Academy Blog: Leading The Unknown

I had this idea while I was editing in a last-second conclusion to my article on leadership. Leadership in judging has what I find to be a relatively unique dynamic.

One week, you’ll be leading a team, or head judging an event, and then a month later, or maybe even a day later, you’ll be subordinate to someone who was on your team. Or someone who was on your team is now your boss. Or someone new is your team lead and so is everyone else on your team.

This mostly applies to judges who travel more frequently for larger events, but it’s just a weird dynamic that I want to talk about, and the lessons extracted from this can be applied to more static environments, just in different ways.

Being given a new team to work with isn’t a wholly unique circumstance, but most of the time, you work with them for more than a day and probably have met them before. Whereas in Magic, it’s not infrequent to work with three different teams over the course of a three-day event, and if you’re traveling to a region you don’t regularly work in or haven’t been to in a while you might not know anyone you’re working with.

So how do you become an effective leader for people you don’t know and won’t see again tomorrow? Leadership can be easier with people you know because you know what motivates them, what obstacles stop them in their tracks, and how to help them get around those challenges. You know if they’re going to want three thirty-minute breaks instead of one, longer hour break and a thirty-minute break. You already have a framework in place to work with them.

With judges you haven’t worked with before, you don’t know their skill level, their experience – anything. You may have some information like a level or a number of events that they’ve worked on, but, well, there’s the old phrase that “seeing is believing” and it can sometimes be hard to accept someone’s skills or experiences until you’ve seen them tested for yourself, not just heard that they have those skills.

So how do you lead effectively with people you haven’t met before? Or people who had authority over you the last time you worked together? How do you do any of this?

Well, we’re going to start with my usual disclaimer: It’s a personal journey and what works for one person might not work for you. But I can take a swing at it and talk about some strategies that I use.

You’re Here For A Reason

You’ve been put in charge of this team for a reason. It doesn’t matter if there’s someone you think is more experienced or qualified than you on your team. You’re in charge. If you think you’re underprepared, take it as a learning opportunity and glean as much information as you can. Don’t hesitate to ask for advice, but don’t rely on the judgments of others to make decisions.

As long as you try your best and communicate your plans and expectations, you’ll be okay. The problems only arise when you fail to communicate or when you refuse to accept responsibility for any mistakes you may have made.

Someone with more experience on your team, or someone with less experience as your boss isn’t a judgment on you, it just means somebody else is getting an opportunity. Because the full staff changes between events, it’s important for TOs to rotate leaders, to ensure there are always more people who are developing skills and growing. It’s to the TO’s benefit to make sure there’s steady growth among everyone. Doing this allows them to select the people with whom they work best, and develop habits that can ease the burden of communication.

Introduce Yourself

The most effective leaders are those who are respected. The people on your team need to trust you to give them meaningful and useful instructions that lead to the completion of your goal. That goal is both the execution of your task (like deck checks or posting pairings) as well as creating a positive atmosphere for your team.

If the members of your team don’t think you’re going to be able to accomplish the task, they’re more likely to question your directions or ignore them entirely.

The first step to being respected is being known. Figure out how you want to introduce yourself to your team. Depending on the assignment and the role, you may lean more toward a professional aspect or a personal one. For example, when I’m leading side events with people that I don’t know, I tend to talk more about my experience and the events where I’ve done the task before – it’s a very logistically complicated task and for larger events, so it’s best to have someone with experience at the helm.

On the other hand, when I’m leading a more relaxed team, such as pairings, I focus more on the personal aspect, as that team is less about the logistical execution and more about making sure judges are engaged on the floor, answering calls and having a good time. 

Of course, gaining respect isn’t as simple as saying “Hey! I’ve done this before, and I’m really cool, let’s get to work.”* It’s something that you have to build up over time, developing an expectation between you and those you work with.

To kickstart the process, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Know what you’re going to say
  2. Be open to feedback
  3. Engage personally

1. Know What You’re Going To Say

Confidence, or at least the portrayal of confidence, is important. If it seems like you don’t have a plan in place, or you don’t know what you expect from your team, your team will believe their own perception.

Having a plan going into any leadership role is important, and more so when you’re working with a new team. If you can clearly lay out what the plan is (and a little bit of detail on the why of it as well), you’re in a great starting place. Part of the job is that you’re supposed to have a plan, so if you show up with a plan, you’ve already proven that you can do the job! 

Demonstrating a few successes allows others to see a trend and derive information from an incomplete set.

2. Be Open to Feedback

So if step one is “have a plan”, step two is “know that your plan isn’t perfect.” Being flexible and willing to accept that there can be an improvements to your plan is key. You don’t have to utilize any feedback given, but genuinely listening is important.

A great way to start this process is by recognizing the flaws in your own plan. At a team-sealed event I was Head Judging, there was a significant chance of irregular product, with an entire pool missing rares. While I went over the plan to address the issue – by opening one pack at a time – I also noted that it would increase the amount of time that it would take to go through the process.

Noting your own faults and asking for help is generally seen as a sign of strength, especially if you accept a plan that improves upon yours or if nobody can come up with a solution.

When listening to feedback, if you’re not going to use it, and that is immediately apparent, try to explain why, even if it’s “I understand that has been your experience, but in my experience, this has been better. If my approach has issues, I’ll try yours next time.” While you aren’t using the feedback, you’re accepting it and validating it. Ideally, you can offer a more comprehensive response, but sometimes time is limited, and you need to get started on the task sooner rather than later.

Tied into this is admitting your mistakes when they occur – trying to hide them can cause problems, and can wholly undermine any trust you’ve developed if discovered. 

Similarly, adjusting your plan, and explaining why you made the changes you did can reinforce trust. If you continue to trust in your team, that’ll be returned back to you.

3. Engage Personally

This can take the longest time: For people to trust you, it’s best if they feel you understand them. This is large enough to be its own article, but let’s hit some high points.

First of all, know people’s names! Talking to and about people in the way they wish to be discussed is a simple way to build respect. This includes taking into account preferred (or disliked) nicknames, pronunciation, pronouns etc… Asking someone specifically to help you, rather than nameless minions is a huge step up. It can be a challenge, especially if you’re meeting a lot of people for the first time and folks don’t have name tags but be up-front about it. 

Appreciate the work that they do! This can be as simple as saying thank you when they handle a task for you, provide feedback, or come to you with a question. Taking more time to give more comprehensive feedback is also great, but far from necessary, especially when you’re working on a limited clock.

Show interest in them and their interests! A lot of people like talking about themselves, or at the least their interests. Asking questions to expand your knowledge can be a fun way to learn, and shows a genuine engagement with them, which will be returned.

If someone on your team feels like you understand what their goals are and what challenges they face, they’re more likely to trust that you’re acting in their best interests. It also allows them to get a more individualized measure of you, so they can figure out how you’ll react to feedback, and how best to approach you with problems and challenges they see in the event, which will improve your leadership.

Make More Friends

This is really an expansion of engaging personally, but you can take the opportunity to network and connect with new people. Some of my best friends are folks who are across the country from me, and there are many judges I talk with primarily at events about deeply shared interests. I like working with these people (and I like to think they like working with me) and it makes the process smoother, whether I’m in charge, or they are, or someone else entirely.

It’s hard to utilize it in the short term – you can’t make a friendship become long-lasting in a day, but you can lay the foundation for one. And of course, you benefit more than having an easier time for future events – you’ve got a new friend!

If you’re the sort of person who could (and has) made friends with a wall, wonderful! This part should be easy for you. Of course, if you’re someone on the quieter side, that’s also quite alright. You don’t need to befriend the entire event staff or even anyone! But getting to know people, developing acquaintances, and forging bonds one step at a time, can really make events a more enjoyable experience. And if you’re someone who really revels in the rules and policy, and less so the Gathering – there are other people out there who are just as impassioned, and would love to hear your riddles and questions.

Anyway, to bring it all back together, while leadership positions in the judge community can be unique in how they’re presented, the keys to being an effective leader are the same, whether it’s the first time you’re meeting someone or the fiftieth – you might just have to learn how to compress your expression of self into something a little bit more concise.

(*If one of you uses this as an introduction when I’m on your team, I swear I’ll give you a gold star or something.)