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How to be a great leader at a games company – without going bananas

No Brake Games' Sitara Shefta shares advice on how to best support your team, and enable them to support you

With great power comes great responsibility. That's not only the oft-misquoted philosophy of Spider-Man's Uncle Ben, it was also the central theme of a talk by No Brakes Games' head of studio Sitara Shefta at Develop Brighton earlier this year.

Drawing on her five years of experience leading a team of 26, plus a sister studio in Lithuania, the leader of the Human Fall Flat developer shared what she believes to be the core priorities and best practices for becoming an effective manager.

"One of the worst things, in my opinion, is working somewhere you don't get to enjoy that spark, or innovation is limited," Shefta said. "I don't think that provides people with the opportunity to flourish. I knew that I wanted to create an environment where people feel happy coming into the studio – whether in person or virtually – and where people are motivated and driven about what they're doing."

Sitara Shefta, No Brakes Games

Before getting into the core of the topic of how to be a good leader, Shefta reminded the audience of three priorities when building up a studio:

  • Set values (these define expectations for both the team and who you need to be as a leader)
  • Hire a diverse team (because "good ideas can come from anywhere," Shefta emphasised)
  • Make sure people are your priority (which is the best way to improve your chances of retaining talent)

She addeds: "If you hire great talent and think that's enough, you will inevitably lose staff. Retention is key to both a successful team and business, and is a reflection of your studio or team culture – which in turn is a reflection of your leadership style. So don't make the mistake of shifting to the mentality that people are just bums on seats – that's how you lose your best talent."

The talk included advice on how to best support your team, how to avoid crunch (and why it's vital you do so), what to do when things go wrong and, to quote her directly, "how you can survive the pressures of leadership without going bananas."

Table of contents

How to earn your team's trust and respect

One of the most powerful tools for anyone in a leadership position is their rapport with the team. But in order to build that rapport, leaders have to earn their team's trust and respect.

"Your job title or position never entitles you to this," Shefta stressed.

She went on to suggest several ways in which studio leaders can ensure they gain the trust and respect of those that work with them.

Lead with empathy

Taking your staff's workload and situation into consideration is essential. Shefta emphasised that leading with empathy does not mean agreeing to everything. Instead, it's about listening with an open mind and putting yourself in the shoes of your team members. Acknowledge them so they know they are heard, then guide them and provide feedback or decisions with context.

"Your job title never entitles you to [trust and respect]"

"This starts to build a relationship with trust and transparency," she explained. "The team will feel more comfortable coming to you to talk about things, and in turn you will be a better lead.

"To succeed as a lead, you have to be central to your team, not above it. That's not to say there's no longer some structure or hierarchy, but it's about not dictating to the team from afar and providing zero explanations. And it means not coming in unpredictably and being disruptive."

Sit with your team, where possible

Ideally, leaders should be sat among their team rather than separate from it. If your team is office-based, the benefit of this is two-way: it makes you immediately more accessible than you would be shut away in your own room, and it means you can participate in (or at least be aware of) conversations happening as people work.

More importantly, it makes it easier to realise if anyone is having a problem, whether that's with something they're working on or with another team member. You can then guide the conversation, if necessary, and assist with resolving disagreements.

"It also helps you get to know your team better, helps them get to know you better, and really builds that relationship," Shefta added.

Engage with everyone on the team

It's important to engage with each member of your team, especially at a smaller studio, although Shefta stressed that doesn't mean speaking to every single person all of the time.

Taking part in team conversations, whether in-person or via Slack, means you don't close yourself off from someone just because they're junior or in a different discipline. For remote studios, this is effectively a way of sitting with your team even if you're not physically together.

Keep the team up-to-date with what's going on

Providing updates on the current project or the overall business, depending on your leadership position, helps promote understanding from every part of the team.

"Don't make the mistake of thinking people are just bums on seats – that's how you lose your best talent"

"It's very easy for people to start working in their own little bubbles and become siloed," Shefta said. "They might not realise what else is going on that could affect them. When people start to feel disconnected or not involved, then they feel they're not valued. This is where you being central to the team comes into play again."

No Brakes Games holds studio-wide half-hour meetings every two to three months, when it prepares for a new milestone, going through the current state of its game sequentially, as well as giving the latest personnel updates.

Remove the fear

Almost everyone will have moments where they're working on something but are not ready to share with everyone, something Shefta said is a perfectly normal fear to have.

To avoid this, No Brakes Games avoids "big, scary meetings where people are scared of disappointing their leads or stakeholders," and instead have open discussions about the work where everyone has a chance to talk about what's going well, where they are struggling, and what support they need.

Shefta said the leader's role here is not to provide the solution, but questions and feedback that might help the team devise a solution themselves: "I hired them because they're smarter than me, and trusting them to find solutions helps them feel valued and shows that I respect them… You're not a tyrant who might change the direction of everything with the snap of a finger, you're a guide who will give them honest, transparent feedback with the full context so that it makes sense if you do decide to change direction.

"Be straight with them, be clear with them, just don't be a dick."

Great leaders give everyone the chance to make suggestions during regular meetings and milestone reviews

Developing and maintaining a positive studio culture

Good leaders should be continuously reflecting on what they can do to improve the culture within their studio – something that becomes even more important as the team grows. Shefta shared several lessons that she found to be important in preserving a positive studio culture.

Firstly, while there is a hierarchy to any studio, leaders should never allow someone's position to make them inaccessible to the rest of the team.

You should also encourage team members to talk to those in other disciplines about what they're working on, as this will help the overall team bond and understand what's happening with the wider project.

"To succeed as a lead, you have to be central to your team, not above it"

No Brakes Games also asks for feedback through occasional anonymous surveys, asking for suggestions on how to improve – this can be critical in making you aware of issues you may have missed.

"For instance, at one point we realised some of our remote staff were beginning to feel disconnected [from] those who were on-site," Shefta recalled. "So we put things in place like virtual coffee breaks or catch-up meetings where people can share what they've been working on and pass ideas around.

"We try to send cupcakes around each of the milestone reviews so everyone can join in the same celebration even if they're not in the office. You might consider these very small touches, but sometimes the little but considerate things can go a very long way."

How leaders should tackle crunch

Drawing on her own experience at previous studios, Shefta said "you can't talk about leadership without crunch," adding that it is always the result of bad management, bad culture, or both. It creates a negative atmosphere in the studio, and escalates into an 'us vs them' mindset between team members at a time when they should all be united.

"Any responsible leader will bring their team away from that [hostile] attitude. Burning out your people affects the quality of your game and that in turn affects your business."

Shefta offered the following advice for managers on how to prevent or limit crunch:

  • Set milestone deadlines that focus on quality over time.
  • Identify when someone might be feeling overwhelmed. If they're over-assigning themselves or becoming stressed, talk with them to find a way to reduce the pressure or the scope of the work.
  • Don't set unrealistic targets that there's no way of knowing about several months or years from now. Have a roadmap, keep it updated, and focus on what's ahead in smaller, incremental steps.
  • Use regular feature and mid-milestone reviews to identify major risks and put in strategies to mitigate those.
  • Don't overwork yourself. Remember you are leading by example.

What to do when things go wrong

Making mistakes are inevitable; what's important is how leaders act on them. Shefta said the worst thing you can do is make excuses or blame someone else, as this is "a terrible example of leadership and will make your team feel incredibly let down."

Owning up to the error will earn the team's respect and demonstrate that it's safe for them to make mistakes as well. Shefta also urged leaders not to stew over their errors: "Accept that sometimes you're going to get things wrong, and give yourself the same breaks that you would give to others."

If someone on the team makes a mistake

If the mistake is caused by a member of the team, it is not always your responsibility to fix it – although Shefta recognised it can be incredibly tempting to do so, especially if the solution is obvious to you.

"Be straight with your team, be clear with them, just don't be a dick"

"It might be easier or faster to [fix it yourself]. But you can't expect people to learn or improve if you do this. Don't take care of it yourself and try not to give it to someone else instead. Remember, we have to make people accountable, and part of that is cleaning up your own work."

Shefta suggested the following approach in these situations:

  1. Explain the issue to the team member with a clear example
  2. Provide actionable improvement steps or explain how you would go about fixing it
  3. Agree a mutual timeline to review improvements.

If someone on the team is causing persistent problems

In cases where someone has consistently poor performance or causes serious issues for the rest of the team, it is the leader's responsibility to remove them.

"Firing someone is the worst part of my job and I absolutely hate it, but putting people first means making tough decisions and sometimes if that obstacle happens to be another person," she said, echoing advice from Code Coven's co-CEO Cinzia Musio at Develop Brighton. "Then it's management's responsibility to deal with it – otherwise you're doing a disservice to the rest of your team.

"I always try to use this as the last option and I install other steps first. However, allowing it to linger is also not acceptable, so you have to take any other steps fast. If they fail, you are responsible for making that call. Being a responsible leader means tough decisions and acting fast to remove any disruption or hostility."

How to survive the pressures of leadership without going bananas

Being a leader means dealing with a lot of pressure and intense situations, and this can take its toll on you. For the sake of your own wellbeing and the overall good of the team, you need to put steps into place to reduce that pressure. Shefta shared several of the strategies she has put in place to support herself as a leader.

View problems as tasks

When you're presented with a problem, view it as another task. Find a solution and present that to your team. If you don't know the solution, just be honest and reassure them that you'll find one – but also ask for their input.

"Remember, your team are also there to support you, and that mindset will help to alleviate any pressure," Shefta said.

"Being in a leadership position doesn't mean doing everything yourself. It means bringing people together and leading them towards a common goal"

Keep your cool

If you end up being someone's punching bag on a particular day or someone says something controversial, try not to respond in a hot-headed way.

"If you can't say anything constructive or calm at that time, just acknowledge what they've said and say nothing more and tell them you'll chat later instead," said Shefta. "And 'later' should be whenever you're able to bring yourself back to that calm and logical demeanour, even if it means sleeping on it.

"You're still human so you're not going to get it right every time, but in those moments where you think you might not, it's better to have patience and think things through."

Shefta said a happy team makes better games, which makes players happy and makes your business more succesful (which keeps your team happy, and so on)

Trust your team

As Shefta has said, it's best to make the team accountable for their own work and give them the autonomy and opportunity to improve – and part of that is trusting them to do so. Don't be constantly looking over their shoulder or interfering with their work.

"As leads, we drive forward the development of the team and the game, but we should never micromanage," Shefta explained. "The moment you start to do that is the same moment you become a nag, you disrupt and ultimately you demonstrate a lack of trust. You end up stripping teams of any accountability or autonomy, and they lose motivation.

"If you feel the need to micromanage, ask yourself why? Is it because you feel you can't trust one of your team members because you've got concerns about their performance? You should probably address that underlying problem instead."

She added: "Being in a leadership position doesn't mean doing everything yourself. It means bringing people together and leading them towards a common goal. The culture should be to confront challenges together."

"Any responsible leader brings their team away from that [hostile us-vs-them] attitude. Burning them out affects the quality of your game and your business"

Build strong working partnerships with a few key allies

Leaders should never isolate themselves, so it's crucial to identify people you can confide in when things are tough – whether that's internal team members, or perhaps external partners such as publishers.

"There are some things you shouldn't discuss with the entire team for a whole variety of reasons, whether that's confidentiality, being sensitive of how this information might stress other people out, not wanting to distract people, or simply because it might be a burden for them to know. But you should find the person or people who can be the exception to that rule, the one who can be the Hugh Jackman to your Ryan Reynolds, the Wolverine to your Deadpool."

Organise and discipline yourself by providing more structure

There will inevitably be days where things come up that you didn't expect and have to prioritise. An element of flexibility is essential for a leader, and this means organising yourself in a way that leaves room for the unexpected.

"I never set myself a full schedule for the week because it's unrealistic to think other things wouldn't crop up," Shefta said. "On weeks where more things crop up than anticipated or I start to feel overwhelmed, I'm now okay with taking a step back and thinking 'what's the real impact of not doing this thing right now?'

"Consider if there is going to be a major impact, or any impact at all, and if the answer is no, just be okay with not doing it. You can't do everything all the time, and the more you accept that, the less likely you are to burn yourself out."

Make decisions with confidence

Leaders must make decisions on a daily basis, and Shefta suggests the following questions to help ensure you're making the right ones:

  • Will your decision benefit the team?
  • Will it align with the game direction?
  • Will it align with the business needs?
  • Will it resolve what you set out to achieve?

Sometimes you will have data or risk assessments to draw on that will help answer these questions, but other times, it's okay to go with your gut.

"It's incredibly important to make decisions with confidence; if you don't, it can create uncertainty and anxiety among the team, which potentially can become very costly if the absence of a decision becomes a blocker or hinders development.

"At the worst, a wrong decision is a failure for you to learn from – just be sure to fail fast."

Shefta added that of all the aspects of leadership she has discussed, it is most important to look after yourself since the team and business rely on you.

"Ultimately you have to deal with things in a pragmatic and calm way if you're in any position of leadership, because people will look to you in stressful situations and they will reflect your demeanour. You can only serve others well when you're well in yourself."

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James Batchelor avatar
James Batchelor: James is Editor-in-Chief at, and has been a B2B journalist since 2006. He is author of The Best Non-Violent Video Games
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