Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Role Models

Been a while since my last blog (my apologies - I actually wrote one and deleted it... very long story), but I'm up slightly early this morning and figured now would be a good time. My wife and I had a great conversation last night, after attending an event at UCLA where I spoke in front of a small crowd of around 100 people, and I think this conversation got my mind going sufficiently to write a post.

I went to USC across town - and was sure to make
many jokes about this classic rivalry :)
The event was supposed to be focused on entrepreneurship where I would share experiences with the start-up community around UCLA / LA in general with lessons learned from Riot's early days, but in a very fun turn of events the tickets that the school had allocated were almost all gobbled up by League of Legends players from UCLA.  I always love the opportunity to connect directly with our players and this was a very cool and intimate setting where I got to directly answer questions to the group about anything they wanted to talk about. The event ran for an hour and afterwards, I spent over another hour more talking to each person individually who wanted to line up for pictures, shake hands, ask additional questions, or ask questions on the best way to apply to Riot, etc.

It had been a while since I had a chance to sit down for a prolonged period of time with so many different LOL players and it was a fantastic experience.  But what was also very interesting was that this was the first time my wife had actually had an opportunity to directly hear the stories from League players talking about how meaningful the game is to them and how appreciative they are of Riot's efforts.

A couple cool highlights as examples:
- One woman (Vivian, you rock) made Tryndamere and Ashe dolls and wrote a thank you letter to Riot to thank us for making her favorite game and she actually apologized (no need!) for not being able to spend any money in the game (because she's a student without much money!) and she said she wanted to find a way to express her appreciation.  Wow!
- One engineering student highlighted that the game is how he and his brother who live across the country from each other now keep in touch and have been able to remain close despite the distance
- An exchange student from China mentioned that the game was how he has been able to assimilate into Western culture and meet great friends at UCLA.  It's a shared language that helped him bond with people from completely different backgrounds.

Hearing these stories like these are enough to make even the toughest Barbarian King as weepy as Amumu. We LOVE these stories at Riot and constantly try to collect them because of how motivating they are to all of us.

But what my wife wanted to talk about and highlight was how amazed she was about how genuinely inspired people were and how cool of an opportunity it is to be able to potentially positively impact people's lives around the world even in some small way.  This led to a conversation about the importance of role models where we each reflected on the role models that we have, or that we seek and those individuals who helped shape our perspectives on how we view the world (oftentimes unbeknownst to them).

Amumu is always weepy
I wanted to take some time this morning to highlight some of the people whom I have never met who inspire me, and why I think having role models is very important.  I'll start with the latter first.

I often ask people in interviews who their role models are.  Why?  Because I think this can tell you a lot about the person.

- Do they have role models?  If they can't think of any, that's a big flag.  Do they not take the time to reflect on what values they aspire towards?  Do they not admire anyone's accomplishments?  Are they too cynical or jaded to be inspired?  Any of these are sufficiently worrisome to want to probe deeper around that particular concern.  I have encountered many people whom I concluded didn't have any role models because they were too busy being impressed with themselves to take the time to admire others.  This suggests that they are not humble, self-aware or that interested in pushing themselves to learn about different things or challenge their own assumptions.

There are possible valid reasons to not have any role models (of course), but the key is understanding the rationale.  One example I'll highlight is that it is often hard (but clearly not impossible) for aspiring woman entrepreneurs to find women role models who are extremely successful at building businesses while being sufficiently attentive to their families (this is a sufficiently large topic for books, let alone a tiny blog - and yes, society and guys in general need to do more here... topic for another day).

- Who are their role models?  Common answers are various celebrities because their persona embodies a particular ideal (musicians often do this well), parents or grandparents oftentimes cited for work ethic, balance or achievements both professionally and/or at home.  The more rare answers that I have heard are often stories of inspiration oriented around certain peers with admirable qualities that are subtle, such as a friend who exhibited great courage in a situation where she stood up against something she believed was wrong in the face of very strong social pressure, etc.  People admiring politicians and military leaders are also remarkably rare these days, which makes me sad and seems to be a reflection of our dysfunctional system.

There is no right answer clearly, I am mainly looking to understand what the person thinks is inspirational because I think that often is a window into their character and values (which of course is a strong predictor of future behavior) - and that's one of the primary things we're trying to evaluate.

I have had many role models throughout my life.  Some famous, most not.  I have also been inspired by a great many people, but would stop short of allocating the title of "role model" to them.  I am often inspired daily by the great actions or work of the many talented people at Riot, but I label someone a "role model" when it is their persona and value system that inspires me rather than an individual action.  The dictionary defines a role model as "a person looked to others as an example to be imitated" - and this passes the sniff test for me because many of my role models have done exactly that - I wanted to be more like them.

Here are two examples of people who I have referred to as role models:

Yes, I am a badass
Colin Powell - Colin Powell is an amazingly accomplished individual who overcame a huge amount of adversity in his life.  He was born in the 30's in Harlem, NY (tough time and tough neighborhood) and he was fortunate enough to stay out of trouble and join the military.  In the military he was wounded by a booby trap and later survived a helicopter crash.  Pretty formative and tough
experiences.  He became a 4 star general, later became the first black chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and all the while all reports say he stayed a "regular guy".  He apparently declined running for President despite his enormous popularity because he didn't want to deal with all of the crap associated with that (I read his "didn't have the fire in the belly" comment to mean, "there is too much BS to deal with and I'd rather solve problems directly") and later became the secretary of state.

But beyond his impressive career accomplishments despite his humble beginnings, the thing that resonated the most with me was his values and outlook on the world.  My mom gave me a plaque listing "Colin Powell's rules" when I was 13 years old and I still have it on my desk today.  His 13 rules are:

1. It ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
2. Get mad, then get over it.
3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
4. It can be done!
5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
6. Don't let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
7. You can't make someone else's choices. You shouldn't let someone else make yours.
8. Check small things.
9. Share credit.
10. Remain calm. Be kind.
11. Have a vision. Be demanding.
12. Don't take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

From my perspective, these relatively simple rules are truly profound.  Without going into detail and analyzing each one, I'll instead leave them as is and let you take away what you will from them.

Matt Markis - Matt is not famous (at least not yet), but among those who know him, he is one of a kind.  Matt is one of the most humble, genuinely nice people who truly cares for others that you will ever encounter.  It is no wonder that he is now a Psychiatrist who helps people for a living.

I met Matt my freshman year of high school during hell week for football.  And my first encounter with him was essentially me being a complete douche.  Ages 12-14 were not great years for me - I was essentially a "shit head".  Being rude to people for no reason, thinking I was cool and doing a bunch of practical jokes that while oftentimes clever (at least I'll give myself that), they were completely destructive, harmful and often hurtful to other people - and I didn't even realize it.  I was completely in my own world.

Matt is the best at delaying gratification of
anyone I have ever met
So, back to how I met Matt.  I attended the middle school that fed into the high school, which meant I knew a lot more people that Matt who went to a different middle school.  So naturally, Matt was hanging with his friend Adam who also attended that same middle school because they didn't really know anyone else.  So I saw Matt sitting against a wall near the football field trying to find shade against the > 100 degree heat.

So, figuring that I would go meet the new guys, I walked up to them and asked, "Hey, do you guys like rap?" This was 1994 - gangsta rap was in full effect.  They looked at me, paused, shrugged a bit and said "yeah" - to which I replied, "losers!" or something like that and ran off.  I guess I thought I was really cool.

Wow - way to go me.  Matt and Adam were like - "who the hell was that douche"?

Over the next several months, Matt and I were not friends.  But he never held that initial meeting against me and over time as we played football together and had some of the same classes, we got to know each other better.  And I in particular started to notice something over time.

Matt was always calm, patient and easy going.  He was always on time for practice.  He always made every work out session.  He got great grades in school.  He got along with all different types of people and was never judgmental.  He was ridiculously consistent and he did this with a seemingly natural ease that simply emanated from him.  Matt was cool and people liked him for who he was.

In a nutshell, Matt wasn't a "try hard".

He just was who he was and it was great.  Matt had the most quiet confidence of anyone my age who I had ever encountered and it had a profound effect on me.  There was some inflection point where I realized, "wow, I want to be like him", where I genuinely didn't worry about trying to being perceived as clever, funny or cool - and it was far more impactful to ACTUALLY be those things because you ARE them and not because you had to TRY to be them.

I don't know exactly what clicked for me or how it did, but somehow I started to relax and change over time.  I started noticing subtle things other people did that I thought was neat and I'd compliment them.  Like, "Ray, I thought you did a great job with noticias (news) in Spanish class today", and other random comments - but they were genuine.  It was like my whole view of other people and the world was starting to shift.  I started to really appreciate lots of "different types" of people for who they really were, where as before I simply failed to take the time to notice.  This different perspective changed my behavior naturally over time in dramatic fashion (but of course still made mistakes as we all do).  I was still the same person, but the insecurities which caused lame behavior simply started to melt away - and I grew more self-confident which continued to generate more positive momentum for this change.  This gave me the confidence to stand up to a lot of situations - like defending people being bullied by other guys on the football team and fully embracing my hardcore gamer side publicly.  (Why, yes, I DO play D&D - why don't you?).  Later on Matt and I were both voted by our teammates to be co-captains of the football team (along with some other great guys) and we both reached the rank of Eagle Scout together (Matt really helped motivate me to not quit scouting despite all of the other pressures to stop participating).

I realized it takes a lot of hard work, self-reflection and discipline to actually be who you aspire to be day in and day out and that if you really want to change, you CAN change - but it takes time.

Somehow, by Matt being Matt, he changed this for me and it is a gift that I will forever cherish and he didn't even intentionally give.

Some of the homies - check out my afro!
Matt and I went on to become best friends and were roommates in college.  We shared many great adventures together, enjoyed many warm summer nights, philosophical debates, trials, tribulations and amazing times.  Matt is a great friend to this day, and this blog reminds me that I need to do a better job of staying in touch with him and many of the other great relationships that have been built over the years.

It is difficult to stay in touch as we all get older, have families, time-consuming careers, etc - but I will forever cherish how Matt and many of my other friends have challenged me, inspired me and helped me to become who I am today and who will help shape who I will continue to evolve to become in the future.

Let's all do our friends, loved ones and any role models that we may know a favor and let's let them know how meaningful they are to us.

And if you don't have any role models, ask yourself why that is and spend some time thinking deeply about who the person is that you want to be.  When you find that, it's likely that you'll notice some things about other people that you haven't seen before.

Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Values as a Foundation

It's been a while since my last blog - my apologies for that!  It's been fun for me to see some comments on Twitter and elsewhere asking for additional blog posts; to continue my tradition of thinking out loud, maybe I can get into a more regular routine by posting shorter entries?  I fear those types of entries may be less compelling, but, to reference my previous entry re: goal alignment, I would say that the goal of my blog first and foremost is to serve as an outlet for my personal thoughts - so that is what I will attempt to do this morning.

It is 4:40am on Thursday June 6th and what is on my mind?

A couple things are happening that are interesting:
Hail Queen Ashe!
- My wife is due to give birth to our first child (boy!) in less than two weeks.  I am quite excited about this - I was the one twisting her arm for us to get rolling with starting a family, and she's been a champion (hah!).  Being a father is going to be quite an interesting journey and I'm very curious about the upcoming lessons and experiences; I've heard they are unlike pretty much anything else in life.
- Riot has continued to grow and take on more and more challenges.  While rapid growth is not exactly new for us (we went from 60 people to ~1,000 in roughly 3 years since launching League of Legends) many of the challenges are of a slightly different nature than many of the previous challenges because they relate to scale at unprecedented levels for the company.

What do these two events have in common?  They both:
- Have many unknowns associated with their futures
- Over time require more and more "letting go" from their creators
- Will only make their parents proud if the decisions they make are driven by strong values

Having a child and scaling a company may seem like an odd pairing, but I think the common attributes above are worth exploring a bit.

Why?  Because they both largely deal with lots of uncertainty and:
- Uncertainty causes fear
One of my best friends is a fire fighter - THAT is courage
- Fear can have many negative implications on human behavior
- Courage occurs only in the presence of fear (absence of fear is not courage - acting in the face of fear IS courage)
- Values are the thing that help people find the courage to overcome fear and do what is right

As I transition into becoming a father, it will be natural for me to be afraid for my child and to start planning for their future.  I will care deeply about his security, health, well-being, education, etc.  Naturally, I feel the same types of feelings for Riot for this is extremely common among entrepreneurs.  As you can see here there are many references to company's being "the babies" of their founders, and I know my co-founder Brandon feels the same way.

One of the current major focuses for the leadership team at Riot is "institutionalizing" the values of the company throughout the organization.  One of the primary reasons that Riot has been able to grow well is because the company has (to date) done a great job staying true to our values and actually having the reality of day to day operations reflect these values, rather than having them just be inscribed on the walls with lofty statements that are essentially ignored.  With this link I am not attempting to pass judgment or call out a very successful company whom I have a lot of respect for, I am merely pointing out the type of thing that is the number one issue which keeps me awake at night and causes me to come down into my basement to write blog entries like this during the wee hours of the morning.  This is the issue that causes me the most fear when I think about the future of Riot, and this is likely the same cause for concern I will have as I think about my son and his future.


Doing the right thing for players is our guiding beacon
Riot has largely been successful at building a values-driven company culture oriented around serving our players because we have a crystal clear mission statement: To be the most player-focused game company in the world - and this has been our guiding principle in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty and fear of the future.   In a nutshell, this crystal clear message helps orient Rioters towards decisions that do the right thing for our players over and over and over.  If we ever do the wrong thing for our players, it is most likely due to a flaw in execution, rather than the fact that the company is being motivated by something other than serving our players well (and while better, is still not good enough).  It has been nice to be recognized for our efforts here with various awards, but the best reward by far and away is actually seeing delighted players at events like this:

The League of Legends Season 2 World Championships was a historic event

Or seeing the "Thank you Riot" posts around the internet or that we get in personal interactions with players.

But, insert scale into the equation - IE - League of Legends being the most played online game in the world with tens of millions of players playing the game each month, and it is quite an amazing challenge to continue to deliver upon our promise to all players around the world day in and day out.  Ironically, our success has actually been our biggest challenge, because it takes time to create the service infrastructure necessary to carry out our mission in the far corners of the globe as effectively as our players need.  Again, we've done a pretty good job here overall, and while we've had our bumps in the road, we wouldn't be seeing the numbers we are seeing if players didn't see value in the service we are providing them. And in other news, we fortunately believe we are close to getting permanently over the hump from a service technology perspective - but we all know that "soon™" isn't good enough either.

Building effective infrastructure to support scale requires effective leadership and while great leadership is always difficult to come by at any level, it is a more familiar experience for many to lead small teams than it is to lead hundreds.  The leadership skills necessary to be effective "at scale" are different than those to be effective "in the trenches".  Both are necessary, and it has been an interesting challenge to personally grow to be capable of succeeding in this regard, especially because the way leadership success is largely achieved at scale is premised upon the ability of growing the leadership capacity of others to effectively achieve the multitude of initiatives we must accomplish.

(As a side note, on this topic, I think the Jesuits do a great job of teaching authentic leadership values as summarized by their motto, "men and women for others".)    

Finally, today's "amazing" becomes tomorrow's "expectations".  As Riot continues to create amazing experiences, we can't be simply satisfied by these or think "we've won" or "done enough".  The expectations of our players are not static - and thus, we must dynamically adjust to deliver value to them.

"Duh, everyone has one"
Just think about that smart phone you have with you.  Just a couple years ago these were the most magical devices on earth and now if your phone runs out of batteries, or doesn't have "X, Y or Z" features, "it sucks".  Good example of how quickly we become accustomed to new and amazing experiences.  What's the next amazing product or service Apple will provide?  The incremental improvement from the iPhone 5 to 6 likely won't be earth shattering.  Thus, one thing we continually challenge ourselves to become better at is to ensure that we stay abreast to what our players expectations are, and we come up with ways to exceed those expectations - over and over and over.

So what does all this have to do with values?  It means that in order to reliably deliver on our company's mission, at scale, as time goes on - IE - across the entire world, day in and day out, across every service we offer - from League of Legends, to the League Championship Series, to experiences we will offer in the future - it means we need the same elements that have enabled Riot to achieve what it has to date present in all aspects of the organization.

We believe those "elements" are the values of the organization that guide our decision-making.  Hence why the leadership of Riot is very focused on further defining the "who we are", the "how we work" and the "what we do" to help contextualize the nuances that we believe distinguish us as an organization from others and then ensuring that our key internal systems reflect and reinforce those values.  I'm now extremely confident in Riot's ability to institutionalize its values to help the company culture remain strong for years to come - but to be honest - for a period of time, I had some doubt.  We were expanding in many directions simultaneously, everyone on our leadership team was extremely busy and focusing on different areas, and many of us felt a looming shadow.  We hadn't quite succeeded at defining the problem we sensed well enough, and that ambiguity caused some fear and uncertainty for a time.

The answer?  Go back to our roots.  Our values.  Define them.  Live them.  Institutionalize them.  When the foundation is solid, we have the strength to deal with the unseen challenges that loom ahead.  We will have the courage to face down the difficult decisions, Rioters will remind themselves about their deep understanding of the company's values and they'll do the right thing.  Hopefully, by being proactive here we will avoid major culture crises that face many companies, but we can never assume we're out of the woods and we must remain vigilant.      

My current perspective is that it would be wise to take a similar approach with my son.  But how?

Religion has often served this purpose well for humanity, as a grounding mechanism to align communities around shared values.  Yet neither my wife nor I are religious (although we were both raised with religious traditions and values of different faiths), and although we respect and appreciate the values that exist in many, one question we have is how to effectively transfer the strong values we share into our child in the absence of an easy to lean on framework that is so often provided by religion.

Einstein is win
Such is a question that will likely take years for us to answer however - and it may be one that we never answer fully.  But, I take assurance in that by identifying the problem, we can continue to make progress on a solution - and I believe that understanding and defining the problem is the most important to step to problem solving.

As the great Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

The role of the leader is not necessarily to be the person who comes up with the solution, but you have to be darn sure you are the person with the wisdom to choose the right answer since you are accountable for the outcome of the decisions.  When you have trouble understanding what the "right" answer is, go back to your roots.

Go back to your values.

My wife and I aspire for our son to have sufficient courage to do the right thing in the face of challenge and adversity.  If we mean that as much as we think we do, then we had better do a good job of raising him with strong values.

Wish us luck!

 Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill