From Boots to Prestige: Five Great Career Lessons from Stepping
I LOVE stepping. Yes, a brother can still move something nearly 30 years after he first took the stage at a Greek show. I just don’t jump or kick as high as I used to. Back in the day, though??? I wasn’t a step master, I was a step monster. During my college years, I got a chance to rip stages with a New Orleans citywide step team. We placed in Greek shows at the famous Bayou Classic, Southeastern Louisiana University, a Delta regional convention, and the wildly popular show at the University of Southwest Louisiana (now University of Louisiana-Lafayette).
I realized stepping was more than frat boy folly when I found ways to apply my experiences far beyond Greek show stages. As I reflect fondly on those college days, I am amazed at how many times something would happen in my career and I would utter to myself with a chuckle, "Just like stepping." Allow me to share...
Success does not come without taking risks.
I was terrified about the first couple of Greek show routines I choreographed. I didn’t want embarrass the brothers. At the same time, I knew there was no way we would make any progress if we didn’t get out there. We had some rough shows and did some things that local audiences had not seen, but folks respected that we had the guts to try.
Taking career risks has stayed with me ever since. When I worked for Monster Worldwide, the risks I took created unprecedented growth in the territory I managed. As a public relations and marketing director at Southern University at New Orleans, I took risks that led to defeating a state proposal that would have subsequently closed the university’s doors. Taking risks, however, takes vision. Just like envisioning celebrating that Greek show victory, it's necessary to envision career success. Keeping our eyes on the prize makes those risks much more worth it.
Leadership is not a popularity contest, regardless of how it seems.
Leadership can be sexy and intoxicating, but it can also be frustrating and downright thankless. One thing that makes leadership so hard in the world of stepping is coming to the realization that a Greek show team may have a better chance of winning by making cuts. People's feelings get hurt. After all, it's a brotherhood or sisterhood! Until this day, I feel guilty about reducing the size of one step team. It happened, however, because we entered a big show that we wanted to win. When the team became dissatisfied with members’ actions, I was called on, as the step master, to reduce the size of the group.
HBCU presidents are great examples of how unpopular leadership can be. When HBCUs lose revenue, the presidents have to make extremely hard decisions. Very few HBCU stakeholders understand or even care about the burdens that presidents carry in these moments. Even if a campus flourishes in the wake of presidents making institution-saving decisions, people still hold these leaders more responsible for the sacrifices than the big picture outcome.
What people see is what they get.
I ran across a great tweet, “Chapters put probate shows together in a week and wonder why it looks crazy. You can’t microwave a good show!” When an audience sees a tight Greek show performance they know the team put in the work. If a team looks raggedy, their level of preparation is obvious. One place where people’s preparation or lack thereof is exposed is the work meeting. The meeting is where leaders expect results from the employees' assignments. When an employee sounds unprepared, it's normally because that employee is unprepared. The folks who walk into meetings prepared, however, earn loads of respect from their colleagues and leadership.
The details are a pain but they pay off.
I love how much more meticulous stepping become over the years, but I remember so vividly how much I hated going over details in practices. However, seeing a row of Iota arms at perfect angles, Omega hops at the same height, Kappa canes twirling at the same speed, or Sigma hands with the exact same placement is a thing of beauty. And I must give a shout-out to one of the most meticulous teams I've ever seen--my former alumni chapter, Rho Nu Lambda. It takes hours of work and lots of arguments along the way, but no one can argue with the finished product when the routine is tight. People pay for Greek show tickets to see greatness!
Former NFL player Mike Golic said it best, “Ninety-nine percent of winning is what people don’t see you doing.” Whether college students are working on group projects or lawyers are researching for big cases, the importance of attention to detail is unquestionable.
Know when to trust the team.
One of the best shows my New Orleans step team did was actually a mess about an hour before we hit the stage. One of the brothers was sick as a dog and it looked like he had no chance whatsoever of performing. On top of that, the team admitted to me that they hated the intro I put together. About 20 minutes before we hit the stage, I decided to let go and trust my brothers. The sick brother got better, the team’s new intro was much better, we rocked it, and placed. Our careers teach us that we don't always have the answers; but we can find them if we let go, listen, and trust.
Throughout our careers, we have to know the people who surround us while being aware of our strengths and weaknesses just like being on a step team. Stepping is possibly the ultimate exercise in patience, trust, confidence, leadership, and team work. Think about it, what a team does has to be displayed for an audience which puts the chapter, the fraternity or sorority and subsequently our individual reputations on the line. Apply that awareness to your career and you may be surprised at how much you will be able to accomplish.