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A Primer for New Fitness Managers

This is the first in a series to ensure your first year in management is a success!

Congratulations! You have officially accepted a position as a fitness manager and are diligently preparing for the role. Whether you are a first-timer or a seasoned veteran, your first year in a new management post promises to be both enlightening and challenging. Some
of the obstacles you will face are predictable, whereas others will rear their ugly little heads over time. One thing you can be sure of is that the way you handle those challenges will depend a great deal on the way you present yourself in your first days on the job. Your credibility will be tested, and your staff and members will form opinions based on the initial impression you make.

Throughout 2006, this column will provide practical and winning strategies to make your first year as a fitness manager a success. We’ll review mistakes often made by novice managers and suggest actions to take to avoid these pitfalls. We’ll hear from fitness managers who will share how they adjusted to new roles and new companies, and we’ll get insights from those who were promoted from within their existing companies. We’ll examine different communication styles and skills to employ when dealing with the inevitable confrontations and conflicts to follow. In short, we will provide a map to guide you through many of the complex decisions, difficult conversations and hard choices that lie ahead.

Know Your Product

After the formal introductions are made and your new-employee paperwork is complete, one of your most important tasks awaits. You need to learn everything you can about your product: namely, your staff. In our business, the fitness professionals you will be managing are your product. Although your personality will dictate how you build relationships with your team, here are some things you can do to lay the foundation for future victories.

Step 1: Hold a Group Meeting

The first time you address your team members as a group will likely be a short “meet-and-greet” session. Use this time to share your own background and your broad expectations. This is the time to highlight to others your optimism and excitement, your past accomplishments and something personal about yourself. Giving your team a snapshot of you and your goals will set
a more relaxed tone.

The key here, however, is to avoid going into too much detail or making so many jokes that you are not taken seriously. Giving too much personal information is another potential pitfall. Use your best judgment—something you’ll depend on regularly as a manager. While this first meeting may be a quick one, it is important in that it sets the tone for future meetings. Let down your guard (within reason), and encourage others to do the same. Inwardly, you may be more nervous than your staff, but outwardly you should radiate friendliness, confidence and congeniality.

Step 2: Schedule One-on-One
Time With Staff

Within your first week on the job, you’ll want to schedule private appointments with each of your fitness professionals. Set aside the proper time (about an hour), and commit to giving each
employee your undivided attention. Turn off all distractions, such as cell phones, and commit to using this time to forge a positive beginning for each new relationship.

Begin these meetings by outlining the main points you want to discuss during your time together. Prior to the meeting, provide an outline of these points, along with a list of questions you plan to ask, so employees have time to prepare. This shows that you value and respect the employee’s time, while also assuaging any fears or uncertainty the employee may be feeling about your new role and objectives. Keep in mind that some people may feel threatened by you, in light of their past experiences with management, and may be wondering if they can meet your expectations.

Your focus during this first one-on-one meeting should be to get to know each person on your team. You’ll want to hear about academic and professional accomplishments, training niches and specialties. For a look at some sample opening questions to ask your team,
see “Getting to Know You” on this page. By establishing a level of comfort in the initial minutes of the meeting, the employee will likely feel more connected.

Once you feel you have established some rapport, outline any immediate needs you have, such as schedule coverage or help in learning more about the club. Some organizational structure may be needed at this point to immediately improve workflow and to catch up on responsibilities that may have been overlooked during transition. Ask questions about current business practices that may be unique to that club, and try to be open to those practices. Avoid appearing like a “know-it-all” and instead become an “I want to know it all” kind of person. Don’t dump too many tasks on employees or make too many changes right away; after all, your staff probably knows the club’s operations better than you do at this point.

Next, remember to ask if the employee has any questions for you. (Be prepared for a long list!) When attempting to answer these questions, answer only what you know and can speak to. Don’t make promises until you learn the structure of your organization. Finally, be sure to take notes on all the information the employee shared with you.

Finish the meeting promptly and schedule a follow-up meeting to address any action plans that you both agreed
to undertake.

Step 3: Hone Your Listening Skills

During your first 90 days as a manager, it is vital that you listen more than you talk. This applies to your staff, your own supervisor, other managers and,
of course, your members. Ultimately, this “noise” will lead you to take action, but all in good time. Right now, your biggest challenge will be to listen and try not to act!

From your own supervisors, try to glean how to be successful at your job. They can provide tools, techniques, procedures and organizational tips that may not make sense at this early stage but will make your job easier once you learn the ropes. Watch your supervisor’s behavior and actions, and then emulate those practices that you admire. Always seek guidance from your supervisor until you learn the way your company expects you to respond.

Your management peers will also provide a valuable perspective. By watching their respective work ethics and discipline, you’ll surely find one or two good role models. Seek out the fellow managers most praised by your supervisor, and spend time learning the club and business from them. Although company policies are usually stated in your employee manual, we all know that standards are occasionally “bent.” Your peers can be essential in winnowing out this kind of “insider” information. A common mistake many new managers make is trying too hard to “fit in” with other managers, by indulging in workplace gossip. Approach personal subject material cautiously, and always take the high road when discussing fellow staff or company policies.

Your own staff will continue to
be a good source of information, especially after you have taken the time to meet collectively and individually with them. During subsequent meetings,
follow through with concerns that you both agreed were most time-sensitive. Keep asking staff for information about what they need in order to do their
jobs better.

Last, don’t forget your members! They can impart the most honest (sometimes brutal) truths about the state of your club and the behavior of your management and staff. However brutal this assessment is, try to listen without interrupting or making excuses. Although members may not always be right, their perception is frequently quite valuable.

Be Patient!

Credibility isn’t established overnight;
it is built over time. You earn credibility when you act with integrity, doing
what you said you’d do and following through on promises. Being a responsive manager doesn’t mean you need to acquiesce on all points. Rather, it means taking responsible action and being
accountable to everyone to whom you have made a commitment.

The information you gleaned from these interactions, meetings and observations during your initial learning phase will become your business outline for your new role. In the next issue, we’ll share tips for planning your business outline that can then be formatted into a viable action plan.

Getting to Know You

Your first time alone with individual staff members can set the scene and tone for all future interactions. That’s why it’s so important that you use this time to really get to know your employees. Ask questions to learn more about the kind of clients they prefer working with and anything else about their training style that will help you to begin referring business to them. Find out more about their personal lives (but be careful not to delve too deeply!).

Ask open-ended questions, like “How long have you been at this club?” or “What hours do you currently work or would you like to work in the future?” Other good opening questions include “What do you see as the fitness manager’s role in the organization?” or “What do you love about your job and what would you change if you could?” Finally, you can get a sense of oncoming challenges by asking, “What obstacles do you face most often in trying to do your job as best as possible, and what can I do to help you succeed in your goals?”

Additional Resources

Johnson, S. 2002. Who Moved My Cheese? New York: Putnum.

Watkins, M., 2003. The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels. Boston: HBS Press.


Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

Amy Boone Thompson

Amy BooneThompson is the national project director for Stroller StridesTM and is experienced in directing multi-purpose health clubs and spas.  Amy teaches fitness/nutrition with Stroller Strides and Moore's UCSD Cancer Center in San Diego. Certification: ACE 

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