Sweet Independence

by Amanda Vogel, MA on Mar 01, 2003


Increase your longevity as a manager and boost your productivity by training your staff to improve their self-reliance.

It’s late Friday afternoon at the facility where you are group exercise director. While you quietly wrap up some overdue paperwork, an instructor frantically bursts into your office to tell you that her class is about to start but that the key to the dumbbell cabinet is missing from its usual place. From experience, you know that it is sometimes left in the cabinet’s padlock accidentally. You hunt for the key, and, sure enough, that’s where it is.

Once you’re back at your desk and on the cusp of addressing that paperwork, the phone rings. It’s another instructor, seeking a sub for his Monday morning step class.

You ask, “Have you tried Jennifer? I know she’s available mornings.”

“No,” he replies.

“Sam? He’s usually free Mondays.”




If either or both of these scenarios seem even remotely familiar, you need to increase your staff’s self-reliance, or you risk burning out. It’s critical to set boundaries between what you can and should do for your staff and what they’re perfectly capable of doing for themselves. Drawing that line increases your longevity as a manager and boosts your productivity by freeing precious time to address your most important management duties (which should not include searching for missing keys).

Setting the Stage

Krista Popowych—program director at The Fitness Group in Vancouver, British Columbia—says that, whether or not you’re readily available to assist your staff, training them to be more self-reliant is a win-win situation for everyone. You decrease the likelihood of burning out, and your employees sharpen their problem-solving skills. For these reasons, Popowych vows not to check in with her staff when she’s on vacation.

“The people you hire and have around you grow from experiencing challenges and having to look after situations on their own,” she says.

This is not to say that employees should be expected to fend for themselves completely. Effective managers arm their staffs with guidelines for handling bumps in the road, including the stage at which it’s most appropriate to enlist a manager’s help. Putting the right systems in place and communicating clearly to your staff limit how often you must come to the rescue the instant any problem arises. Popowych and two other experts share their tried-and-true methods for making these things happen.

Address Problem-Solving Scenarios

What’s the best way to strike a balance between when it’s okay for staff to rely on you and when they should depend on themselves? “Training, training, training,” answers Marcos Prolo, group exercise manager at The Sports Club/Irvine in California and creator of the STRONG group strength program.

Train staff to be more self-reliant by openly discussing potential problems before they arise. For instance, hold a meeting to brainstorm how various conflicts should be resolved and when in the chain of events, if at all, a manager should be notified.

“As a manager, I have to communicate with my staff about problem solving, so we constantly review club guidelines and service standards at staff meetings,” Prolo says. “My instructors know what I expect, making it easier for them to make the right decision when difficult situations arise.”

In addition to meeting as a group, you may prepare (or delegate someone to prepare) a handbook outlining appropriate troubleshooting steps, especially for problems particularly likely to occur at your facility. The sidebar on this page contains examples of what might be written in a problem-solving handbook.

Create a Grid of Availability

When faced with an emergency or unable to find a sub, instructors often dial the director’s number right off the bat, hoping she will take care of the situation or teach an uncovered class in a pinch. Although this is sometimes necessary, savvy fitness managers typically establish themselves as the last contact rather than the first. Tatiana Kolovou, MBA, human resources training consultant at Indiana University and former director of a large university-based fitness program, points out that you’re not there to be the super-sub. She advises directors to treat themselves as if they can’t teach most formats on their schedules—even if they can!

Popowych lets her staff know early that she’s not the resident super-sub. “When training new staff, I make it very clear that substitutions are employees’ responsibility and that managers are the last contact after employees have exhausted all other options,” she says.

She enforces this policy by compiling a “first fill-in” list for the group exercise schedule. “The first fill-in is the person that a regular instructor can call if he or she is unable to teach,” Popowych explains. “That fill-in person should be available as a backup 90 percent of the time. It’s like a second schedule.”

Prolo uses a similar technique to make his staff aware of their responsibilities. “I ask instructors to keep a log of who is available for their scheduled classes so instructors can call them first,” he says. “During one of our staff meetings, we had everyone swap schedules and, within 15 minutes, created a ‘grid of availability.’” The sample on page 11 offers a visual representation of this concept.

If you use a grid of availability, make sure you update it regularly or, at least, with every new group exercise schedule. It’s also helpful to distribute this database to both instructors and front-line staff; the latter group is often the first to be confronted with instructor no-shows or last-minute emergencies.

Just Say No

Kolovou recognizes that, when quandaries come up, staff are often conditioned to go straight to the ever- capable manager because they think, “She’s so good at what she does that she’ll take care of it for me.” However, the more managers bail employees out, the more it will be expected. “Once you unwittingly train staff in this way, you’re doomed,” Kolovou warns.

What’s the answer? “Say no more often,” Kolovou asserts. However, don’t leave staff unequipped. Kolovou is quick to add that, after saying no, you must provide viable options for how staff can troubleshoot. This is where training tools such as a grid of availability, a problem-solving handbook and regular staff meetings are especially crucial.

Beyond the Training

Once you train your staff to be more self-sufficient, you’re on your way to being a more effective manager. You may even help your employees gain the experience they need to climb the ranks not only in your company but also in the fitness industry in general. However, helping staff be more self-reliant doesn’t end with training.

As Prolo points out, success in this area also entails promoting team spirit. “I like to give my staff a sense of ownership,” he says. “It’s their program as much as it is mine. They are all responsible adults. They know my door is always open, but I ask them first to analyze each situation from all angles and then to use their best judgment.”

Chances are that, the more ownership staff feel for the program, the better their judgment will be.

Want more from Amanda Vogel?


Annesi, J.J. 1996. Enhancing Exercise Motivation: A Guide to Increasing Fitness Center Member Retention. Los Angeles: FM Books.

Pilzer, P.Z. 2002. The Wellness Revolution: How to Make a Fortune in the Next Trillion Dollar Industry. New York: Wiley & Sons.

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About the Author

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Amanda Vogel, MA human kinetics, is the owner of ActiveVoice.ca, a writing, editing and consulting service for the fitness industry. She’s a Hootsuite-certified social media consultant for fitness brands and public figures and a Fitness Technology Spokesperson for IDEA. Specializing in group fitness, Amanda holds indoor cycling certifications from Schwinn and Keiser. In addition to blogging at FitnessTestDrive.com about fit tech, workout gear and exercise clothes, she writes for popular magazines, including IDEA Fitness Journal, ACE Certified, Best Health and Reader’s Digest. Find her on social: @amandavogel on Twitter and @amandavogelfitness on Instagram.