Disclaimer: I was never a cheerleader

I was the nerd being crammed into cheerleaders’ lockers. But I did frequently fall into leadership roles completely by accident. As a kid and young adult I didn’t know why, really, when I was chosen as the Captain of my twirling team, swim team, and volleyball team; leader of my dance troupe, sorority, recycling committee, or ad club. I certainly wasn’t the best at all these. Especially volleyball. Yikes.

Only now as an adult trying to diagnose what works and what doesn’t work as a manager have I realized that, even though I’ve never waved a pom pom in my life, it was my cheerleading ability that made me into an accidental leader, and I think, has paved the way for a management style that works for me and many others. Before you give me too much side-eye for casting a stereotype onto women leaders, I don’t mean managers should go around giving gold stars and doing backflips every time someone does their job right. Cheerleading isn’t about just celebrating victories. Sometimes it’s about saying “You can do better.” One cheerleader manager (a man) at a former agency told me of a design I was working on “It’s good, but it’s just not up to your standard of work. I would like you to keep trying some more things.” This stuck with me. He didn’t come down on me, even though he was critical of my work. He wanted me to achieve the best possible result he knew I was capable of.

What cheerleader management really means is being focused on and invested in the success of your team and getting others on board with the same attitude. What falls out if that is a company culture of lifting one another up, asking questions, exchanging knowledge, holding one another accountable, and pushing through rough patches together in pursuit of victory.

And it works. In a paper from the University of Southern Denmark, researchers compared the innovation of 147 firms against variables that are known to encourage creativity in the workplace. Of the seven known influencers on innovation, only organizational motivation (the extent that the firm follows opportunities, encourages its employees toward creative attitude, and allows management flexibility to accommodate the desired employee behavior) had a direct correlation on both product innovation and process innovation*. And that’s what cheerleading management is all about.

Interested yet? If you want to be a cheerleading manager, here’s what I’ve found to be the key components:

1. Be an example

If you aren’t passionate and invested in what you’re doing, people can smell it from a thousand miles away. Holding yourself to a high standard and asking “Is this my best?” is the first step to cheerleading management. Enthusiasm and determination is contagious, and it has to run from the top down.

2. Push

As Arthur Ashe once said, “You’ve got to get to the stage in life where going for it is more important than winning or losing.” Encourage a culture of going for it. Let people stretch out in the direction they love and are best at. Let them attack opportunities as they see them. Give audacious ideas a fair shake. Think before naysaying. And if someone’s work isn’t up to snuff, tell them. After all, you’re the one setting the bar. Help them find their own path to better.

3. More carrots, fewer sticks

People who are afraid will never take the leaps that land great success. Honesty, question-asking, and knowledge-sharing are keys to creativity that can’t live in an environment of selfishness or cynicism. Celebrate people who want to learn and who want to help the people around them. Beware the poisonous employee who makes people feel bad about themselves, or sees others’ success as detrimental to their own. Stand up for your team. Reward people who lift their neighbors up.

Next up: Design ethics: What’s cheating, what’s distasteful, and what’s okay