Growing Leaders


You've probably come across a staff member or two in your day that went that extra mile. A personal trainer who was diligent in making her phone calls, who passed out articles about fitness to her clients or a group exercise instructor who encouraged other instructors. These staff members were demonstrating leadership qualities, something that could be developed even further with just a little help from you.

Having good leaders at your club can help you as a club owner or general manager. They can relieve some of your workload and stress.

“The leader who does it all on their own may run themselves into the ground,” stresses Kate Larsen, president of Winning Lifestyles Inc., in Minneapolis, MN, a coaching company for businesses. She is also a certified personal trainer and group trainer. “One thing you have to ask yourself is, is the pace you are working at right now sustainable for a lifetime? If not, why not develop people who can support you?”

Having a plan in place to develop good leaders helps your staff develop in their careers and gets them more enthused about your business because they are contributing more ideas and expertise to the club. In turn, it gives your club an advantage in recruiting top personnel.

While not everyone is a natural-born leader, all staff need to have some sort of leadership qualities since they are leading members to a healthier lifestyle, reasons Angela Broderick, president of Fit Careers in Kansas City, MO.

“In the fitness business, [members] come in needing leadership,” says Broderick. “They don't necessarily just need rows of shiny equipment.”

Potential leaders are often easy to spot. They are the staff that show personal initiative in their own world, says Larsen. Leaders are proactive and positive in attitude and nature. They are curious people and want to learn. While solo operators may be able to lead in other industries, in the health club industry, a leader must be a team player that enjoys people.

The most important skill a leader must posses is that of listening.

“Leadership is about hearing first and then responding vs. responding and then asking more questions or assuming,” says Larsen.

Leaders must also be able to sit back, relax and laugh, she says. They must be able to have fun with their team and be consistent in how they respond to people regardless of their personal feelings toward them. They also must have clarity.

“Great leaders have the ability to internally clarify what they need and want taking into consideration their own style and temperament,” says Larsen. “They have the ability to articulate their vision and engage a team.”

Great leaders also can put their egos aside and let other team members shine, she says.

Sonia Ricotti, general manager at Sportsclubs of Canada/BTF in the Toronto area, says that she looks for the following traits in leaders: drive, a positive attitude, someone who is looking to grow and develop themselves and their skills, someone who is open to new and innovative ideas, and someone who wants to grow within the company.

“Most of the time when people have those qualities, it's the easiest thing to develop these people to be successful because they want to grow, develop and make a difference in the people they work with and for,” says Ricotti.

Ricotti is developing a management development training program for her club and the other 17 clubs that are part of her company's group of clubs.

Every club needs a formal leadership program to know how to promote from within and who is or isn't ready for the next level.

“Hiring and retraining [staff] is expensive,” says Broderick. “Waiting until a position is open and then rolling the dice on somebody is more expensive than investing time and resources in training people and watching them and knowing their strengths.”

To develop good leaders at your club, keep the following in mind:

  • Have a vision

    You must be clear about what an ideal leader looks like at your club, says Larsen. Clubs have different styles and temperaments so a good leader in one club may not make a good leader in another. To develop those leaders, be clear on a plan of action. Determine how you will develop the leaders — through a mentoring program, through formal leadership training, through seminars and conferences or through a combination of these efforts. How long will a development program take? Who will head the program?

  • Give them time and tools

    Good leaders must be given time to develop their leadership skills before being thrust into a leadership role.

    “The leaders that I've seen falter are the ones who were thrown in,” says Larsen. “When they haven't been role modeled, mentored or coached, people will do the best they can, but they will try to cover their tails. They will hide mistakes and weak points because they don't have someone to go to and get what they need.”

  • Allow failure

    One of the most difficult parts of growing leaders will be giving the developing leaders a chance to fail.

    “Give them the opportunity to own their successes when they do well and the grace to own mistakes when they make them,” says Larsen. Part of that is giving them genuine power instead of just a title. That means allowing them to make certain decisions without checking in with you.

    In addition, ensure they know they can come to you when they goof up or when they need help.

    “There's nothing worse than feeling like they have to hide that they don't know something,” Ricotti says. “They have to understand that your door is open and you are open to any kind of communication.”

Make them accountable

Leaders need to have accountability to someone outside themselves, says Larsen. If it's not someone within their own club or chain, then they need to engage with others outside the club at their own level, maybe even a business coach. If developing leaders aren't accountable to someone, it is easier to make mistakes and have those mistakes continue than if someone points out the mistakes and helps them change, says Larsen.

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