Long before I was an executive at one of the world’s largest companies, I was a blue-collar kid in Brooklyn playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the basement with my siblings and friends. Many decades would pass before it became chic to be geek – Comic-Con, Dragon Con, Marvel, and even The Lord of the Rings have become mainstream hits, television shows around gaming and nerd culture have been developed, The Geekie Awards received a BILLION media impressions in its inaugural year, and so on. My two younger brothers, Alex and Jiovanie, parlayed our D&D experiences directly into careers in video game and fantasy art (Jiovanie’s work can be seen here, Alex’s work here). I went a more traditional route through Engineering and Business degrees to work for large corporations, including Honda, Porsche, P&G, Microsoft (Xbox), and PepsiCo.
After watching the superb “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” episode of the hit TV show ‘Community’ and the D&D segment from VH1’s ‘I Love the 80s’, I looked back fondly and began to contemplate the impact that playing D&D has had on my career. Dungeons & Dragons is the one single game from my childhood I feel can build multiple skills that can be leveraged in the “real” world, whether that’s corporate America, creative disciplines, or anything in between. So, with a nod to my childhood heroes (including Gary Gygax, R.A. Salvatore, TSR, and many of the folks at Wizards of the Coast), below are lessons I learned as a D&D Dungeon Master (DM) that have helped me climb the corporate ladder from a stock clerk in a Brooklyn supermarket into the executive ranks of a Fortune 50 global company:
1) Focus on strategy – Before the start of any D&D campaign, as the Dungeon Master, I would come up with the overall concept and objectives, then I would build the world around it (this was before the Forgotten Realms came out). While TSR provided some pre-packaged campaigns, I always preferred to create my own (mainly to fulfill my own vision, but also due to cost, discussed later). With the vision and objectives in mind, I would start building up the pieces to realize the overall fulfillment of the campaign. Key milestones and plot points, major character and monster encounters, etc. As the players played the game and the campaign progressed, the tactics would have to change to accommodate the changing variables and unexpected events that would occur, but the overall theme and purpose, what we were all ultimately driving towards, would remain constant.
As an executive in the business world, the main focus is on developing strategy and aligning your resources to execute the strategy. Strategy development begins with the vision and mission and must take into account a wide range of variables. Once the strategy is set, the tactics that will be used to fulfill the strategy can be developed. A sound business strategy will rarely change within its timeframe once it is set, although the tactics and execution plan may be altered to address consumer response, competitive pressures, economic changes, etc.
2) Build a story and present it well – I fully agree with the common saying that “Content is King” and I would add that “Delivery is Queen”. The content created is just as important as how the content is delivered. A mediocre presentation of great content is still mediocre, and the same is true for a great presentation of mediocre information. The presentations I learned to give in the corporate world were directly influenced by how I learned to DM. The story is indeed king; it will keep your players interested and committed to the campaign. How you deliver the story will heavily influence the engagement of your players. Not only must you weave a good story, you need to embellish all the details during a game. Compare two versions of the same encounter. First – “You chose to attack. Roll your D20. OK, you scored a critical hit. The orc is dead”. Alternate version – “Your sword is at the ready, roll your D20. You swing your sword in a deadly arc towards your opponent. The orc tries to step back to avoid the fury of your blade, but to no avail. His backwards momentum causes his severed head to roll off of his back, his now lifeless body falling limply to the ground”. These are accurate examples of when I first starting DM’ing and when I learned to deliver more entertaining and engaging encounters for my players. Needless to say, they were more deeply immersed in the latter example. Pacing, timing, and delivery can make all the difference as evidenced by Abed’s enactment of a gnome NPC (non-player character) in the “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” episode of Community (see here).
One of the best presentations I ever gave was for the Xbox Marketing group for a new special edition Xbox 360 console I had proposed. Leveraging compelling content with audio and the theatrics I first developed as a DM, I gave a presentation that I was told set a new bar for future presentations and kept the group enthralled on a normally tame post lunch group gathering. Not every presentation has to be a theatrical production, but the core concepts focusing on both content and delivery always apply.
3) Do your homework – not many things are worse for a DM than when a player calls you out on a mistake in the campaign. “A Succubus(?) can’t drain my constitution three times in one encounter… they can only use this ability once per day”. Fenris was correct, but we had already completed the entire encounter by the time he found out this information in the Monster’s Manual. A small detail I missed, but it had a big impact as I had to break continuity to figure out how to fix the error. While you can’t be expected to be the expert in all matters (hence the importance of cross-functional teams), in my experience it’s always better to be over-prepared than to be caught off guard. From then on I made an extra effort to fully study each monster I planned to use in encounters, made better use of maps to be prepared with the different types of terrain that would be traversed, learned the limitations and effects of magic spells, and so on.
I carried this lesson over into the business world. You should know all the details pertinent to the issue at hand in the context of your overall goal, presentation, or meeting. In general, my presentation decks had expansive appendices with back up information for most conceivable questions and important data. All stats that I leverage in a presentation have appropriate references. I strive to minimize the number of times I have to say “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you on that”. And now as I lead larger teams, I appreciate it when others come to a meeting equally prepared.
Learn to improvise – When creating my D&D campaigns, I made my world’s large enough and the campaign broad enough to deal with multiple contingencies. What if the players didn’t believe the lonely adventurer in the tavern with tales of treasure? What other ways could I devise to spur them to take on the campaign in the game world? However, no matter how thoroughly I prepared my campaigns and how many alternate story versions I developed, the players would always find a way to get into an area or situation that could not be anticipated. Thus, as a DM, you must learn not to become flustered when something unexpected happens and to improvise in a quick manner.
In the business world, projects will rarely go exactly as planned. Getting flustered and losing focus in these situations is counter-productive. You have to learn to be adaptable and use your knowledge and experience to manage unexpected changes effectively. You’ll also come to be viewed as more stable and dependable when you can manage unexpected situations quickly and decisively, leveraging your experience and knowledge to improvise as needed.
5) Teamwork is critical – most of the challenges brought to a group of D&D players in a campaign could not be overcome unless they all worked collaboratively. A single elf, no matter how highly leveled, can rarely take down a dragon.
As a general rule, a single individual can rarely produce as much as a group of people. Additionally, it’s generally impossible in a corporate setting to get anything done on your own, even if you are considered an “individual contributor”. Being a good team player and effectively collaborating with others is an important skill. As you advance in your career, being able to form and lead high performing teams that can work well with cross-functional groups will allow you to have a much bigger impact on your organization than sitting at your desk with your head down pumping out as much work as you can.
6) Embrace diversity – a D&D campaign would be quite boring if every player was a human fighter. In addition to making a campaign more interesting, a diversity of characters (classes and races) introduces many more ways to overcome challenges and obstacles. For example, the Halfling thief can find the way into a secret corridor, the Elven ranger can dispatch enemies from afar, the Human wizard can do massive damage in large areas against multiple adversaries, and the Half-Orc fighter can protect the others and pick off enemies in close quarters. Whenever I started a campaign, I would work with all the players to make sure there was sufficient diversity in the characters to make the adventure both enjoyable and successful.
In the business world, diversity is equally important. I still vividly recall a meeting with the Xbox team a couple of years before the launch of Kinect when Nintendo Wii was eating everyone’s lunch. The meeting was a brainstorming session to identify what we could do to get more women and younger children interested in Xbox 360. Looking around the room at the dozen or so men pondering the issue, the one thought I had was “Perhaps we should start by including some women in these discussions”. Ensuring that your team is as diverse as the markets they’re meant to serve is not a moral imperative, it’s a business imperative. Studies have shown that diverse teams are more innovative and successful than homogeneous teams. Additionally, while many people focus on racial/ethnic and gender diversity in the workforce, there are many different forms of diversity, including age and experience. One of the best managers I knew at Microsoft created a high-performing market research team with professionals from multiple fields not directly related to market research. It takes courage to make that kind of move, but I believe the results are usually exceptional.
7) Deal quickly with disruptive team members – a campaign that I spent months planning on the Moonshae Islands of the Forgotten Realms was pretty much derailed by the antics of the human barbarian Fenris the Ferocious and the High Elf rouge Zandelle, as well as the human cleric Penelope Fenelope. The real players of the characters of Fenris and Zandelle simply couldn’t get along in real life, leading to antagonistic situations in the game (such as Fenris carving an “F” across Zandelle’s face and keeping him hostage on a wagon). And then there was Penelope, my high school girlfriend’s character, who was added so she could feel included as part of my group of siblings and friends. She couldn’t take the game seriously and detracted greatly from the fantasy world we tried to create.
At some point, you have to make the determination whether a player needs to leave the team for the good of the collective. This is always last resort, and forces you to think about finding ways for them to realize their mutual goals can only be achieved through cooperation. In business you will often come across disruptive individuals, naysayers, apathetic workers, and generally unpleasant folks who can quickly sap team morale and hinder the group’s progress (not to be confused with individuals whom dissent with good cause). Addressing these individuals right way is the best course of action, determining the root cause of their issues, emphasizing collaboration, and sometimes transferring or removing them from the team. You can’t let it get to the point where it’s disrupting the work of the entire team. Swift and appropriate action is necessary for the good of all.
8) Build your networks – In D&D, players need to network constantly with NPCs to advance in the campaign. You must talk to the local tavern owner to hear about strange happenings; meet with the local peasants for information that will lead you to the source of the local scourge; seek out the reclusive mage who’ll provide the key spells to your victory or lead you to artifacts of great power; visit the local healer to tend your wounded; etc. Every good D&D campaign involves interacting with individuals and groups beyond the core players to accomplish your main objective.
Throughout my career, networking has led to new funding for multiple projects, new business opportunities, and even new career opportunities. My jobs at Porsche in Germany, P&G in Puerto Rico and Xbox at Microsoft in Seattle all came about as a result of networking with my peers. Within corporate America, the value of internal networking leads many companies to adopt open floor plans and central community areas where random, serendipitous encounters with other employees leads to new innovations, new product concepts, and overall workplace efficiencies. A major global marketing campaign using technology my team designs will be launching for PepsiCo this year thanks to this type of internal networking.
Within the imaginary world of the D&D campaign, managing one’s finances is a critical game play element. When you start a character from scratch, you’re provided a small allotment of gold. A key factor in your ultimate success or failure in the game is how well you can manage your allotment and future cash flows. Key questions I needed to ask: Should I spend all my gold up front or save a portion for future contingencies? If I save, what proportion of my allotment should be spent? How should I prioritize my expenditures between supplies, provisions, armor, weapons, horses, spellbooks, etc? Throughout the game you find opportunities to earn more money, either through employment (i.e. join an adventuring group with associated payment) or through battle (monster and NPC encounters lead to good booty). In addition, there were real world lessons gained from running a campaign. With limited real money, I had to make decisions on which AD&D assets to buy – for example, should I get the Monster Manual 2, Unearthed Arcana, or Forgotten Realms Atlas? Which asset would give me the highest ROI in terms of game play? A Dungeon Master’s Screen would be a great productivity asset, but at $20, could I build it myself and allocate resources elsewhere (the classic build vs. buy analysis)?
It goes without saying that building and managing budgets, setting priorities, and asset allocation is also a key element of operating in the business world, as well as the real world which we all grow into.
10) Learn the fine art of PR – when I was in grade school my half-sister, in a bout of religious zealotry, tried to convince my mother that D&D was the devil’s playground and she was a bad mother if she let us continue playing. It didn’t help that the TV movie ‘Mazes and Monsters’ came out at the same time, where the young Tom Hanks goes insane by playing a D&D style role-playing game, and eventually is unable to tell reality from fantasy. I had to get a story and arguments together to counter these attacks and had to recruit my friends and siblings to make sure we all had the same talking points and could deliver them convincingly and consistently. Much of this happens in the business world as well. Whether good or bad, you cannot control the news, so you have to be prepared to respond and get your organization on board to deliver consistent and compelling messaging.
11) Give others an opportunity to lead – one of the most successful tactics for creating team harmony is showing a willingness to relinquish power. Give up the Dungeon Master reins to someone else so that they can see what you go through and how difficult it is to create and manage a campaign. It’ll teach your teammates to approach problems in a more productive manner and offer solutions instead of just identifying problems or complaining.
In the business world, many people want to jump straight into the leadership role and feel that empowering others on the team with significant responsibilities or leadership will compromise their own position or their standing in the eyes of upper management. Those attitudes generally lead to a road of dysfunction. As a people manager, I want my employees to be the leaders of their respective projects, and the go-to people for key decisions that need to be made. I feel my role, aside from the overall strategic vision and direction of our programs, is to break down barriers impeding progress and to ensure they have the resources they need to succeed. Entrusting someone with leadership responsibilities generally leads to greater confidence on their part and their desire to rise to the challenge.
12) Get to know your people/players – Your players are all unique and are generally motivated and compelled differently. Not everyone seeks the same rewards – some people campaign for the experience and to level their characters, others for the opportunity to amass a dragon’s hoard of gold, and others lust after magical items like the +3 Sword of Flames, etc. The same applies to your teams in the corporate world. Some people seek recognition and awareness of their efforts, others are focused on their bonus award or base salary, others are happy with a new title. Understanding these motivations allows you to plan projects and rewards accordingly to maintain and build morale and keep the team and projects on track.
When I first started this list, I had only seven items, but it started to expand the more I went back and thought about what I learned from playing D&D. While I retired my Dungeon Master cloak many moons ago, I still hold a great deal of respect for the game and its many players and leaders around the world.
I still recall my first internship interview over 21 years ago. When asked what my greatest accomplishment was, I told the interviewer how I created an entire D&D world from scratch, including terrain, cartographer maps at multiple zoom levels, history and lore, and much more (mind you my only work experience at the time was being a stock boy in several supermarkets, working a deli counter, and being a butcher). I didn’t get that job, but at least he referred me to another, better fitting job in the company focused on truck design which kicked off my career. Looking back, I realized he probably didn’t appreciate the example I provided as my greatest accomplishment. For you D&D players and DMs out there, the world may still not be ready to learn how you’ve come to be so capable. You may not want to disclose where your great power comes from, but know that if harnessed correctly, you can accomplish anything!