Program Director

While programming is typically cited as the number-one difference between a good group fitness department and a great one, the people who deliver the programs are truly the “secret sauce.” Without a talented team, even the best programs will fail to resonate with members. Even if you’re currently living the group fitness manager’s dream—a full deck of superstar instructors who teach amazing classes—it’s still important to develop a proactive plan to keep your team performing at this high level. In fact, it may make the difference between a legacy group fitness department and just a few championship seasons.

Succession planning is the cornerstone of sustaining group fitness greatness. However, it requires you to keep staffing top of mind on an ongoing basis, not just when you have an immediate need. Whether you’re leading a new team, a small team or a struggling one, succession planning should be a consistent, recurring task. Continually searching for and developing talent will make your job easier.

The Pros of Succession Planning

Succession planning will help you achieve the following:

  • You’ll always have a good instructor to substitute, so you won’t have to cancel a class.
  • You’ll never need to pull a program or a class because you don’t have an instructor to teach it.
  • Thanks to having versatile talent, you’ll always stay on top of (or ahead of) trends and member needs.

The goal is to develop a “bench” so you have team members (or potential team members) ready to add to the schedule at any moment. Whether you need a pinch hitter to jump in and “bat” while someone is injured, on vacation or otherwise unavailable, or a more permanent situation requires passing on a coveted slot and popular program to the right person, having a carefully crafted pool of talent makes these tasks easier to handle.

If you’re not ahead of your needs, it’s certainly possible to rearrange the players to keep everyone happy, but oversaturating the schedule with one person or taking up the slack yourself until you “figure it out” can wreak havoc. A consistent program with reliable, smoothly interchangeable personnel helps members trust your facility, which leads to retention and growth.

Take Inventory

Take the following steps before you implement a succession plan.

Review the schedule. First, take an inventory of your current schedule and ask a few questions. Review the “rocks” that must be in every schedule (the evergreen categories, such as choreographed cardio, nonchoreographed cardio, strength, mind-body and fusion). Then, look at your “fringe” formats (specialty classes that might come and go). Do you have “holes”: categories that are light on options, or classes that have rotated off? Do you have too much of any one thing? Not enough of another? Are there time slots that don’t offer complementary options?

Many program directors prepare their schedule based on current attendance patterns or member favorites. However, you can’t attract new, unique users if you don’t offer enough of what they need in order for them to make an informed decision. Avoid planning your classes based solely on what current customers want; instead, take a big-picture view of what the perfect schedule would look like to attract the largest, most diverse number of users. Also consider what your future needs may be by quarter for the next 12–18 months.

Review your talent pool. Next, take a look at your current talent. Under each format, first list the people who teach it well (your superstars). Then, list team members who could do it but might not be your first choice. Finally, include instructors who will do in a pinch. Differentiate between instructors’ levels of proficiency so you can start cross-training. Perhaps those in the second and third groups (“not your first choice” and “in a pinch”) could move up in the ranks and be more helpful if you, or other instructors, took the time to mentor them.

As an additional measure, review your team’s current availability. It’s important to know not only how many instructors you have for a format, but also whether or not their availability overlaps and coincides with current offerings. For example, you may have four people who are very good at teaching choreographed cardio formats, but none of them are available at the same time or when those classes are scheduled. While it’s great that you have the talent, if these instructors can’t cover for one another or take over, you’re still a bit behind the eightball and you need to “staff up.”

After taking these steps, you’ll have an objective view of your department. You’ll know what your immediate needs are (only one or two people are available), where you’re in good shape (formats with a few more people or greater availability), and where you’re overstaffed (lots of talent and availability). Now, let’s get to work!

Talent Scouting

It’s time to “build your bench.” To yield the best results, focus on the following three areas.

Cross-train. The easiest way to build your roster is to cross-train current employees within and outside your department. Start with your current team and focus on instructors who are anxious for more work, but temper this with the understanding that no one should monopolize a category, format or time slot. Be sure to give other staff members a shot—personal trainers are a perfect resource.

Welcome rookies. Never be afraid to employ a brand-new instructor. After all, how did you get your start? While interviewing, hone in on attitude, availability and then aptitude. If the attitude is right and availability is there, and the candidate is onboard with teaching multiple formats and time slots, then you can help get skills up to par. If a rookie has no intention of exploring a new format or making the fitness job a priority, do not waste your time, no matter how desperate you might be.

Discover talent. Scout your classrooms for potential superstars. Not only should you do this, but so should your team. Diamonds in the rough aren’t always in the front row! Watch the entire classroom, and also look for potential on the main workout floor. Notice people who move well, are consistent and have a positive demeanor. If you don’t already have an internal mentoring program, create one to help members transition from participant to instructor. Developing talent internally pays off in loyalty and potential.

Train to Sustain

It’s critical that you properly onboard that talent. Base your plan on the skill set each individual brings to the table.

Be clear on class format and expectations. Create a “best practices” sheet for each class, and document goals, skill level, sequence construction and formatting suggestions. Clearly outline all expectations—to ensure that you have a product-dependent program versus an instructor-dependent program. This makes adding, subtracting or updating personnel a breeze. All classes should be consistent and predictable, regardless of instructor, and they should reflect exactly what is marketed to members.

Develop a plan for cuing and chaos management. Set aside time to mentor individuals, or create a support group to help instructors build cuing proficiency. It’s also important to share tried-and-true tips on how to professionally hold space for classes (not to mention disparate personalities). Whether staff is brand-new, new to a format or transitioning to group exercise from personal training, you need to spend time explaining and practicing cuing for specific classes.

Stress the importance of customer service. Finally, be sure all team members understand the expectations for interacting with members. Provide written documentation of this, and also engage in one-on-one conversations with instructors to ensure their understanding.

One last tip: Always post job openings on fitness-specific sites. Develop a system for collecting, documenting and processing resumés and applications, including how to immediately reach out to applicants for future auditions. Electronic application processes are preferable and are easier to manage.

While succession planning may seem like a lot of work up front, if you develop a system to get ahead of your staffing needs you’ll see huge benefits in the long run. Take your time, and set up something that works for you. Before you know it, you’ll be armed with a sustainable, world-class program.

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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