Over the past several years, “company culture” has become a much-talked-about ingredient of business success.

Best-selling books like Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose (Grand Central 2013) show how companies can leverage culture to manage bad times and thrive in good times. Business magazines frequently give front-page coverage to leaders who create innovative cultures in all sorts of industries. And, of course, the fitness industry has taken notice.

I’d credit much of the success of the company I co-founded—Mark Fisher Fitness in New York—to our strong culture. If you’ve heard of MFF, it’s likely you know we call our clients “Ninjas.” And we don’t call our home a “gym.” We call it “The Enchanted Ninja Clubhouse of Glory and Dreams.” Our mascot is the majestic unicorn.

While those are definitely representations of our culture, a strong culture is about more than weird mascots or nicknames. In this article, I will share with you some of the things we’ve done to build a culture that has propelled MFF to greater success.

What Is Culture?

The classic definition of company culture comes from management guru Peter Drucker, who explains that it’s “the way we do things around here.” A company’s culture is the summation of the values, beliefs and behaviors of its team members.

To determine the current culture of their business, owners can analyze what their team members say and do. These behaviors and actions can be thought of as the tip of the iceberg—the part that’s visible to onlookers. However, it’s the values and beliefs below the water level that drive those behaviors. For instance, wearing capes while teaching a class may not be the foundation of MFF’s culture, but it does suggest we value having fun!

How to Build Culture

1. Clarify Your Mission

Leaders who want to influence their team’s behaviors must start by clarifying why the organization exists and what it values.

An organization without a mission is just a financial objective for the owner. Any discussion of culture begins with an exploration of why the organization exists. For example, great mission statements should inspire teams with an audacious reason for their existence. One way to determine your reason for being is to ask, “What would the world lose if my business ceased to exist tomorrow?” What would be the consequences for your clients and and your team members?

While there are different approaches to creating a mission statement, completing the following sentence can be useful:

(Name of organization) exists to (do what?).

Whether you’re creating a mission statement for a new fitness business, or clarifying the statement for your current business, everyone on your team needs to be on the same page. If your business already exists, you may want to invite your team to take part in clarifying and articulating your mission.

Action step: Create a mission statement that clearly expresses why your business exists. Communicate that statement with your team, and make sure that all of you understand it and agree with it. Then analyze where and how you’re working toward that mission—and where you’re falling short.

2. Clarify Your Values

If your mission is the North Star that shows where your organization is headed, your values are the guardrails on your path. Values establish the standards of behavior for an organization. They answer the question “How will we achieve our mission?”

Conversely, values also clarify the things you won’t do. In this case, it’s helpful to think of the behaviors you don’t want to see. For example, what behavior bothers you and why? What value does that behavior reflect? What is the opposite of that value? When you determine what you don’t want, it’s easier to clarify and articulate what you do want.

For example, MFF strives to be a safe space for nontraditional gym-goers. Because many of our Ninjas are uncomfortable in gyms, kindness is a must. We want the Ninjas to feel truly welcomed every time they come to the Clubhouse.

Action step: Establish a set of values that reflects the behavioral standards that will best serve your mission. Share them with your team, and discuss specific examples of where you currently express these values, and specific examples of where you’ve come up short.

3. Clarify Whom You Serve

While the first steps in creating an optimal culture require knowing your mission and your values—who you are and what you stand for—the next step emphasizes whom you intend to serve. When you clarify who your ideal customers are, you can think about what behaviors appeal to them.

This should be reflected in everything you produce, from the words used in marketing to the services offered. For example, an organization that works with 30-somethings looking for fat loss will have very different behavioral norms than an organization focused on senior populations concerned with aging gracefully. Just as you want everyone to understand why you exist and how you’ll achieve your mission, it’s important for the team to be aligned around whom you want to serve.

Action Step: Create an in-depth “dream client” avatar. Include both biographical (age, occupation, neighborhood) and psychographic (biggest fear, secret dream) information. Once again, make sure the whole team is familiar with this avatar, and pay special attention to those who handle any marketing.

4. Coach Team Members on Behaviors

Now that you understand the foundation for culture and you’ve clarified your mission, values and audience, the final step is to make sure the team receives regular feedback that reinforces appropriate behaviors.

It’s often said that world-class teams hire and fire for values. And while that’s true, it’s slightly more accurate to say that world-class teams hire and fire for behaviors that are or are not in line with the organization’s values.

Without ongoing coaching and reflection, the first three steps will be a waste of time. Organizations with great cultures always assess the actions of individual team members and the actions of the organization at large.

This can’t be overstated: The culture will be shaped by values and beliefs, but it will be expressed by actions and behaviors.

Over time, these actions and behaviors will help the right clients self-select into your facility, which will further strengthen your culture. For instance, if you’re the “growl and scowl” type, you may be turned off by MFF’s unicorns and glitter. And that’s okay!

Action step: On employee performance reviews, include self-evaluations that ask team members to reflect on how well they believe they’re living up to the articulated behaviors of the organization’s culture. Managers then provide outside feedback on the team members’ perspectives. It’s also important to get feedback from the team regarding the organization as a whole. Consider doing monthly surveys where the team ranks the organization’s execution of its stated values over the past month.

Seeing Your Facility’s Culture Succeed

As the fitness industry continues to mature, having a strong culture will become more and more important. It will no longer be enough to meet only the implicit expectations of members. Facilities and clubs with a cohesive culture will have a distinct advantage over those without one.

It’s easy to look at places with eccentric cultures like MFF and think it’s all about acting weird. But ultimately, a thriving culture is about a lot more than wearing capes and having theme days.

By articulating your mission and values, identifying whom you exist to serve and coaching your team’s behaviors accordingly, you’ll be well positioned to create the type of culture that drives sustained growth and makes a major impact on the lives of your members.

SIDEBAR: How to Hire People Who Fit Your Culture

When you’re interviewing potential new team members, make sure you construct some questions around your values. Ask interviewees to describe specific times in the past when they’ve displayed behaviors reflective of your organization’s core values. For instance, if you value humility, you could ask prospective team members to tell you about a time in their work history when they were passionate about a certain point of view, only to find out they were wrong. Since past behavior is often indicative of future behavior, you’re looking for specific incidents in which individuals were open to changing their minds.

SIDEBAR: Can the Solo Personal Trainer Create a Culture?

The short answer is yes! In some ways, it’s easier for a solo personal trainer to create culture, particularly if interacting with the trainer is the client’s only experience with the business. Even if you work within a larger gym culture, you can still use the steps above to articulate a mission for your career, clarify your personal values and identify your dream client.

From there, rank yourself weekly, on a scale of 1–10, on how well you lived up to your mission and each value. Identify at least one behavior that led you to your score. Then determine what you can do to improve the score by two points the following week.

Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher is an in-demand international speaker, consultant and entrepreneur. He is the co-owner of Mark Fisher Fitness, one of Men's Health magazine's Top 20 Gyms in America. MFF has two locations in Manhattan and was ranked #312 on the 2015 Inc. 500. Mark also co-founded Business for Unicorns in 2016. BFU has worked with clients like Sony Music, Sylvan Learning and the ACLU, as well as many of the leading fitness studios across the U.S. and U.K.

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