Health club operators have made the mistake for years. Now, medical professionals, wellness professionals and self-improvement experts are adding distinctive fitness components to their businesses and they're falling victim to... the dreaded mistake.

            The mistake is the result of a four-step hiring process, one that may be considered conventional, but as most convention in today's society, is extremely flawed. The step-by-step process operates as follows:

            1. Advertise seeking specific credentials and experience.

            2. Interview in order to determine whether the applicant

                has the necessary expertise.

            3. Train the person departmentally.

            4. Hire the person and put him or her to work in the

                new position.


Why Doesn't This Work?

            First, because the fitness field, when compared to medicine, manufacturing or the hospitality fields is relatively new and still striving to find its maturity. In other fields, recruiting a "catering manager" who has experience working with that specific title will likely have many of the requirements for a catering manager position.

            In the fitness field, the only thing that you can count on in terms of consistency is inconsistency. Don't misunderstand, I cherish this industry. It's offered me a livelihood for the past 24 years. I've learned, however, over the course of the same two decades, that there is plenty of room for industry growth, not only in terms of market reach, but in terms of creating a culture, developing standards and developing quality personnel. Pay careful attention to the last three words of that sentence, "developing quality personnel."

            If you want to operate a profitable facility with a commitment to thrilling people, if you want to go to bed at night with the assurance that every customer will receive at least a minimum standard of care or attention, if you want some sense of certainty that you are thrilling people in greater numbers with every passing day, you can't hire "experts." You have to grow them.

            What do you need to cultivate and grow something? You need "the right raw material," you need clear direction and you need to provide ongoing outcome-oriented attention. Let's step away from the theoretical discussion for a moment and enter the real world.

            Dan, owner of a 32,000 square-foot multipurpose fitness center in the Northeast, has been in the business just over nine years. I met with Dan at a recent industry conference and he began unloading. "The last sales manager I hired embezzled thousands; I can't keep good trainers because they go off and make better money on their own and I can't find a decent GM who will take responsibility for sales numbers." Dan revealed that his hiring strategy was built around recruiting "superstars" from other clubs. He wavered between paying them more of a salary than their current employer was paying and offering them greater incentives while maintaining modest pay. In Dan's estimation, neither approach "worked."

            Another example is Sharon, who owns a women's club in Southern California. She's been at it for 12 years and barely making ends meet. She blames the staff. "Nobody has a work ethic. They're all concerned about how they look, what people think of them, and for some reason, they never seem to be driven by money," she says. Sharon has been through three general managers in 2004. Her strategy? Hire people with general manager experience in ladies clubs and rely on their expertise to build a quality staff.

            Here's the good news. Both Dan and Sharon are getting by. They are surviving, but neither sees the prosperity they hoped for 10 years ago in the early stages of business development. The bad news... unless someone throws a stop sign in their paths, they'll remain riders on the merry go round. Sharon, Dan and anyone seeking to hire expertise for a fitness- related position in any company at all... STOP! STOP! STOP!

            Time out for an NFL analogy: Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, spent tens of millions of dollars trying to buy superstardom. In 1999, with an abundance of determination and a very large checkbook, new owner Snyder was ready to buy a Super Bowl victory. The dollars started flowing outward as he paid to acquire Bruce Smith, all-pro defensive end from Buffalo. He made a seven-year investment of an insane $56 million to acquire Deion Sanders. He dismissed head coach Norv Turner and purchased Marty Schottenheimer in his place. When Schottenheimer proved mediocre with an 8-8 season, goodbye Marty, hello to the new highest paid coach in the NFL, Steve Spurrier who had never coached an NFL game in his life... but was a "superstar" coach at the college level. Steve has since moved on and the Redskins continue to flounder trying to develop some sense of consistency, ideally consistency in the "W" column.

            A few hundred miles north, Bill Belichick invested some money, but more importantly, time, strategy, a commitment to excellence, training, re-training, situational learning and most of all, the promise of building a team. He created the New England Patriots, a superstar team with few, if any, hired superstars. Two Super Bowl victories in the past four years and a 21-game winning streak evidence the virtues of team building.

            If you're ready to hire a "fitness staff," I'll share five guidelines that can lead to slow growth (frustrating at times, but necessary if you'd like to achieve excellence), and ultimately to an interdependent team fully integrated into not only your existing business, but also your business dream.

            1. Know where you're headed.

            2. Hire "heart."

            3. Establish a baseline competency.

            4. Train in the culture, train in the company mission, and

            then, train for a position.

            5. Create tiers of leadership.


1. Know Where You're Headed

            Before you begin recruiting, determine precisely what you'd like to create. What is the message you want to send to patients, clients, members or customers? How would you like to be positioned in the marketplace? What people will you need a year from now, two years from now, three years from now to make the vision a reality? No, you may not have those people the day you hire them but with a plan and cultivation you can literally create the fantasy!


2. Hire "Heart"

            One of the greatest things about the fitness industry is the noble foundation upon which it is built; the intention of helping people find greater quality of life, enhanced health and to improve the way they look and feel. That gives anyone seeking to create a formidable team an advantage if they learn to hire those who are in it for the long haul, the folks who view opportunity with the question, "how can I find just reward by continually helping others improve their lives?"

            If you're looking to hire fitness trainers at any level, you've got to seek out the passion and the heart. If you're going to expect them to in any way market or sell, realize at the onset you're going to have to provide intensive training in that realm. They'll bring you the right raw material, but it's up to you to create the contributing player.

            Interview not once, not twice, but at the very least three times. Initially, you'll be shocked by the number of applicants who fire themselves before the third interview. With each interview the questions get tougher, the scrutiny is enhanced and the specifics of the job are discussed at greater length allowing you to measure verbal and non-verbal cues demonstrating whether or not this is in fact "the right stuff."


3. Establish a Baseline Competency

            Hiring is "entry." Upon entry, the new hire should be measured and evaluated. Determine precisely what the baseline for competency is. Fitness trainers should, of course, hold a credible certification (as the industry clamors to find a true standard, there are many that would be recognized, a handful that might prove legally defensible).     

            1. Do they have to understand how to read charts other health                   professionals use to track client or member progress?

            2. Do they have to understand how to interpret a submaximal        stress test, or more importantly, do you want them to prove      competence in testing VO2 max?

            3. Do they know how to recognize

                potential risk factors?

            4. Do they know how to take blood pressure?

            These questions are not absolutes, but rather a random few of the many questions you should consider in determining the "baseline competency level" necessary for a new hire to fully assume the intended position.


4. Train in the Culture, the Company

     Mission and for a Position

            In the first days, have the new hire interact with staff in order to understand the real-world operation. You want each new hire to fully buy-in to the mission that drives the company. Identify the potential to be molded into a walking representative of the culture you seek to develop. If your organization has several departments, or specialists, every new hire should be immersed in a pre-scheduled 30-minute conversation with each department head. In this phase of training, continue to evaluate, making certain the new hire is moving forward. After the new hire has been "training" in the company, operating procedures and the company mindset, it's time for a step-by-step growth plan for creating a full-fledged specialist.


5. Create Tiers of Leadership

            Don't hire superstars, create them. It's best to grow your department heads and managers. If you have a reception position, that can be your sales-person-in-training. As far as a fitness staff, I never hire personal trainers. I hire trainers who are qualified to be personal trainers, and they have to go through an eight-week process as "floor trainers" before they can actually train their first client.

            When you have a tiered leadership structure allowing for inter-company promotion, you not only cultivate your leaders, but you always have a leader in waiting. The tiered structure in its simplest form:

            1. Leaders (i.e. fitness director)

            2. Professionals who would love to be leaders (i.e. personal fitness trainer)

            3. Entry level people with the "heart" and desire to be professionals (i.e. floor               trainer)

            Phil Kaplan has developed programs and products aimed at helping fitness professionals find career success. Call 800.552.1998 or visit


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