirely. Focus on what moves the business forward.
- Think situationally, solve dynamically: Situational leaders develop skills that thread through constant change. It’s important to take things as they come, listen to the team and always work toward improvement.
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