5 Management Lessons From Empire's Cookie Lyon

5 Management Lessons From Empire’s Cookie Lyon


With Tarji P. Henson winning a Golden Globe last night, let’s take a look at Cookie Lyon, the breakout star of the show.

Dave Wiengand of The Seattle Times said Henson, as Cookie, is “a force to be reckoned with, both by the other characters and the actors who play them.” Alyssa Rosenburg of The Washington Post said that Cookie is TV's "best new female character" of 2015.

Sure Cookie is a badass, but she’s also got some management lessons to teach us:

1. Hire Great People: Seems simple right?  But a common mistake that managers make is hiring average employees and trying to magically turn them into great ones.  Merriam-Webster defines “talent” as, “A special ability to do something well.”  Can this be taught? Absolutely, but only if the employee posses certain “soft” skills like work ethic, passion, and drive.  These soft skills are important because without them, you’ll be stuck with a talented, unmotivated, uncoachable team member.

When Cookie found out that her son Hakeem was working on a new commercial gig, she fought her ex-husband, Lucius, for the album because of her son’s immense musical ability.  Hakeem also had the drive and work ethic work, along with a special musical ability, to make the album a success.  When Hakeem announced his desire to become a star in Season 1, Cookie spared no expense in hiring the best producers, songwriters and stylists to help him become a breakout star.  She didn’t skimp on hiring the most talented team to help her son achieve his dreams.

2. Build A Sense Of Team:  Cookie is great at creating an "us against them" environment, which can lead to increased team performance.  In politics, they call this the “rally around the flag effect.”  In times of crisis, the American people look to the President to unify the country.  In times of crisis on Empire, they look to Cookie.

At the beginning of Season 2, when Lucius was in jail, Cookie unified her team by hosting a "Free Lucius" concert.  Everyone rallied around her, becoming laser focused on getting Lucius out of jail, and keeping the company afloat in his absence. Later, after her hostile takeover of Empire failed, she decided to start her own label, Lyon Dynasty.  Her main goal was to crush Empire Records, run by Jamal and Lucius.  She got her team to rally around her fight against Lucius.

3. Embrace Differences:  What makes a person unique can sometimes be their greatest asset.  A good manager will find out what's great about each employee and capitalize on it.

In Season 1, when her son, Jamal, announced that he was gay, Cookie embraced her son's announcement and supported his new identify.  He became more famous after his “coming out” party where he gave a resounding performance of You Are So Beautiful and rode his wave of success to become the CEO of Empire Records.   When Hakeem wanted to prove that he was more than just an artist and decided to cast a girl group, Mirage a Trois, for Lyon Dynasty, Cookie embraced her son's drive and supported his new venture, which turned out to be their most successful album to date. 

4. Build A Roadmap: It’s easy to tell someone to go out and be successful but you need to show him or her how to get there. It's great if a manager can share their experiences of dealing with adversity.

Cookie shared personal examples with her team about how she wrote hit songs with Lucius early in their career, in a little apartment in Philly, and recorded them in a dingy studio.   When forming a new record label, Lyon Dynasty, with Andre and Hakeem, she showed them how she helped to build Empire and how they could do the same. She shared experiences of how she went from a life of drug dealing and jail to become a successful businesswoman.

5. Quickly Adapt To Unexpected Circumstance:  Things don’t always work out according to plan and a great manager will think creatively to find new solutions to problems.

When Hakeem's girl group, Mirage a Trois, were constantly fighting in the studio, it was proving too much for Hakeem to handle.  It didn't help that he was having a romantic relationship with the leader of the group, Valentina.  Cookie took over the training and producing duties, taking the pressure off of her son.  When Cookie tried to hire new security for Lyon Dynasty's security, Hakeem pulled a gun on them.  Cookie stepped in, calmed everyone down and came up with a solution that benefited all parties.

Great managers can take many different forms. Cookie wears leopard pants and is a ruthless ex convict, but also posses skills that translate to any business. She fixes problems, she’s accountable to herself and others, she knows her business inside and out and she’s a great decision maker.

Well, maybe not in the bedroom, but definitely in the boardroom.

This article orginally appeared in Forbes on January 10, 2016. For the original article, please click here.

InspirationTom Ward