On Cheerleading and Employee Engagement

My 17 year old daughter is a varsity cheerleader on her high school’s competitive team. Cheerleading has changed dramatically since I was in high school. It is now increasingly popular and fiercely competitive, on track to become an Olympics sport sometime in the future.

The sport has become so high profile that job recruiters, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, seek out former cheerleaders as high potential salespeople. (See more in this article from The New York Times).

The UCA National high school cheerleading finals took place in 2010 on February 12–14 in Orlando at Disney World. This was my third visit as a “cheer Mom”. The first time I went, I was struck by what a perfect metaphor modern cheerleading is for brand advocacy (sometimes known as  employee brand engagement). In fact, I gave a speech shortly thereafter, that drew heavily on that experience.  I even included snapshots that I had taken during the competition to illustrate what I meant. My point of view has not changed.

Corporations today know that engaged employees lead to better efficiency, higher profits and an all-round better brand. But from my observation, the attempts at creating “engagement” are hampered by the lack of a holistic perspective. Not so among today’s cheerleaders. These teams are cross-trained to create a fabulous routine. Throughout the season, practice is supplemented by work with professional choreographers, formal gymnastics instruction, drills and, of course, cheering. A successful routine includes all of these elements, executed flawlessly, and completed in exactly two and one-half minutes. The higher degree of difficulty, the better the score.

How many corporations have employees that meet this kind of standard? Exactly the ones that are known for their strong brands: Starbucks, Apple, Nordstrom, Southwest Airlines, etc. In the rest of the business world, these attempts to “engage” their employees all too often become:

  • Superficial–poster campaigns, unnecessary town halls, inauthentic newsletters
  • Opportunities for sibling rivalry–Human Resources wants to create an “employer brand”, Marketing wants to develop brand advocacy based on the external brand, Corporate Training wants to take charge of educating employees and Internal Communications want to control all the communication channels
  • Bottoms up programs–doomed to fail because there is no senior executive sponsorship or behavioral models

A major missing element of many traditional engagement programs is the company brand. Let me suggest that the key to true brand advocacy is a clear focus on the outside world. And that focus results from understanding the brand. Competitive cheerleaders know exactly what the judges are looking for. Certain stunts win extra points for difficulty, and errors like stepping off the mat result in a lower score. In the same way, employees must understand how customers and prospects judge, purchase and ultimately prefer a company’s product.

Over the past three years, cheerleading has become even more competitive. The stunts and tumbling have reached an amazing level. It’s not unlike the constantly escalating level of competition in the business world. What makes it different is that I have seen true innovation in routines, and I have seen enthusiastic support for building to higher difficulty.

Employees may not have to do a standing back handspring like a varsity cheerleader, but a well-coordinated and unified understanding of the brand can make the difference in a transparent and competitive world.

P.S. My daughter’s team won 5th place at the Nationals.

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