3 Cheers for Cheer—and 3 Lessons on How to Manage
In the COVID-19 world, many of us have caught up on some of the must-watch Netflix series we missed before the pandemic struck. For me, one of those binge-worthy shows is Cheer. At its core, Cheer is a sports reality-drama that chronicles the Navarro College Cheer Team in its quest to repeat as National Collegiate Cheer and Dance Champions in Daytona, FL. (Partial spoiler alert: While I will not mention the result in Daytona, I will discuss some of the situations that arose on Navarro’s journey).
We meet incredibly compelling members of the cheer team such as Gabi, the superstar; Morgan, the driven; La’Darius, the emotional; and Lexi, the wild child. Each of the student-athletes has an incredibly compelling, and often heart-wrenching and heart-breaking, back-story. It is a story about an eclectic group of teammates whose common goal of a national championship brings them together.
Cheer also is the story of their coach, Monica Aldama, whose finance degree from the University of Texas seemingly has put her in the business of changing lives. Her success “on mat” is unquestionable, having led her Bulldogs to 14 NCA National Championships. But it was how Monica led her squad, off mat and in all facets of their lives at Navarro and outside of Navarro, that makes Cheer so compelling. Monica is a leader and her team loves her. Equally important, the respect each of them has for her is palpable. While the team clearly has an enormous level of individual talent, it is Monica’s deft touch and clear understanding of how to manage that allows the Bulldogs to attain their unparalleled level of success as a team. For me, Monica’s leadership style was phenomenally compelling. She understood how to get the most out of this wildly diverse group in a way that earned utmost respect.
As managers, we often bear the responsibility of providing our constituents the tools they need to make their organization the best it can be. Monica provides a tremendous example we can use to teach our managers how effectively to lead and how to get the most out of, and motivate to the fullest, the team members who report to them.
Her athletes refer to her as “Queen.” And they mean it. In their eyes, Monica represents almost a higher power. She is respected. She is revered. She is worshipped. As one team member described in a particularly tension-filled moment, “people have broken their necks doing this, but Monica needs me to do it, so I’ll just do it. I would take a bullet for her.”
Another explained, “She’s my best friend and my mentor and my mom figure.”
This undeniable loyalty Monica has earned—and note that this brand of devotion and obedience is earned, not simply given due to her title—is something all managers should attempt to obtain from those who report to them. But how? How did Monica convince this group of uber-cynical teenagers and those in their early twenties to follow her, unquestioningly and unwaveringly? It’s not complicated: absolute honesty.
Monica is brutally honest. She tells her athletes the truth, whether they want to hear it or not. The world of competitive athletics may be the backdrop in Cheer, but our workplaces require the same level of transparency. Our employees must trust their managers implicitly, and the only way for that to happen is if the managers are willing (they all are able) to deliver the bad news, as well as the good, in person or in our new virtual environment. Whether it’s through informal coaching, formal counseling, or during the delivery of a performance appraisal, and whether it is face-to-face or over Zoom, communicating to our employees the realities of the situation will give those employees an opportunity for improvement, with the manager’s assistance throughout the process. This speaking of truth and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with employees to support their efforts throughout the journey will have the impact we seek—employees’ understanding that their manager has their backs. In return, the manager will enjoy the reciprocal feeling—one of unadulterated loyalty from employees.
Be Prepared for Any and All Contingencies
If there is anything we have learned since March 2020, it is that, as managers, we have to be ready for anything. Agility and flexibility have become touchstone traits of effective managers. In the world of sports, we hear the phrase all the time, “next man/woman up.” More often than not, this refers to a replacement for someone who has sustained an injury that renders them incapable of playing or who did something (or didn’t do something) that results in the coach’s decision to insert a substitute.
The Queen, was, well, for lack of a better word, a Queen at being ready for the anticipated, and even more importantly, the unanticipated situation that confronted her. Monica was unflappable. As part of the team preparation for Nationals, she had the team practice “mess-up scenarios.” She understood that not all routines, no matter how well-conceived and rehearsed, go as planned. She fully comprehended that athletes struggle from time-to-time, and those struggles must be dealt with quickly swiftly and decisively. Whether it was due to injury (Sherbs), a sub-standard performance “on mat” (Will), or because of a less-than-stellar-attitude (La’Darius), Monica seemingly was always several steps ahead of everyone and knew exactly who the “next man/woman” up would be.
Effective managers anticipate the unexpected and are ready, immediately, when it occurs. My wife, spot-on-accurately, if less-than-empathetically, refers to this as the “Mack truck effect.” Are you, as a manager, ready to go on if your key performer were hit by a Mack truck? If an employee leaves the organization with little or no notice, if an employee’s performance suddenly takes a massive turn for the worse, if an employee is caught stealing and has to be terminated, is your manager ready to make the changes necessary without losing effectiveness and productivity?
Manage Without Judgement
In an early episode, Monica discussed that she was raised in Corsicana, TX, a tensely conservative environment, and described herself as “religious, more conservative, and a little bit old school with values.” Navarro College’s generally similar ideological approach is portrayed in a scene where a professor describes herself as “the biggest gun-totin’ broad you ever did see” and shares with her class that she believes a marriage can only exist between a man and a woman. This placement of these two conversations in the series is obvious in its intent—many members of the Navarro Cheer Team are openly gay. So how is Monica able, so successfully, to lead her team against the backdrop of her own upbringing and the hyper-conservative environment in which she coaches? It’s simple, really. She is, at all times, a judgment-free advocate for her athletes.
Managers take heed. You are not going to agree ideologically, politically, and on myriad other bases with all of your employees. So what? Does it really matter, from a performance and efficiency standpoint, that your employee is a Boston Celtics fan? As a die-hard Sixers fan and Process-Truster, I say, well, maybe a little. Just kidding! Of course, it doesn’t. Do you care, from the perspective of maximizing effectiveness, whether your subordinate voted the same way you did in the last mid-term election? Certainly not. Your vales will never be shared with all of your employees and vice versa. I view this as a positive. Aside from teaching tolerance and acceptance of other people’s views, it brings a diversity of ideas into the workplace—ALWAYS a good thing. Be open to new perspectives and different ways of thinking about an issue. The linear route to issue spotting and problem solving often is not the best one. Open your mind to diversity of thoughts and you will be rewarded—perhaps not with a national championship, but rather with a more efficient, effective, and energetic workforce.
Cheer is a compelling series with interesting characters. But it’s far more than that. It’s a lesson on how to manage a diverse group of team members in highly stressful and seemingly ever-changing situations. Managers, watch it for entertainment, but listen carefully to it for the education.
Michael S. Cohen is a partner at Duane Morris LLP. He concentrates his practice in the areas of employment law training and counseling.