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Who Knew?

Congratulations! Your years of hard work as a top-notch group fitness instructor or personal fitness trainer have finally paid off and you are being promoted to a management position. While it may be tempting to bask in your success now, experts warn that there may be some speed bumps ahead. That’s because many fitness professionals are promoted based on their superior teaching or training skills, not on their ability to handle managerial challenges. In fact, few novice managers ever receive adequate training in areas such as recruiting or retaining staff; firing problem employees; dealing effectively with upper management; buying the right fitness equipment; handling member complaints with aplomb; or cultivating positive community and public relations.

We asked some very successful fitness directors, coordinators and managers how they managed to overcome the obstacles they faced as fledging managers. Here are their frank and fearless replies about what they wish they had known way back then.

Sue Ward

“I wish I had known more about effectively handling member complaints. But experience has taught me to kill them with kindness! Whenever you are dealing with angry members, being extremely patient will help them back off a bit. You need to make each upset member feel that he or she is the most special member in your club and you value that member’s advice. After a complaint is handled, send the member a note of thanks for bringing the problem to your attention and don’t forget to specify how the issue was handled. Remember that the member is always right, even when wrong!

“When it comes to buying fitness equipment, I have also learned a lot over the years. Before purchasing anything, test it out in person at an industry trade show (e.g., IDEA’s Fitness and Wellness Expo at the 2005 IDEA World Fitness Convention®) or arrange for an in-club demo. Call other clubs to find out about the equipment’s actual maintenance history in a real fitness setting. The price of a piece of equipment should not always be the deciding factor. I have learned that it is also important to research any equipment manufacturer you intend to support with a purchase. This will give you a sense of the company’s philosophy, track record and mission.

“On a more global job perspective, try to see all challenges that come your way as opportunities for learning and personal growth. Learn from your mistakes, and pass on this knowledge to your staff. Keep a stable of positive quotes handy for such situations. Take time to breathe and focus, rather than simply reacting to each challenge. Sit back and ask yourself, ‘What is the opportunity that lies within this challenge?’ Then go out and find the answer.”

Amanda Vogel, MA

“One lesson I have learned is that it’s worth taking the time to ask for and then check up on a job candidate’s references. Even if someone has a great resumé or does well in an interview, it never hurts to spend a few minutes calling references. I could have saved myself a few headaches over the years if I had only been more diligent about that aspect of the hiring process.

“With regard to retaining good workers, I wish I had known more about cross-promoting in the community or making alliances with fitness companies as a way to give out staff incentives, like gift certificates. When I first became a fitness manager, I didn’t have any budget for buying thank-you gifts. I also wish someone had told me early on that checking in with the competition doesn’t have to be sneaky or underhanded—as long as it is handled in the right way. In fact, connecting with your competitors (rather than suspiciously guarding everything you do) can actually be beneficial for both of you.

“Finally, one important lesson I learned was how to work with the media. Don’t ignore this business strategy. Shortly before I became a group exercise coordinator, I landed a weekly column in the local newspaper, which attracted business to our club and participants to our group exercise classes. My role as a fitness columnist made me a more valuable employee in the eyes of upper management because my column provided such good publicity for our facility.”

Sabra Bonelli, MS

“As far as retaining good workers is concerned, I have learned that it’s not the money that keeps staff satisfied. It’s all the small things that matter, such as passing on positive comments from members, listening when staff need to talk, helping them out in a pinch, following through on what you promise and interacting with honesty, integrity and sincerity.

“This same approach works when dealing with upper management. Always be respectful and honest, and never try to hide things. Upper-management people do not like surprises, so warn them of problems ahead of time. Your boss will never be upset with you for giving too much information. Also, I learned that you can never be overdressed when attending meetings with upper management. Don’t spend all your time in fitness clothing. Members and supervisors want fitness directors to look professional, not as if they just worked out.

“Last, remember that sometimes you have to be the boss who makes the hard decisions. Don’t shy away from that, and never apologize once you make a decision. Just be sure you have all your facts straight so you can defend your position to staff, members or managers. Recognize that it is your job to meet the needs of the greatest number of people possible, which means that no matter what you do, chances are some people will be unhappy. That’s just the way it is, and that’s okay, so long as you are respectful, sincere and honest.”

Lisa Druxman, MA

“I wish I had known more back then about recruiting staff. Interviews are difficult because prospective employees know what you want to hear. So don’t rush into it. My best employees have come from careful interviews that allowed the candidates to show their hands-on, written and customer service skills. This process may take a little longer, but you will quickly learn who is serious about the job and you’ll have a better opportunity to see everyone’s true personality.

“It doesn’t end there, though. You need to make your workers your first priority and teach them how to make your customers their first priority. Catch your workers doing things right! Make a note to yourself to pull a worker aside each month and thank that person for a job well done. Make sure your employee rules and regulations are very clearly stated and understood. Then give your employees the tools they need to succeed. But don’t hesitate to fire someone if you need to. Undesirable workers are a cancer. While you are debating firing them, they are spreading a poor attitude in your workplace. Be fair, get your facts straight—and then fire someone if it is appropriate.

“In management, I have also learned the value of cultivating good relations with the media. Just about every event and activity at your club can be turned into a media event. Send out press releases regularly and develop relationships with local editors and producers, who are always looking for unique story ideas. But don’t just promote your business; put a twist on the story and make it unique (what’s known among media types as a new angle).

“Finally, when dealing with challenges as a manager, remember that you need to wear many hats each day. Be careful not to get too reactive, as you can easily spend your whole day just replying to e-mails and phone calls. Each day set aside office time, fitness floor time, time for developing new ideas, and so on. If you wait for free time to materialize, it will never happen! You have to learn to be more proactive. You also need to remember to have fun in your new role!”

Lawrence Biscontini, MA
“Boy, there is a lot I wish I had known before I became a manager. For example, when recruiting staff, I learned years ago that the wisest choice is to hire for attitude and then train for skills. Many managers do it the other way around, which I think proves useless.

“Also, it is important to remember when training your staff that there is no guarantee that they will stay with you over the long haul. In fact, there is a good chance that you will mold them, counsel them and make them great instructors, at which point they may just take their talents to the competition! To prevent this from happening, provide positive reinforcement when you observe someone doing his or her job the right way.

“When dealing with upper management, money is key. You need a keen sense of numbers so you can justify your department’s needs. You can try to justify the excellence of your staff and programming in terms of value and favorable press, but more often than not, your superiors want to hear the bottom line. Speaking of good press, I have learned over time how important it is to cultivate successful relationships with the media. Before contacting anyone about a program or trend at your facility, make sure you can succinctly answer these two questions: ‘Why my facility, and why now?’ When dealing with busy editors, be persistent but remember that less is always more.”

Kymberly Williams-Evans, MS

“I wish I had had the confidence earlier in my career to follow my heart and my personal ethics! Years ago, I was approached by a fitness resort owner to take over as fitness manager for his high-end spa. But he had not yet told the current manager that she was about to be fired! When I went for my interview, the owner told me to lie about the reason for my visit so as not to alert the staff. Instead, they were told I was a ‘special guest’ who was being considered for a position at a sister spa. With all those red flags in front of me, I should’ve walked away right then and there, but I didn’t because it seemed like a good opportunity. The real trouble came when I got the position. I lasted there only 7 weeks—a record low for me! Why? Because most of the staff felt betrayed and saw me as an accomplice to the owner’s deceit. They thought I was as sneaky as he was, and they did everything they could to get revenge by ensuring my failure. Looking back now, I wish I had had the courage and confidence to let the owner know I would accept the job only under open, honest conditions.

“I had a similar experience at a club later on, working under a wonderful, supportive general manager whose approach was radically different from that of the club owner. But at the time, I was not aware of what was happening at the upper-management level. My immediate manager got fired and was given only 1 hour’s notice after the owner made a surprise visit. My life at work got miserable from then on and I ultimately left. In retrospect, I would never have taken that job if I had known more about the club owner from the get-go. The lesson I learned then was always to learn about the person who is the boss of your boss.

“On a more positive note, I am happy to report that it is easier than I thought to cultivate good relationships with the local press. If I had understood how accessible journalists are, I would have sent out more press releases and photos earlier in my management career. Once I caught on to how easy it was to develop media relations, I became much better at promoting our programs and our wonderful staff.”

Amy Boone

“If I had only known how important it is to go with your gut reactions as a manager! For example, when it comes to hiring staff, my first instinct is usually right on target for finding individuals who are a good fit for our team. To retain your best workers, keep in mind that they aren’t usually asking for more money to stay committed to your facility; what they really want is recognition and respect. And that doesn’t cost you anything!

“I also learned a lot about how to buy the best fitness equipment for our particular staff and members. First off, get buy-in from your staff (especially your trainers) prior to purchasing any type of equipment, so they feel included in the decision-making process. Then teach your employees all about the equipment so they, in turn, can ‘sell’ it to your members. And finally, do your homework before buying anything, so as to avoid wasting precious dollars on short-lived, fad items. [Editor’s note: See Amy Boone’s series of equipment columns in this year’s issues of IDEA Fitness Manager for more on this topic.]

“As for dealing with upper management, I have learned the hard way how important it is to communicate on a regular basis. Share your concerns, hopes and ideas for the future. Always work, speak and act with integrity and honesty. In my opinion and experience, those are the most important attributes of a successful fitness manager.”

Sue Ward, program manager for Health Fitness Corporation at Mattel Health & Fitness Center in El Segundo, California

Sabra Bonelli, MS, associate executive director of the Palomar Family YMCA in Escondido, California

Amanda Vogel, MA, former group exercise coordinator and vice president at FitCity for Women in Vancouver, British Columbia

Lisa Druxman, MA, (and her son Jacob) chief executive officer of Stroller Strides LLC, in San Marcos, California

Lawrence Biscontini, MA, group fitness manager for the Golden Door Spa in Fajardo, Puerto Rico

Kymberly Williams-Evans, MS, academic advisor and fitness instruction coordinator for the department of exercise and sport studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Amy Boone, fitness director for Frog’s Club One Inc. in La Jolla, California

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