Why You Should Encourage Leaders to Play Games

Many of us grew up playing Battleship, Monopoly and Clue board games. Others played “42” in dominoes. All of these games provide bonding as well as learning opportunities, and most adults play those same games today with their kids — in addition to new technology-based games — for the same purpose. We should use them at companies too, including for leadership development.

Many companies are experiencing significant leadership gaps and an insufficient leadership pipeline, primarily due to the increasing pace of change in the global economy. In the October 2016 Harvard Business Review article “The 5 Elements of a Strong Leadership Pipeline,” industry analyst Josh Bersin referenced Deloitte data stating that 89 percent of executives rated “strengthening the leadership pipeline” as an urgent issue; leadership development investments also can improve direct report retention. Because of this, companies increased spending 10 percent last year to $14 billion to prepare “ready now” leaders to step into a new level of responsibility. Similarly, “2016 Best Companies for Leaders,” a December 2015 article in Chief Executive, reported that when doing a 10-year performance comparison, the top 15 percent of the best leadership development companies have a 111 percent market capitalization growth, versus 64 percent for the bottom 15 percent.

So, why don’t more companies use games for leadership development? According to Development Dimensions International’s Ready-Now Leaders: 25 Findings to Meet Tomorrow’s Business Challenges — Global Leadership Forecast 2014-15, only 37 percent use a formal program to develop a talent bench for a smooth transition. This is because the money spent on other methods does not have a positive ROI, as only 28 percent of businesses claimed to be highly effective, as stated in the Institute of Corporate Productivity’s June 2014 article, “4 Ways to Take Global Leadership Development to the Next Level.” Considering only a quarter of HR leaders think their company leaders are “excellent” or “very good,” according to a June 2015 American Psychological Association article, “The Corporate Family Model of Leadership Development,” and a healthy percentage of others believe their leadership development programs are ineffective — essentially a waste of money — it’s time to try something new.

Because the shortage of leaders is a critical factor in organizational growth, and current methods are not effective, learning leaders must innovate to build a leadership pipeline. For these innovators, there is an increasing demand to maximize learning technology to create a competitive edge. For organizations that want to see behavior change, to develop good strategists who can build competitive advantage in a complex and dynamic business environment, investing in gamification for leadership development is an answer. This is not self-paced e-learning; it’s delivering a classroom-based, high-fidelity business game.

Ramp Up the Technology

Children today play games on their smartphone or tablet that look better than many of the antique spreadsheet-based games businesses use today. When it comes to games for leadership development, modern technology demands tablet touch interface, 3D visualization and wireless backups.

To provide a visual classroom description, picture participants sitting at small group tables; they serve as a company’s executive team. The competing teams start with the same financial and human capital, and then collaborate internally while they compete externally to determine where to best allocate their resources. They start by deciding on a team name, and their decisions amplify from there as they create a multiyear strategy prioritizing a company’s actions. It’s challenging and high pressure, yet engaging.

Instead of a game based on one’s present industry, participants need to step outside of their comfort zone so they can focus on the leadership lessons. Participants don’t get caught in industry specifics, like incorrect product pricing in the game. Instead, incorporating business dynamics like opportunities and threats helps players stay agile and flexible as they determine contingency plans for their company.

Typically, individuals are promoted for self-achievement; yet, they need a holistic company perspective once in a leadership role. With each game participant playing a specific leadership role within the business, the group can see cross-functionally to develop mutual accountability as part of a high performing team.

Participants will ideally play a role on their tablet where they don’t have subject matter expertise, like an HR expert assigned to finance. Sometimes, participants will have an opportunity to play multiple roles within one game, so they can gain a broader perspective. The multiplayer approach is more impactful than a small group crowded around one laptop from a learning design perspective, as the department interdependencies highlight the systemic impacts from decision-making.

Provide Support Curriculum and Feedback

The game should not be played in isolation. Instead, supporting curriculum should be configured to the organization’s competency model and/or course learning objectives identified during the needs analysis phase of learning design. After configuration, the curriculum should be customized with business-specific examples for the company or industry. This curriculum wraps around the game, so participants can practice what they learned while playing, a learn-by-doing approach in a safe environment.

The curriculum also has to simultaneously address high-priority corporate needs as well as personal development opportunities. Each participant has unique traits — competency, proficiency and job — which require an individual learning approach. Finally, many companies struggle between offering a program that addresses soft skill intangibles and hard skill tangibles — the program should strive to address both.

While the risk-free game environment fosters exploration and innovation, immediate performance feedback can show participants the cause/effect of their strategy execution and decision-making. For the game’s learning lessons to transfer back to the business, it must be a high-fidelity experience, meaning it simulates day-to-day business decisions accurately. For instance, the immediate financial impacts reinforce key lessons for faster acquisition, better accuracy and higher retention as well as an opportunity to make behavioral adjustments. Just like the real world, each team is trying to increase shareholder value — and their decisions should have buy, sell or hold business implications.

Don’t Forget the Debrief and Assessment

Companies skeptical of gaming for leadership development often say previous game experiences were fun, but they did not provide a learning impact. To counter this, a professional facilitator-led debrief helps leaders reflect on their critical thinking, decision-making and mistakes. Game participants benefit from the focus, energy and interactions of a facilitator who catalyzes dynamic, responsive and respectful dialogue with peers. They can: engage and reflect on a concrete experience, form abstract concepts, and test the concepts by applying them in new situations.

Self-awareness is foundational for transformational, resilient and authentic leadership. Leadership development games encourage participants to challenge themselves, question assumptions, explore perspectives and build leadership confidence as part of their leadership expedition. Because the facilitator is critical to help participants extract key leadership lessons, that individual must be an experienced professional who understands business and leadership, not just a game administrator. Those years of experience and expertise bring real, practical examples to the leadership lessons.

Assessments are also important. There are many great ones available in the market today, but many of the current program designs make participants feel like an appendage to the curriculum/game. Thus, in addition to receiving game feedback based on team performance, there also should be an embedded situational judgment assessment to provide each participant with an individual discovery into their specific inner strengths and development opportunities based on their game decisions.

By leveraging camouflaged real-world case studies, participants immerse themselves in job relevant behavioral situations. These moments matter because they improve the assessment face validity and authenticity, as participants recognize the situation is as realistic as their business environment.

Of course, learning without application is worthless. The key to behavior change is learning retention and application back on the job. In addition to the assessment, programs need time for intentional reflection so participants can document what actions they are going to take when back in their role.

These actions could be developmental or related to specific behavioral change. Creating a leadership action plan can facilitate learning retention and application as well as improve behavior change. Participants need an accountability conversation with their mentor, manager or coach to increase current performance as well as develop capabilities for future roles. Further, there must be follow-up support and reinforcement for successful learning transfer and — this is key — behavioral change that impacts business performance. The plan is where the real individual development value is unlocked and prepped to produce a positive ROI.

Albert Einstein said, “Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.” Experiential learning incorporating games using realistic work situations for leadership development produces immediate results.

The interactive game-learning medium is a scalable method to enable new ideas, while providing “sandboxes” where erroneous behaviors do not have a costly downside. Leaders develop their environment analysis, decision-making skills and consequence reflection over multiple quarters of gameplay where they must collaborate and compete.

Still not convinced on the gamification of leadership development? According to the 2016 ATD and Institute for Corporate Productivity study, “Experiential Learning for Leaders: Action Learning, On-the-Job Learning, Serious Games, and Simulations,” high performing organizations use experiential learning nearly three times more than low performing. So, it can be a good thing when leaders play games.

John Gillis Jr. is president of LeadershipX LLC. Comment below, or email

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1 Comment

  1. John – Thanks for a really solid article on many of the issues. We’ve been playing in this arena for 25 years, finding that play in an exercise is an outstanding tool for generating cognitive dissonance between what they choose to do versus the challenge they are given. Asked to mine as much gold as we can and optimize the Expedition Leader’s ROI, they generally choose to compete to win rather than collaborating. They do not share resources nor do they get the assistance of Leadership to help them improve their performance. This, “My Team, My Team, My Team” thinking is what makes “interdepartmental collaboration” an oxymoron.

    But the REAL key is the debriefing. Getting the tabletops to discuss the organizational reality and what they want to happen differently, operationalizing the theme of “mining as much gold as we can” and making the WE a reality is a first step in the strategy implementation and organizational alignment realities.

    We still believe in the face-to-face kinds of environments, where players can look their “competitors” in the eye and talk about things to improve collaboration and outcomes. I believe that personal commitment makes change more likely.

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