What CEOs can Learn from Dancing with the Stars

by Tara Rethore on May 27, 2011

Dancing with the Stars Show

So now you know: I watch Dancing with the Stars. And while I’m not obsessive, it’s fair to say that I’ve watched some part of every season since its debut in the summer of 2005.

Now in its 12th season, Dancing with the Stars is a regular fixture in the TV lineup and among Twitter fans (#DWTS or @ABC_DWTS). Like any reality TV show, however, what’s often more interesting than the dancing is the behavior of the “stars,” both behind the scenes and in the heat of the moment.

Like the dancers, business leaders are front and center in their corner of the universe.

Their staffs constantly watch how they behave. Every leader’s actions are considered in terms of what message each sends and how well each supports the company strategy.

Reflecting on the past few seasons of Dancing with the Stars, I found several worthwhile lessons for CEOs.

Here are five that are particularly relevant in executing strategy:

1. Stay on message.

Understand and embrace the heart of your objective. What is most critical for others to know about what you are doing?

Petra Nemcova (Season 12) aptly demonstrated the art of staying on message – without becoming either annoying or repetitive. It was clear that while she enjoyed the dancing, her primary purpose in participating was to build awareness of her philanthropic endeavors. Petra capitalized on every opportunity to let us glimpse the work she does to “rebuild children’s lives after natural disaster.”

Leaving the competition, Petra gracefully acknowledged her partner – and reminded us: “I’m going back to what my life is about, building schools” with Happy Hearts.

2. Take risks.

Ballroom dancing has strict rules, formal guidelines, and a strong tradition. Yet, even when constrained by such frameworks, sometimes you’ve just got to go out on a limb. Chelsea Kane & Mark Ballas “pushed boundaries with their paso doble.” They earned mixed marks for execution, but praise for giving it their all – and they moved onto the next round of the competition. Further, they learned from the experience and brought that learning to their next dance.

3. Beware the underdog.

It’s fine to stand atop the Leader Board each week. But the biggest threat can come from those at the bottom.

Scan the horizon constantly to ensure a far-flung competitor doesn’t suddenly emerge victorious.

Last season, Bristol Palin consistently earned lower marks from the judges than many of her competitors. Yet her persistence and a loyal following accounted for half of her total score – and closed the gap week after week. She and her partner landed in the finals, placing third overall.

4. Focus on content.

Charisma and charm can take you a long way. Failing to nurture the foundation –  quality, customer service, attention to detail, and flawless execution – is a death sentence.

In nearly every season, charismatic dancers capture audience attention for a time; in the end, only those who also delivered well-executed dances survived.

5. Exhibit grace under pressure.

Missteps are inevitable. What matters is how you behave in the face of one. This season, two stars (Kirstie Alley and Ralph Macchio) dealt with a fall during her/his performance. Both demonstrated poise, grace, and respect for their partners. Both avoided elimination in those weeks, in spite of beautiful performances by their competitors.

Above all, whether you are dancing or running a business, keep your eye on the prize.

More from Women Grow Business:

Image: Sheree K via Flickr, Creative Commons

Tara Rethore is president, M Beacon Enterprises, and helps business leaders to do what they set out to do. She’s passionate about breaking down complex concepts into a few, critical themes that shift thinking and deliver results. Tara knows what it takes to succeed, to execute a strategy, and to transform vision into reality. Tara can also be found commenting on business strategy, execution, and results on Twitter.


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