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The Care and Feeding of Superheroes

You’ve heard it often: Your people are your greatest asset. But as author Rodd Wagner points out in his book Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees As If They’re Real People (McGraw-Hill 2015), “Your people are not your greatest assets. They’re not yours, and they’re not assets.”

Of course, that’s not to say your people aren’t essential. To create a high-performing fitness business and succeed in today’s competitive market, you can’t go it alone. And while you can pay people to do the bare minimum, your real competitive advantage comes from creating a work culture that attracts high-quality talent and that inspires people to bring their very best. You want superheroes.

Fitness business superheroes have the following qualities in common:

  • a service mindset
  • a genuine hunger for professional and personal development
  • an ability to develop meaningful connections with diverse personality styles
  • a passion for health and wellness
  • an alignment with the business’s culture and values

There are other characteristics as well, but these points form a foundation on which you can build a thriving business. The fitness industry is at its heart a service industry and is defined by the people (or superheroes) who work in it. Simply put, you can’t be outstanding without an amazing team. You won’t be able to grow your fitness business and increase revenue unless your clients and members love your team. And without a great team, you won’t be able to inspire your clients to embrace health and fitness behaviors.

At Mark Fisher Fitness, growth has been explosive, and we’ve recognized that our greatest advantage comes from the remarkable human beings who make up our team. Like any organization, we have challenges, and we’re no stranger to internal conflict, disagreements and tension. But at the end of the day, we’ve developed a tribe of deeply committed, mission-
driven superheroes. We strive to live by our values, and we’re willing to have the tough conversations required to keep us moving forward.

In this article, I’ll lay out some strategies and principles we’ve used to grow the Mark Fisher Fitness team and get listed as one of the fastest-growing companies in the United States 2 years in a row by Inc. magazine. I’ll warn you in advance: Leadership is not for the faint of heart. In very real ways, the limitations of your business reflect your personal limitations as a leader. But if you’re willing to do the hard work of improving yourself and supporting your team, the payoff will be much more than money. It will be the satisfaction of providing people you love with good work and the chance to spend their days helping your clients and members achieve their goals while using fitness as a platform to live their best lives.

Finding Superheroes: Recruiting and Interviewing

Where do you find superheroes? The short answer is . . . everywhere!

Maybe you’ve heard the expression “Hire for attitude, train for skill.” This is especially true for any service-based business, and fitness is no exception. When you’re looking to grow your team, it’s great if you can find trainers who are already certified and experienced. You may find potential team members at industry conferences or local fitness networking events. But you may also find high-quality candidates among your clientele, among friends of your existing team, in your extended social network, and even at a restaurant or retail store when you notice great service.

What? Recruit from outside the industry? Yes! Limited experience needn’t be a barrier if you can develop an in-house education system and are willing to invest in your staff. Of course, if you do find a great candidate from outside the industry, you’ll have to train her properly and be sure she gets certified, buys fitness insurance, and so on. But it’s always easier to train for skill than it is to successfully integrate an experienced trainer who doesn’t fit well with your culture.

Pro tip: Maintain a list of potential hires and keep up with them to prevent last-minute scrambling when you need to grow your team!

If you want a team of superheroes, you also need to become proficient at interviewing. This may seem like an autopilot task requiring no special attention, but a skillful interview can make all the difference. While a full exploration of interviewing is beyond the scope of this article, here are three “hacks” to make your interviews more effective:

  1. Ask for references. This is a basic tip, but you’d be surprised at how many people skip this step. Start your interview by making sure you have up-to-date contact information for previous supervisors. Tell the candidate you’ll be following up with his references to talk about work history. This generally leads to more candid answers. Be sure you call the references!
  2. Create questions around your values. All businesses have their own values and behavioral norms (see the sidebar “Mark Fisher Fitness Core Values”). It’s important to ask specific questions that reveal how the potential superhero will behave in different situations. The best way to do this is to ask about particular instances in the past instead of relying on hypotheticals. For example, instead of asking a candidate how she would deal with an angry client, this would be a better approach: “Tell me about a time in the past when you dealt with an angry customer. What specific actions did you take, and what was the outcome?”
  3. Give the candidate the floor. Save enough time during the interview to allow your candidate to ask you questions about the position and the company. This often reveals much more about the person and what he values. Depending on the depth of the questions, you may learn something new and perhaps even gain fresh insight into one of your systems.

Developing Superheroes

So you’ve found your superheroes. Now what? What do superheroes want? Although you should always pay people enough to be competitive in your market, factors beyond money motivate true superheroes. They want to contribute to a great mission and develop their unique skills (see the sidebar “What’s Your Mission?”). Without a true mission, the default goal of your business is simply a financial objective for you, the owner. Superheroes won’t be satisfied giving their life force so you can enjoy a nicer summer vacation. They want to serve something greater than themselves.

Once you’ve articulated a motivating reason for your business to exist (to Inspire the World to Fitness®, for example), you’ll need to provide your team with opportunities to grow and develop. Here are some ways we do this at Mark Fisher Fitness:

We schedule regular one-on-one meetings. Everyone on our team regularly meets with a supervisor or manager to discuss ongoing development. We use these “touch-base” times to clarify ongoing performance feedback, find out how we can be better leaders and be a source of ongoing education accountability.

We commit to team meetings. Regular team trainings are the lifeblood of a high-performing team. We gather for a 2-hour team meeting every Wednesday afternoon and strive to focus on training as opposed to just passing on information (which can be done via email). We split our time between the business team and the fitness team so we can customize the information for each subteam.

For example, we may review proper dead-lift technique with trainers and discuss sales conversations with the business team. In addition to meeting for role-specific training, we gather as a group to review listening skills, life coaching and customer service scenarios; we also brainstorm ways to improve the company.

We give the team learning assignments. Since we are culturally obsessed with continued improvement, we spend a lot of time, money and energy on continuing education. Besides individual education, we set several teamwide learning assignments throughout the year. This includes anything from reading the same book to completing a function-specific assignment (like watching a video on fitness training). From time to time, we bring in outside facilitators to lead workshops on anything from personality-style assessments to meditation.

We subsidize external education opportunities. Because we encourage the team to stay educated, all team members receive a stipend for up to 50% of the cost of any approved educational expense. While most continuing education focuses on fitness and business topics, we also reimburse for broader personal development. For example, many of our team members have earned certifications as life coaches. Although this isn’t directly related to their day-to-day tasks, we know that life-coaching skills like listening and communicating make team members more effective.

We do yearly check-ins. In addition to our ongoing one-on-one meetings, we hold a formal meeting with each team member every year. This isn’t a “performance review,” since our team receives feedback all year long. During annual check-ins, we ask people to reflect on how they’re doing and how we can better support them. They score themselves on an evaluation form that includes behavioral standards, clarification on what they want to work on in the upcoming year and long-term career plans.

Providing Structure

Management provides structure. Good managers set crystal-clear expectations, hold their team accountable and offer specific praise. Your team members want to win; they want to do a good job and serve your organization’s mission. However, they can’t do that if you don’t have written systems and standards for them to reference! That’s why it’s crucial that you take the time to create an operations manual. You want your team to understand the workings of your business so well that they ultimately don’t need you. Remember, you can’t hold them accountable to expectations that exist only in your head. Make sure each job function has a written set of standard operating procedures so you’re all on the same page.

When you do see something that doesn’t live up to your expectations, assume good intentions. Remember, superheroes want to do a good job. If they’re not performing, it’s possible your systems are not as clear as you think they are. It’s also possible that personal challenges may be temporarily affecting a team member’s work. Always lead with curiosity and ask questions.

When an issue does need to be addressed, focus on the behavior and not on your “story” about the person. For instance, you can hold someone accountable for not being on time, but it’s perilous to fault the person for being “lazy.” The latter is a character attribute—and potentially an unfair judgment on your part.

Managing and Leading Superheroes

If the job of management is about looking inward to the organization and providing structure, the job of leadership is about looking outward and providing a vision. By definition, being a leader is about going first. That means not only modeling the behavior you want to see but also establishing your company’s direction. This can’t be overstated. Your team wants to see where your organization is headed. By sharing your dreams for the business, you help your team members consider their own futures more effectively.

A leader’s job is also to steward the organization’s mission and values. Since your superheroes spend their time in the day-to-day details of the business, you need to continually remind everyone why your business exists. Why does the impact they have on clients and members matter? What stories demonstrate this impact at its best? How will you achieve your mission? What are the standards of behavior for your team? Put another way, what does your organization value?

Your job as leader is to make sure the company mission stays top-of-mind and the corporate values inform behavior. A great way to start a team meeting is to ask team members to share a recent moment when they noticed something that reflected the company’s core values.

In your function as the outward-facing strategist, you must spend time considering the big picture. This requires knowing about everything from long-term financial trends to trends in the industry at large to those in your local market. It’s only by looking at the “macro” view and tweaking your business over time that you can steer your ship, with its crew of superheroes, and continue to thrive.

Your final job as a leader (and a manager) is to truly care about your team. Since your superheroes are giving you their life force to help you achieve your dreams, it’s only appropriate that you return the favor. That starts by knowing your team and looking for opportunities to grow its members professionally. You have a commitment to your organization’s mission, and so do they, but they also have their own goals. Part of your job as leader is to make sure you know what drives them.

For example, many people have professional aspirations that will lead them away from your business at some point. This is particularly true in the fitness industry. Have candid conversations about a superhero’s 5-year plan so you can make your professional relationship mutually beneficial. Work together to create skill-building opportunities that set your team members up for long-term success.

Eliciting And Absorbing Feedback From Your Superheroes

It’s a painful reality that the limitations your business confronts will invariably reflect your personal limitations (think skillsets and mindset). Superheroes respond favorably to a manager or boss who constantly strives to raise his or her personal bar for excellence. But once you’re in charge, it can be difficult to objectively determine how you’re doing and how you’re being perceived. Team members won’t always find it easy to be candid with the person in charge of their paychecks, so you’ll need to work hard to get the critical feedback that will help you improve over time. Following are self-development strategies and some tips on eliciting the feedback you need to become a better leader.

Schedule one-on-one meetings. These meetings provide good opportunities to give and receive feedback. While it isn’t easy for everyone on your team to “manage up,” feedback is critical if you want to be a better leader. To make it a bit safer for team members to be candid, ask questions that allow them to clarify their thoughts and to reframe their feedback as “help” as opposed to “criticism.” For example, ask: “What’s one way I could be an even more effective leader for our team?”

Pro tip: Always respond to feedback with appreciation: “Thank you. That’s given me something to think about.” Your initial impulse may be to defend your current behavior or explain why a suggestion isn’t practical. Don’t do this! You’ll shut off the flow of feedback. Thank team members for their thoughts and make it clear how grateful you are to get their insights.

Do anonymous surveys. While some people on your team will feel comfortable sharing suggestions, others may never feel great about it. While you can and should work to make yourself as approachable as possible, it’s still prudent to create some anonymous mechanisms for feedback.

One of our favorite ways to take the pulse of our superheroes anonymously is by using a survey that asks about their work experience and their views on the overall health of the organization. This lets us assess the team’s engagement and pinpoint areas that need improvement.

Invest in personal assessment tools. By definition, self-feedback is often the easiest kind to receive. However, if you want to grow, you must be willing to find deficits. That’s why it may be valuable to use recognized assessment methods; for example, personality assessments like DiSC®, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® or various emotional intelligence tests. You might also work with a coach or consultant. Whatever you decide, identify what you want or need to work on and create an action plan.

Look after yourself. There’s one more underutilized way to be a successful leader, and that’s prioritizing your own care. We know how important it is to encourage members and clients to take care of their own well-being first. However, as leaders we sometimes neglect self-care. You have an outsized influence on your team. If you’re in a sour mood or are tired and irritable, it will affect everyone. If you manage yourself and keep your cup full, you make life easier for your team!

Although this topic could warrant its own article, self-care starts with covering your physiological bases: sleep, nutrition and exercise. Beyond that, you need to look after yourself psychologically. Be disciplined about taking time away from the business, investing in your social network of family and friends, and staying connected to the larger meaning and mission of your business.

Superheroes Wanted

There’s no shortcut to building a great team or becoming a great leader, and no human is perfect. We all make mistakes, we all misread situations, and we all have moments when we’re not at our best emotionally. However, creating a world-class business requires doing the hard work of becoming a good manager and leader.

It’s not easy, but if you get the care of superheroes right, you’ll be rewarded with a lot more than a profitable facility. You’ll have the satisfaction of working toward a shared mission with people you genuinely care about, and you’ll be creating the opportunity for your superheroes to excel.

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