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Lessons learned guiding Riot Games through a cultural crisis

At a time of cultural crisis for many companies, CEO Nicolo Laurent shares his experiences from the ongoing evolution of Riot Games

Editor's Note: It has been almost two years since Kotaku first reported on a sexist culture at Riot Games and pledged to do better. In the time since, numerous women have gone public with their own experiences facing sexism and misogyny in gaming, showing that the problems at Riot are by no means exclusive to one company.

Riot Games submitted the following editorial from its CEO Nicolo Laurent as advice and perspective on fixing cultural problems from someone who has been trying to do that in the wake of a very public scandal.

Our publication of this piece is not intended to be an endorsement of the company or to suggest that its problems have been completely fixed. In particular, we still have concerns with its response to a class action lawsuit from women alleging gender discrimination -- from an attempt to impose private arbitration to a proposed settlement that was opposed by two California state agencies concerned about possible collusion to minimize the amount paid.

That said, there are very few people in the industry with a perspective of having led a company through a public reckoning like this, and fewer still who want to talk publicly about it. We ultimately decided that sharing this perspective provided a greater service to our readers than not running it.

To my fellow gaming industry CEOs and leaders.

Over the last month, we've seen an outpouring of allegations in the games industry, ranging from discrimination and harassment to outright sexual assault. These are ultimately stories about how our industry has betrayed so many -- mostly (but not entirely) women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community -- for whom gaming was a dream job.

These stories, and all the ones that have come before them, show just how desperately our industry needs to change. We at Riot do not claim to be immune, but we have taken a stand that it is not okay, it must be faced head on. We have been working hard to change in our internal culture what clearly needs to be fixed more broadly in the industry. I encourage all leaders in gaming and beyond to hear these stories and take action accordingly, as we cannot continue letting down our community.

We have been working hard to change in our internal culture what clearly needs to be fixed more broadly in the industry

I write this today from a place of humility; not as a leader who has all the answers, but as one voice from an organization that has a short head start on the journey that many may just be beginning.

As most people in our industry know, almost two years ago, Riot was rocked by a media firestorm. The reports -- which were spearheaded by investigative reporting from journalist Cecilia D'Anastasio, then with Kotaku now at Wired -- painted Riot as rife with sexism and toxic working conditions. In the weeks that followed, we passed through stages of denial, anger, depression, and then came to the acceptance that we needed to do more to weed out destructive behaviors and create a more inclusive culture.

We started off with an apology to everyone negatively affected at Riot, and I want to repeat it again here: We're sorry that Riot wasn't the place we promised you, and we're sorry it took so long for us to hear you.

The two years since have involved steps forward and back, but I'm eternally grateful to the team that has driven that work, and especially for Angela Roseboro's vigilance as our chief diversity officer in keeping diversity and inclusion at the forefront of every decision we make. We still have work to do -- I keep reminding myself that cultural transformation is a journey, not a destination -- but I'm confident that we are building a better Riot, and establishing a stronger foundation for future success.

You can read about what we've been up to in D&I here and our latest progress report here. But this isn't a how-to guide, because there is no guide when you're dealing with unique company cultures, deeply personal circumstances, and ultimately people's trust. Rather, I'm writing to offer up a few lessons I've learned while navigating our cultural evolution in hopes you can avoid some of the mistakes we made along the way.

Listening leads you to the path forward

This first point may seem cliché, but the simple act of listening was absolutely vital in planning Riot's path forward. In our case, Rioters and former Rioters alike resorted to sharing stories with the press because they felt they were not being heard, or taken seriously, by Riot leadership. Today we see many people in our industry taking to Twitter and other platforms, perhaps for a similar reason: too often in their pasts they spoke up and no one listened.

At Riot we needed to listen. That meant no defensiveness, no excuses, no explanations. Just listening.

In the weeks following the first Kotaku article, our leadership team spent countless hours in listening sessions with Rioters from all over the company. Though it was undeniably uncomfortable at times, we encouraged Rioters to share their experiences. It was during one of these sessions, sitting next to a Rioter who broke into tears after sharing their story, that my most powerful realization occurred: I had understood their struggle on an intellectual level, but I had lacked the insight required to truly understand their painful, emotional perspective.

At Riot we needed to listen. That meant no defensiveness, no excuses, no explanations. Just listening

Beyond listening in the moment of crisis, it was also important to re-establish listening as part of our working agreement. We needed to answer the question: How can we make sure we'll hear what we need to hear when we need to hear it -- and not when it's too late?

In response, we made leadership as accessible as possible and focused on being transparent about the work going on behind the scenes. We prioritized direct and regular communication through our company-wide, bi-weekly "Unplugged" live Q&A session with leadership. We also recognized that there were things we could learn from what others were doing, such as forming employee resource groups -- we call them Rioter Identity Groups or "RIGs" -- establishing office hours with leaders, and creating a Rioter-led council to ensure Rioters had a consistent voice within the company. You don't need to reinvent the wheel, but you need to choose the right wheels to fit the challenges your company is facing.

While we don't claim perfection, we now have these new channels and tools, and more importantly a strengthened commitment to help keep our eyes open to the day-to-day experiences of all Rioters across the organization, and our ears continue to be open to any and all recommendations for improvement.

We were missing the forest for the trees

Listening is critical to make sure you don't miss the forest for the trees. Looking back, I now realize that many of Riot's cultural issues arose in part from focusing and solving isolated events, but never stepping back to consider the whole landscape.

Prior to the Kotaku article in August 2018, when we learned about one-off issues at Riot, we took disciplinary action as appropriate to address that specific issue. Like many companies in tech and gaming, we are a culture of problem solvers: we'd identify a problem and were driven to fix it. We even thought we were ahead of the game, having hired a D&I program manager -- the ever-fearless Soha El-Sabaawi -- when many others in our industry had not taken such a step.

Nicolo Laurent

We were confident that the Kotaku article -- we were aware that a story was being written -- would contain at most a list of isolated incidents we had resolved. However, when the article was published, we were not prepared for the scale of the internal response. Rioters were empowered to share even more stories of which we were not aware about behaviors we couldn't and shouldn't tolerate.

We, as a leadership team, had not grasped the scale of the issues at Riot. Focusing on fixing isolated incidents one by one was necessary, but we could do more.

In that moment, a couple of vital points became clear to me. First, the future of Riot -- and of any organization -- rests on a culture where people are comfortable speaking up, and leaders carefully listen when they do. Second, the most successful organizations don't stop at investigation and discipline "whack a mole," but also empower every employee to be an agent of change and support in building a culture we can all be proud of.

Focus on employees first

As more stories popped up about the difficulties at Riot, a number of people recommended that we undertake an aggressive PR campaign to address our suddenly problematic reputation. Instead, we decided to focus on internal issues and culture first. We wanted to create the Riot that we, and all Rioters, wanted before trying to change the public's mind. This was a critical decision, because the most authentic advocates for Riot are, of course, Rioters.

An example of this in practice was Kotaku's one-year-later follow-up article, encouragingly titled "Riot Employees Say Company Has Made Real Progress Fixing Its Sexism Issues." In it, Rioters were very forthright and proud that we truly were making positive progress. I was extraordinarily happy that Rioters saw the progress we were making, and were proud to independently talk publicly about it.

Surround yourself with experts and empower them

This is perhaps the most obvious lesson on this list, but I feel I have a unique perspective given that I was -- and still am -- a fairly new CEO. When we first started working to address our cultural issues, we immediately started reaching out to people with proven experience dealing with similar problems. This crisis was unprecedented at Riot and needed help from experts who could fill in our blind spots and lead to tailored and effective solutions.

Riot's cultural issues arose in part from focusing and solving isolated events, but never stepping back to consider the whole landscape

I started the search for experts by asking our board to add diversity at the board level. This request culminated with bringing on Youngme Moon, the first woman on Riot's board of directors. Her expertise immediately helped me connect to amazing external resources, such as Harvard Business School's Frances Frei, who we also brought on as a cultural consultant. Frances, in turn, helped fill in gaps in our leadership team with Emily Winkle, who became our chief people officer, and Angela Roseboro, who became our first chief diversity officer.

To ensure these new members of our D&I leadership team were empowered to initiate change, we gave them the authority to hold people accountable for their actions, set new rules, and be free from interference. I believe we now have one of the largest and most proactive D&I divisions in gaming, and hope to spread what we have learned throughout the industry as we continue to learn and grow ourselves.

As a leader, define your principles... and stick to them

To make sure we could weather the cultural challenges in front of us and navigate the inherent complexities, it was critical that we set clear principles, and then stick to them. This sentiment manifested in numerous ways, but it was most relevant during our investigation process.

We wanted to leave no stone unturned, so we brought in an independent third-party law firm to conduct internal investigations. We also consulted our team of outside experts to help develop a thoughtful process from start to finish -- one that was fair and consistent in its methodical fact finding, careful in its examination and research, and unbiased in applying whatever discipline was warranted, including demotions, suspensions or dismissals.

We inevitably ran into situations where we learned through investigation that respected, high-performing individuals engaged in unacceptable behaviors. Making sure the team reviewing these investigations was large and diverse was key here: it enabled us to stay impartial and avoid bias from letting friendships or job performance cloud our judgement. We made a promise that no one would be above the law and we stayed true to it; sticking to our principles led to disciplinary actions -- including several terminations -- of some longstanding high performers at our company.

Don't focus on what you want to keep or protect; instead dream about the company and industry that could be, and commit to striving for those goals

Having said that, this process needed to be rooted in truth and constructed in a way that prioritized facts over rumors or Riot's reputation. To be frank, it was very tempting to prioritize Riot's reputation above all else. Some cases had been so muddled by rumors that even if an accused individual turned out to be completely innocent, their ability to lead in the company seemed as though it could be impossibly compromised. Regardless, I personally could not let Rioters believe their employment would be determined simply based on advantageous PR. I was determined that we would be guided by careful examination of the truth, and we would then address those truths head on.

Perhaps the most illustrative and visible example involved our chief operating officer, Scott Gelb. Scott had been singled out and accused of taking part in sophomoric antics with other Rioters in the earlier days of the company. But the stories that had circulated through the Riot rumor mill morphed into something more serious when eventually reported in the press.

As part of our newly established process discussed above, Scott's case was investigated by a third-party law firm and reviewed by a special committee of our board. The committee decided that, based on the actual facts of the case, and not the rumors or media reports, a two month leave of absence was the appropriate response. We and Scott chose to make the details of this decision fully public in an effort to send a message to all Rioters that no one -- no matter how senior -- was exempt.

This was hard. Some people chose to trust what was in the media. Some people argued Riot's reputation was more important. However, we decided to stick to our principles and let the facts determine appropriate disciplinary action. And two years later, seeing Scott continue to provide energetic leadership at Riot as our COO, combined with his unflagging commitment to building the most diverse and inclusive workforce in gaming, I am confident that our facts-first policy was the right approach and is ultimately helping to build a stronger Riot culture.

The buck stops with the CEO

In summary, these have been my learnings: listen so you don't miss the forest for the trees, focus on internal challenges despite external pressure, bring in experts, but stick to principles, even in the midst of a storm. Having said that, none of these lessons would matter without long-term, tangible results.

Back in 2018, I went to the board and committed to building a culture at Riot of which everyone could be proud. To demonstrate that I was serious, I asked the board to fire me on January 1, 2020 if we hadn't made enough progress. The goal, in part, was to significantly reduce any demographic gaps in terms of Rioters' sentiment and rate of progression -- hiring success, promotion, termination -- in the 18 months in front of us.

As I write this, I'm thankful we made sufficient progress that the board kept me on. But more importantly, I'm proud of the Riot we have become, and that we continue to evolve every day. It's in this spirit that I ask that, as you read the stories being shared about our industry, don't focus on what you want to keep or protect; instead dream about the company and industry that could be, and commit to striving for those goals.

And, maybe, commit to sharing some of your lessons, too, because we can all benefit from some extra guidance on the way.

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