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The Leadership Labyrinth

A group fitness manager has to be a multilevel, multistyle communicator.

Conundrum: “anything that puzzles” (dictionary.com); a “logical postulation that evades resolution, an intricate and difficult problem” (Wikipedia).

Finding the key to effective communication within a fitness facility is a conundrum. With so many employees to manage, so many customers and potential customers to serve, and so many events to organize, group fitness managers may feel concerned that some information gets lost in translation.

A group fitness manager (GFM) is faced with unique communication challenges because she occupies a position somewhere in the middle of all the people who are connected to the facility that employs her. With a responsibility to interact with, organize and/or mobilize immediate staff, substitute instructors, potential employees, members (and potential members), supervisors, fellow managers, vendors and community leaders, the GFM can end up operating as the communication hub and “heartbeat” of the fitness center. For things to flow smoothly and intention and understanding to match, clear, concise and accurate communication is a must for any GFM.

In this first part of a five-part series, we will explore the built-in challenges that a GFM can face in the area of communication. Future segments will compare and contrast the communication issues facing GFMs with those facing instructors; break down the benefits of streamlining communication as a way of creating teams that are consistently on the same page; and provide specifics on how to make streamlined communication a reality in order to minimize frustration and help eliminate wasted time and energy.

The Built-In Challenges

The health club industry is fast-paced and presents ever-changing information that must be communicated clearly, quickly and in many directions. Let’s start by looking at the GFM’s built-in challenges and then break down the many demands that a GFM faces when it comes to streamlining communication.

In addition to interacting with all the various constituencies mentioned above, a GFM is expected, in most facilities, to be equal parts leader, fabulous instructor, accountant, marketer, negotiator, motivator, salesperson, public speaker, liaison, community spokesperson, scheduler and customer service representative. Since many GFMs may not have a background or extensive experience in management or leadership, it can be quite a challenge to master all the communication skills necessary to succeed. Combine the demands of the position with the reality that very few dedicated resources exist to prepare GFMs for the job, and it’s easy to understand why many of them struggle to keep their heads above water.

It’s common for an instructor to be “tapped” for the GFM position because he has “mastered the environment” (aka “been around”). Typically, the person tapped is one of the best instructors in the bunch, capable of passing on teaching secrets to new and potential instructors, and with an interest in creating new programs, organizing fun events and generating energy in the club. But that energy is typically spent operating from a reactive place—putting out fires, answering member comments, making sure everyone knows what’s going on, doing payroll and class counts, explaining policies and procedures, all while keeping current classes covered and planning schedules for the future. When communicating from a reactive position, the GFM is less able to make an impact on a more global scale.

Management and Communication Demands

The GFM position can significantly differ from club to club, but the reality is that it requires relaying and filtering information almost 24/7, or at least during hours when classes are offered or members might be around to ask programming questions. Although it is not always explicitly stated, the GFM’s number-one job is to keep staff, co-workers and members informed through effortless communication. What can hamper this are the unique management styles that can occur in a fitness facility, owing to its resources, job structure and workforce. Take a closer look at four labels that can best explain the reality of group fitness management:

“Heard-But-Not-Seen” Management

“Heard-but-not-seen” management exists when the GFM operates from a separate location (e.g., home office, in transit) or on a different schedule and combines the main management responsibilities with other paying duties. This can lead to a lack of face-to-face interaction with employees, which means the GFM might be “heard,” but not necessarily seen. Although a GFM is regularly in the club, holds staff meetings throughout the year, attends club management meetings, teaches classes and holds office hours, it’s still possible, and likely, that many people who frequent the club (members and employees) will say they “never” see the GFM.

Unlike a traditional manager, the “seen-but-not-heard” manager finds it nearly impossible to score face time with all employees, co-workers and customers on a predictable basis. When face-to-face interaction is eliminated (or sparse), communication takes on a whole new meaning! Add to the mix that the GFM is charged with creating a team of random group fitness instructors who are able to act on a wider club vision, and the need for amazing communication skills becomes even more apparent. Instructors are not sitting next to one another in cubicles, interacting on a project or even meeting up in the break room. Let’s face it: they might not even know one another if they met in the locker room. Given this “together yet separate” aspect of group fitness, the GFM must develop ways to start conversations between employees in order to build trust, community and teamwork.

Transitory Management

Transitory management occurs when variables such as personnel, individual and team responsibilities, scope of work assigned and employees’ interest level are continually changing. In many facilities, staff members are frequently in transition or there are many employees with varying degrees of investment, from full-time instructors/trainers to very part-time substitute instructors. Even in a small club, the number of instructors can be less relevant than their varying reasons for teaching there. Communication, then, is not one-size-fits-all. It’s the GFM’s job to keep all employees engaged and informed, whether they are consistently in the club or rarely present.

Messages are often time sensitive and can be of utmost importance to club owners/managers (including the GFM). But how important a particular message is to the receiver will vary. In truth, the GFM has no control over the sense of urgency team members may feel in reading, responding to and acting on club communications, especially if there are competing messages relevant to their other roles outside the club. Similarly, the GFM may have other (in-club) demands that compete for attention and time (i.e., teaching classes, personal training). And since many group fitness management jobs are part-time, it’s highly conceivable that the GFM will also have an outside job. All of these competing demands may lead the GFM to be transitional, just like the staff, which can add challenges to the communication channels.

Middle Management

Middle management is defined by an identifiable hierarchy in which there are subordinates and executives, and in which information must run through the GFM. In fact, GFMs give new definition to the term “middle management,” since they must answer not only to folks above and below them but also to people all around them. Each person they deal with lives in a unique reality with a different method, need and style of communicating. Not many management positions require that equal effort be placed on making direct contact with employees, upper management, owners, customers and other managers simultaneously. But for GFMs, this is the case. Communication must be constant and multidirectional, requiring a mastery of the art of communication.

Flexible Management

Flexible management can best be described as a style in which the manager must “stand” on issues (policies, procedures, protocol) and yet “sway” to keep everyone peacefully co-existing and moving in a positive direction. This management style sums up the GFM’s overall role. A GFM is expected to adapt to a wide variety of situations involving diverse employees, customers and co-workers. She must possess a consistent, precise and compelling management style that centers on effective communication. The GFM has a responsibility to filter, create and relay messages in several different directions, with the outcome ultimately influencing the all-important bottom line. This leaves very little room for error.

The ultimate goal for improved communication is to free up precious time that can then be spent dealing with employees and members. Maybe some of that newfound time can even be used to design and implement new programs! Now, wouldn’t that be a dream fulfilled?

Shannon Fable

Shannon Fable is a sought-after speaker, author and thought leader in the area of fitness business development and strategic innovation. She has spent more than two decades helping impressive brands such as Anytime Fitness, ACE, FIT4MOM® and BOSU® with business and program development. Fable served as chair of the ACE Board of Directors and is the co-founder of GroupEx PRO®, a cloud-based group fitness management tool that she successfully sold to Daxko in 2019. As a certified Book Yourself Solid® business coach, she helps fitness professionals navigate the industry to build scalable and sustainable careers.

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