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Managing for a Competitive Edge

Intentional and effective leaders and managers follow personal, professional and contextual guidelines that translate into excellent customer service, giving their facilities a competitive edge.

In today's competitive fitness industry, gaining an advantage is hard to realize, and even harder to sustain. Many fitness centers rely on aggressive marketing and/or pricing promotions, creative programming, state-of-the-art equipment, expert personnel and referrals to create and maintain a competitive advantage. Obviously, these models have proven to be effective strategies. However, many facility owners and managers fall short when it comes to leading and managing their businesses. Unfortunately, in this industry, leadership and management prowess is often measured by total revenue. Leading and managing are often overlooked as viable ways to create a culture of exception customer service, thus gaining and sustaining a competitive advantage.

Intentional leadership

Sound leadership and management practices can help reduce the volatility of an already dynamic industry. In other words, integrating good management and leadership has a stabilizing effect, as well as an innovative energy in the face of an unknown future.

Being intentional involves forethought and purposeful planning. Intentional managers spend little time on knee-jerk reactions and putting out fires. They have a deliberate plan, and often create practical policies and procedures for effective use and assessment of resources. When a crisis does occur, good managers use those policies and procedures to help solve the problem.

Intentional leaders have accurate self-awareness and critical self-reflection. Intentional leadership requires assessing and evaluating performance. An intentional leader is aware of personal strengths and weaknesses, and takes deliberate action toward continuous improvement. When a crisis occurs, intentional leaders use innovation and creativity to help solve the problem.

Integrating leadership and management is key to developing and sustaining a reputation as a top-tier fitness provider. Facility owners, directors and managers should strive to develop their leadership abilities by working on their communication skills, motivational skills, interpersonal skills and intrapersonal awareness. Furthermore, it is important to learn about different management techniques, such as budgeting, scheduling, forecasting and strategic planning.

There are different aspects to management and leadership, and fitness practitioners can integrate them to create a culture of exceptional customer service. If maintained and developed, this can lead to a sustained competitive advantage.

Definition of management

Managing in a dynamic context like the fitness industry can be difficult. In fact, it is a paradox. Management is defined as a stable and rational process of getting things done through contractual obligation, which involves planning, directing, controlling and organizing resources to accomplish a predetermined objective. The paradox is that the fitness industry is not always stable or rational, and does not always facilitate a "predetermined" objective or plan. Therefore, strategic intent is an important part of intentionally managing a fitness business.

Unlike strategic planning, strategic intent does not follow the typical sequence of plan, execute, assess and adjust. Strategic intent is ultimately a frame of mind within which managers and leaders in volatile environments need to operate. It necessitates remaining flexible, adaptive and open to innovation in spite of having pre-determined and structured plans and goals - which is paradoxical. In the fitness industry, things like certification requirements, client demographics, health and fitness trends, schedules and the local competition are subject to sudden and dramatic changes. Facility owners and directors who are not resilient and flexible in the midst of anticipated or unanticipated change will quickly fall behind competitors who are. Therefore, it is important to remain vigilant about managing effectively, which requires some critical management competencies.

Management competencies

Competencies are a cluster of knowledge areas, skills and abilities that enable an individual to perform a certain task or role competently. In other words, competencies are required behaviors specific to a certain context or role. Management competencies are those behaviors required to manage effectively in a dynamic context. On the other hand, competence is the ability to do a job successfully, and requires the successful integration of several skills.

Nowhere are leadership and management competencies more appropriate than in customer service. The fitness industry is a highly competitive market. Without management competencies, customers will be impossible to please. Having the best personal trainers, equipment and programming are not enough. Customers need to know and feel that there is some semblance of stability. Being intentional about developing management competence is a requisite for this, and, ultimately, can help the bottom line by helping customer satisfaction and retention.

So, what are some management-related competencies for the fitness industry? The following is a short list. Implementing and developing these managerial competencies can dramatically enhance your effectiveness as a facility owner or manager.

Team approach to fitness. Fitness is a multi-person endeavor. Therefore, the first step in being a great leader or manager, and true team player, is to take an inventory of your stakeholders. (A stakeholder is anyone who has a vested interest in the outcome of your actions or behaviors.) The stakeholders for fitness managers may include members, co-workers, employers, professional associations and competitors. Once you delineate who your stakeholders are, ask, "What are their values?" Then, intentionally frame your actions and future plans around these values. The challenge arises when different stakeholders have competing values. Being intentional and having strategic intent can help overcome many of these challenges. Once stakeholders' values are satisfied, the opportunity for and perception of being a team player grows exponentially.

Communication ability. It is almost too obvious to state, but the ability to communicate clearly and concisely should never be taken for granted. Communication is a staple of effective management, and a calling card for good leaders. Communicating involves much more than articulating a thought or accurately conveying an idea. Being able to communicate includes the appropriate use of body language, writing clearly and correctly, and listening. Just as important as conveying an idea is the ability to understand what others have said, and the implications of what they are saying. Managers lose "face points" with employees when they fail to realize or grasp what their employees are trying to convey to them. When managers are intentional about their management and leadership development, they make it a point to empathize with their employees. This ability contributes significantly to employee satisfaction and, ultimately, member satisfaction.

Customer service orientation. All fitness professionals must consider their purest stakeholder from the start. The most obvious stakeholders are your current members. Having an orientation toward your members' wishes and goals is a must! Fitness practitioners who take the time to determine and promote their members' values may gain members for life, and often a friend.

Do not confuse a member's goals with a member's values. Values are those things (personal beliefs and feelings) people build their lives on and make decisions around. Values include things like faith, respect, success (various definitions of it) or dignity for others. Goals include getting into a size 6 dress, losing 10 pounds or running a 10k race. Managers who are intentional about their leadership find out and promote values, which increases compliance and assists in goal reaching.

Contextual intelligence. Contexts change moment by moment. Context includes more than just the cultural, social and political landscape. Context includes all of the factors, beliefs, experiences and biases people bring with them. In other words, it includes personal "baggage." Leaders and managers know how to "read" people in light of the current social or cultural condition, and they realize that people are fickle and their ideas or goals often change. The contextually intelligent manager knows how to diagnose the context every time individuals change. This means that the contextually intelligent manager knows how to use their influence appropriately, and has a keen sense of their abilities.

Appropriate use of influence. Influence is the stuff of leadership. Managers and leaders both use influence. Leaders use influence that is leveraged by relationship and rapport. Managers use influence that is leveraged by position or policy. Regardless of how you use influence, it should never violate personal boundaries or be manipulative. When practicing contextual intelligence properly, managers know how to influence best, given the current mix of people and environmental variables, ultimately doing the most good for the most stakeholders.

Critical self-reflection. Knowing yourself is one of the greatest of all virtues. A key competency of managers and leaders is to be aware of personal strengths and weaknesses as they pertain to leadership and management behaviors. This awareness will require critical self-reflection, as well as input from other stakeholders. However, the value of critical self-reflection is only realized if real behavioral changes are implemented. Leaders who realize that certain behaviors are not resulting in intended or expected outcomes by employees, peers or members must be able to change. This ability is also a critical piece of sustaining a competitive advantage.

Competency in context

While managerial competencies are all important, all are not created equal. This means that the competencies required for one context may not be as important in another context. For example, if you are a manager of a large franchised club compared to a small single facility, different managerial and leadership competencies are required, or at least the priority of those competencies may be reordered.

Regardless of any context-based priority, all of these listed competencies are important to most fitness settings. Intentional managers should practice how and when to demonstrate the appropriate competency in the correct context, and always be critically self-reflective of their leadership and management behaviors.
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