Imagine that you’re facing a critical decision that will impact the future of your company, like the choice between bootstrapping your next game or taking on investors. You’ve discussed the issue with your team, but you realize that you’re still not sure what the best decision is. How great would it be if you could dissect the issue with someone who truly understands both the issue and your situation, but can still offer a more objective perspective?
Pretty great, right?
This is the value that a good sparring partner can offer. In this essay I want to highlight the importance of sparring for founders and leaders of videogame companies, and provide practical steps on how to find a sparring partner.
So, how can sparring help you make better decisions and lead your company more effectively?
What a sparring is for
Sparring is a process where you share your challenges and obstacles with a trusted peer in a similar position. The goal is to gain an outsider’s perspective on the situation and receive constructive feedback that can help refine your thinking.
It is important to realize that sparring is distinct from the following roles, as shared by Venkatesh Rao in Art of Gig:
- Unlike a therapist, a sparring partner is not focused on inner work, except as the occasional side effect.
- Unlike a mentor, a sparring partner does not guide you through inner or outer challenges they have already been through themselves.
- Unlike an executive coach, a sparring partner does not help you develop general-purpose skills and behaviors.
Instead, a sparring partner helps you clarify your thinking about specific challenges in order to arrive at better decisions.
Characteristics of a good sparring partner
To to be effective, a good sparring partner should possess several qualities:
- They should have a solid understanding of the videogames industry and your organizational environment. Without this understanding, it will take too long to explain relevant concepts.
- They should have the intellectual capacity to process information at demanding levels. They need to be able to “think on their feet”. If they can’t do this, they’re less like a sparring partner and more like a training dummy.
- They need to be free of conflicts of interest that will make it harder to form a trusting relationship. Without trust, information won’t flow as easily.
- They should be a truth-teller, what Adam Grant would term a “disagreeable giver”. Everyone has blind spots, and a good sparring partner shows you yours, so that you can keep improving yourself and your company.
Without all four characteristics, it is very hard to get the most out of your sparring sessions.
Where to find a sparring partner
There are a few places where executives typically tend to look for sparring partners:
- Executives from another company in an adjacent, non-competing business.
- A board member, key investor, or retired executive from the same organization.
- An academic studying the industry or domain.
- A peer executive in the same company.
- Finally, for smaller or cash-starved organizations, social media platforms like Twitter can be a good option
The problem with all of the above options is that it is hard to find someone that posesses each of the four requisite characteristics. And even if you find someone who fits the bill, peers like these may be unavailable when you most need sparring support.
To avoid this, you can take two approaches. First, it is a good idea to diversify your sparring partners. Look for people from different backgrounds and experiences to provide a broader perspective. Second, you may want to work with a professional sparring partner that is available precisely when and where you need them.
Steps to finding a sparring partner
Now that you know where to look, let’s talk about how to find a sparring partner.
First, start by identifying potential sparring partners in your professional network. These can be people that you already know, or that you can get a warm introduction to. Be open and transparent about your intentions, and make sure to screen potential partners for the necessary qualities. Once you’ve found a good match, it’s essential to establish a relationship of trust and transparency. Set clear expectations and boundaries for the sparring relationship. After that, it’s a good idea to meet regularly to get in synch with your partner, and work through issues as they come up.
It may be challenging to find the right partner, but the rewards are well worth the effort. Sparring, whether with peers or a professional sparring partner, is a crucial tool for refining your thinking and improving your leadership and decision-making skills. So start sparring, and watch your thinking evolve.
Here are some next steps you can take if this essay has piqued your interest: