Four Hard-Won Rules for Staffing in a Gym

Four Hard-Won Rules for Staffing in a Gym

Chris Cooper (00:02):
I have hired hundreds of people in my career as an entrepreneur. Dozens of those didn’t work out, but every one taught me a lesson. And what I’ve come away with are four hard-won rules for hiring and keeping the right staff. I’m Chris Cooper. I’m the founder of Two-Brain Business, and if you like this episode, please go to It’s for gym owners only. We talk about things like staffing, keeping staff, hiring staff and removing staff. And I think you’re gonna get a lot of value out of it. It’s a free Facebook group. My mentors and I are in there around once a day to go through the conversations. And there are 6,000 other high-quality gym owners in there who can contribute to your knowledge and keep you moving forward. And now, four hard-won rules for staff. These are the things that I’ve learned at different points in my career. As I have grown my gym, as I have bought and sold a bunch of other businesses, and as I have let some businesses just kind of go away, as I’ve promoted some people, as I’ve launched some people into their own platforms, I’ve learned these four core rules for staff. And today I’m gonna share them with you. So the first rule for staff that was hard, one that really was a pivot point in my understanding and started changing the trajectory of my gym, was this: number one, tell them what you want to do in advance instead of punishing them for making the wrong choice later. There are different ways to say this. The first is that staff can’t read your mind. Nobody can. Most of your business exists in your head. Most of the ways that you do things or want things done exist as a clear picture in your mind, but not in theirs. Let me give an example here. You might write down like, “Hey, when you’re coaching a group class at my gym, you need to show up on time.”

Chris Cooper (01:49):
For my generation, and if you’re over 40 probably for yours, that means you show up 15 minutes early and you are ready to go–shoes tied, hair combed, shirt on with five minutes to go, and you’re welcoming people. For a different generation, like my kid’s generation, showing up on time means that you show up at exactly 7 a.m. and the meter starts running then, and you have to tie your shoes before you can start the class. And so the class might eventually start at 9:05, 9:07. So when you’re telling people, “Here’s how I want things done,” you need to explain to people, like in writing, in pictures or in video, exactly how you want things done because nobody else can see that picture in your mind. In our mentorship programs, we have you writing down SOPs and staff playbooks.

Chris Cooper (02:43):
We give you templates to make it easier, but the bottom line is that we wanna get your business out of your head and into the head of your staff people. It’s not enough to just “hire great people” because it’s not enough to just assume that what you know is common knowledge. It’s not. You have to get stuff out of your head. So the number one rule for staff, if you do nothing else, if you shut off the podcast right here, is tell them what you want them to do in advance instead of just punishing them for making the wrong choice later. Second hard-won rule for staff is hire for the job that you want instead of just promoting the people you love. So another way to say this might be that the people that got you here might not be the ones who get you there.

Chris Cooper (03:27):
That doesn’t mean you have to fire your friends. What it means is that you probably hired your friends in the early days and you hired them for a specific thing. Maybe it’s to coach, and then you said, “I’d love to have this friend with me all day every day. They’re my bestie and I want them to quit their other job as a firefighter and just work in the gym. So what are some other things that I can give them to make that come true? I could give them my social-media account and they could post there every day. And what else? I could give them my cleaning job. I got some cleaning jobs. I could pay them for programming.” Here’s the problem. Your friend might be a great coach. That’s great. If you have a good friend who’s also a great coach, you have won the lottery twice in a row.

Chris Cooper (04:10):
That doesn’t mean that they’re also great at social media. It doesn’t mean that they’re also great at cleaning. It doesn’t extrapolate to programming or these other roles at your gym. All of us try way too hard to create jobs for people we like instead of hiring the best people for the job. And this is a big problem that you see in every industry, but it’s especially rampant in the fitness industry where we’re trying to cobble together these full-time roles for coaches way before our business is ready to support that. So hire for the job that you want done instead of the people that you have. No matter how much you love the person, if you put them in a role that they are not prepared to do, they will fail, then they will get frustrated, then they will get either sad or angry, probably both, and it will harm your relationship, okay?

Chris Cooper (05:04):
Don’t promote people beyond their level of competence. If you have somebody who you think has the building blocks to be a great gym manager and you are earning more than enough and you’re ready to hire a manager so that you can move on and think about scaling your fitness empire, great, then ask yourself, “How will you train them to manage?” Because that’s a skill that you’ve had to acquire over time. It doesn’t just come in the package. People aren’t just born with managerial skills built in. How are you gonna teach the management skills? Will you get them their own mentor, et cetera? Hire for the job that you want done instead of just the people that you have. The third hard-won rule for staff is don’t incentivize things that are beyond their control. This is actually demoralizing and counterproductive. So for example, if you tell your staff like, “Hey guys, if we can grow our revenue by 10% in the next quarter, I will give everybody a $500 bonus.”

Chris Cooper (05:55):

Well, that sounds like a, a win-win, right? But trust me, as somebody who’s worked in that environment before, it’s actually demotivating. So what will happen is this: the first quarter you get super excited—”Okay, here’s a way for me to earn another 500 bucks.” And maybe in that first quarter, the gym does grow, but you don’t know how the gym grew. Or maybe you do, but your staff doesn’t. They think that the gym just grew because they’re such great coaches. Awesome. All we have to do is keep being great coaches “and the gym will grow, and I’ve got my 500 bucks. I’m taking that home to my wife. I’m telling her we can afford new shoes for the kids when they’re going back to school or to the Christmas concert. Wonderful.” What happens when you make more money: your expenses expand to spend that money.

Chris Cooper (06:42):
And so pretty soon you come to rely on that money. And so in the next quarter, you say to your staff, “We’re gonna do that again. If our revenue grows 10%, I’ll give you all a $500 bonus.” And the staff says, “Wonderful.” And then you don’t make it. Oh. What happens now? Well, the staff was probably counting on that 500 bucks. So now they don’t get the money. And worse, they don’t know why. They perceive that you did something wrong because they did the exact same job they’ve always been doing. And if the revenue didn’t grow, well, why? In the worst-case scenario, they actually get suspicious of you: “Ah, he’s just hoarding the money.” Or, “Hey, we know how much money’s coming into this gym. $20,000 a month. This guy must be a millionaire. Why isn’t he sharing that with us? He did before.”

Chris Cooper (07:30):
They don’t see the expenses. They don’t see the reinvestment that you make. There’s also different ways that you can qualify something as profit or not. And so now you’re in this position where they feel like you owe them something. You feel like the gym doesn’t have the money to pay them, but you’ve kind of made this promise. What do you do? So the rule here, again, to get back to it, is don’t incentivize for things that are beyond their control. If they do not have a lever to pull that will change the outcome directly, and they don’t understand how that will change the outcome, don’t put an incentive on that, right? Like, don’t incentivize your coaching staff for growing the gym because they can’t grow the gym. That’s your job. Don’t incentivize your management for generating more leads unless they know how to generate more leads and that’s part of their job.

Chris Cooper (08:22):
So don’t incentivize for things beyond their control. I have seen way too many businesses—and there was actually this business-coaching model in the past where if somebody was coaching 30 hours a week, they would actually take 10% of the business or something. And what did this create? It created poverty for the owner. It created poverty, frustration for the staff because they didn’t know how to grow a business, either. The only person that this actually helped was the business coach that was pushing this ridiculous model. So don’t incentivize for things that are beyond their direct control. I’ll give you another good example. You say to the coaches, “Hey our retention numbers are bad. We, we have like a 10% churn rate every month. If we can give that churn rate down to 5%, I’ll give everybody a thousand dollars bonus, Okay?”

Chris Cooper (09:09):
And the coaches are like, “Awesome. Okay, what do we do? Well, we’re not doing anything differently. We’re just gonna do everything that we’re currently doing better.” Okay, great. So they go out and they coach better, and then, you know, their retention rate doesn’t improve because nobody’s doing anything differently. Everybody’s mad, everybody’s frustrated. I’ll give you another great example. You incentivize them for something that they don’t even understand. Like profit. “Hey, guys, if the gym profits by $5,000 this month, I’ll share the wealth. I’ll give you $500 and you $700, and you another $500. But they don’t understand how to run a business. And so they don’t understand where profit comes from. And so at the end of the month, let’s say that you’ve got this big tax bill that you, whoops, didn’t foresee, and all of your money goes to that tax bill. You’re not profitable, and they’re looking at the revenue going, “Well, we got more money. We know there’s more clients coming in. How are we less profitable? Why aren’t we getting this bonus?” If you incentivize people for things that they can’t control and, worse, don’t understand, you will create churn because you’re gonna be creating frustration and anger. What can you incentivize for? Well, let’s say, for example, that you hire somebody who has a proven track record for marketing or a proven track record for sales. You can hire them and incentivize them if they’re better at that job than you are. So, for example, maybe you’re getting in 10 No Sweat Intros a month and you’re closing four of them. But you know that if you hire somebody who’s good at this, you might close six. Well, that’s worth incentivizing them for. But if all you say is “okay, coach, I’m gonna teach you how to do No Sweat Intros and I’m gonna pay you an extra 200 bucks for every person who signs up” but you don’t provide further training and you don’t do role-play, and you don’t create a salesperson who’s better than you, then that incentive means nothing.

Chris Cooper (11:00):

It’s just luck, right? If somebody signs up, they get the money, more money, than you needed to pay them. If somebody doesn’t sign up, that’s just bad luck, right? And you’re not improving your process. You’re not driving the outcome. Incentives exist to drive an outcome. They don’t exist as a reward. If you wanna give people a reward or a bonus, do it. But you don’t have to announce it, and you don’t have to tie it to performance. All right? So that’s my third hard-won rule for staff. Now is a bit of a rant. Fourth hard-won rule for staff is don’t hire full-time staff until you are making a full-time wage yourself. As a gym owner, you start with an owner operator business. You open this gym to buy yourself a job. That means that until this gym can provide a full-time living for you, it cannot provide a full-time living for anybody else.

Chris Cooper (11:52):
You need to be the proof yourself. You need to prove that this gym can be successful enough to pay you a full-time wage before it can pay somebody else a full-time wage. If you are not making a good income from your gym yet, do not hire anybody else as a full-time employee because you would be inserting somebody else’s life into an imperfect system. Let’s call it that. So prove it. Prove that you can make long-term careers at your gym by making yourself the first long term, full-time, career employee. So here’s my four hard-won rules for staff to summarize: First, tell ’em what you want them to do in advance instead of just punishing them for making the wrong choice later. Super guilty of this many times over. Second, hire for the job you want instead of the people that you have.

Chris Cooper (12:42):
Again, I’m super, super guilty of this. It’s tough to resist hiring your friends. Third, don’t incentivize for things beyond their control. My brain is mathematical, so I understand this inherently, but I do see a lot of people adding sales or revenue or client-headcount bonuses to staff who have no way to control that outcome. Fourth, don’t hire full-time staff until you’re making a full-time wage yourself. Look, I get it. You wanna keep your buddies around. You want to keep your coaches fulfilled. You’re willing to defer and defer and defer your own success for that. But you have to prove that your gym can make a meaningful full-time career by proving it on yourself first. I’m Chris Cooper. I hope this helps. If you wanna ask questions about this podcast or just chat about it, go to That’ll reroute you to a free public Facebook group just for gym owners, where we talk about this stuff in confidence. We’ve already weeded out all the bad seeds. Actually, we’ve culled like 1,500 people from this group already. So it’s a positive, caring, empathetic environment where you can ask any question that you want and you’ll get meaningful, thoughtful, caring responses. Hope it helps.

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