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Interview: Clinton Keith on What It Takes to Be an Agile Leader

Agile Leadership is so much more than being "flexible." It's a lifelong approach to learning, collaborating, and coaching that will make you a better leader in the workplace—and can even help in your personal life. That's what Clinton Keith has discovered, and he's here to teach it to the world. 

Clinton chatted with GDC over the phone about his one-day GDC Masterclass, Certified Agile Leadership for Game Development—Essentials, which provides attendees with Certified Agile Leadership Essentials (CAL-E) certification from the Scrum Alliance upon completion. It's being held on Friday, December 10. Clinton shared how Agile Leadership helped him become a better parent, what the goal of an Agile leader is (and isnt), and the surprising career he had before moving to game development.

Below is an edited, condensed version of our interview.


GDC Staff: What is Agile Leadership, in a nutshell? 

Clinton Keith: I'd contrast it to traditional leadership. Most of what people think about leadership now is modeled after leadership designed in the 20th century for assembly lines and more predictable work. Things that we can plan out and execute by breaking things down into small tasks, assigning those tasks to people, and then tracking those tasks. What the 21st century has shown us is that markets change very quickly. Just look at the game industry. Mobile didn't exist 15 years ago, and look at how consoles and hardware have changed.

For creative products, we need to lead in a different way. We need to leverage the creativity of people and their motivation, and leverage their engagement and accountability at all levels. And that's an entirely different type of leadership. That's not command and control leadership. That's more mentoring and growing those collaboration skills between different disciplines. How do you create a culture where people are excited to come to work, and bring their best creative selves? 

GDC Staff: How has Agile Leadership benefited your career and everyday life? 

Clinton Keith: It's humbled me as a leader. I was raised in the 20th century and I followed those patterns of directing people, and it was very stressful. In discovering the Agile approach, which was really kind of defined 20 years ago, I've grown as a leader and I've grown to learn that my success is reflected in the success of the team. If they're going to be accountable for their work, they get to be the ones who take credit for any success. And any success I have is in growing that myself. It's also taught me to be a better human being. Instead of telling people what to do and directing them, assigning tasks from an Excel spreadsheet, it's a lot more challenging to understand what their needs are. What motivates them intrinsically to come to work and be excited and grow that. My challenge was: How do I grow that as a leader? Because ultimately I had to point the finger at myself. 

That's spilled into my personal life as well. I became a better father. Instead of being like the father I had growing up, telling me what to do all the time, I wanted to foster that growth in my sons and foster their own creativity. Helping them explore who they wanted to be, and how they could grow into their potential. 

GDC Staff: Let’s say I’m a team lead who already sees themselves as practicing Agile Leadership techniques. I’m loose, I’m flexible! What will I be able to gain from the course? 

Clinton Keith: There's this misunderstanding that you can just check off all these boxes and be an Agile leader. The idea of agility itself is responding to change—growing continuously to respond to the change in the marketplace, the change in people, the change in technology. There's no single way to do this. This course isn't about straightforward instruction. It's a conversation among a lot of people like that. There's a lot of experience, there's a lot of existing leadership in the room. A good portion of the class is driven by these conversations among industry leaders.

We have this phrase in Agile circles: "There's no best practice out there." We do not have best practices, because the idea of best is that there's no better, and there's always going to be better. The things that we call best practices for the Nintendo 64 are no longer the best practices for the Playstation 5. So it's the same for leadership as well. It's a never-ending journey of discovering things in yourself and discovering things in how you lead.

GDC Staff: What's one question you always love being asked during your GDC Masterclass, and what would the answer be? 

Clinton Keith: I think, in general, it reflects back on the previous question: "Hey, what's the goal?" What's the end state? I haven't found it yet, and I don't think there is one.

I've been doing this as an Agile leader for 20 years, and it's kind of like climbing in the mountains around here in Colorado. You get to the top of one hill and you think you're at the peak, then you see the next one over that's a higher peak you have to climb. It's a parallel to a life journey, in terms of personal challenges that you're facing as a leader, and understanding how people work and how people tick at a visceral level. Learning how to better communicate and connect with people. To me, that's just a lifelong journey.

I guess another question—people ask very specific things. "We're doing this or that, or we're struggling with this or that. What should we do?" Again, the Agile mindset is there is no best practice. So my answer is, "What have you tried?" It's obviously kind of frustrating, but a lot of these answers to "what is a practice for us?" really depends. It depends on the people, it depends on your challenges, it depends on the culture of your studio, what kind of game you're making. Very often, most often, the best solutions come from the people closest to the work. The attitude from an Agile leader point-of-view is, "How do I leverage those people that are doing the work to come up with some of the best ideas about how to do that work better?" Sometimes, very often the best answer is, "What have you tried? What has your team asked to do?" That's 21st century leadership.  

GDC Staff: What's one thing that most people in this profession don't know about you? 

Clinton Keith: Well, before I got into the game industry, I had a top-secret government clearance

GDC Staff: Really! How much can you say about it? 

Clinton Keith: How much do you value your life? 

GDC Staff: A bit! 

Clinton Keith: One thing I can say is that some of the most complex technology that the government has doesn't even hold a candle to the stuff we're doing in the game industry. Game industry technology is so far ahead of anything that's being done by the government and the defense industry. Which is a big surprise, but it's true. 

Be sure to head to GDC Masterclass for more information on Clinton's Certified Agile Leadership for Game Development—Essentials course, which runs December 10. Please keep in mind each course is happening virtually, not in person. 

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