The Icon Problem

An excerpt from “Two-Brain Business 2.0“:

The first hurdle to replacing yourself in any role is to solve the “icon” problem. As the figurehead for your business, members expect to see you in every role. They view your staff only as substitutes of lesser value.
For example:

  • Athletes ask which classes you’ll be coaching, and book around those times
  • Clients aren’t willing do to some of their training sessions with another trainer
  • “When will Chris be back?” is a common question in the gym
  • “It’s not the same when you’re not here” is texted to you by a member.

These are flattering at first: you feel loved and irreplaceable. But don’t fall into the trap. How will you ever take a week off without your business struggling? How can you ever sell your gym, or move on to a higher-value role, or make the time to improve your business?

If clients are disappointed when you’re not around all the time, you’re an icon. That’s a problem.

“My clients think I’m their personal servant!”—Have you heard that one before? “They think I can just drop everything and listen to their little dramas!”—I’ve been there.

“They think I just drink coffee and surf the Internet when I’m not coaching!”—I’ve been there too.

When I finally realized that a stable income meant working ON my business, I struggled to separate myself from the day-to-day stuff. I wrote blog posts and read articles while sitting at the front desk of my gym; clients felt like I was ignoring them. When I expanded and put in a small office, they’d knock and ask why I was “hiding” in there. I was frustrated because I really liked these people, and didn’t want them to think I was avoiding them…but needed to get things done or the gym would fail. I couldn’t say those words because I had to create the impression of success for their sake. It took a long time to realize they were knocking on my door because they didn’t know other coaches could answer their question.

The only replacement for an icon is a movement. Establish the expertise and authority of your coaches. Refer to yourself as one of “the team.” Attend seminars led by your staff; attend your classes as an athlete. Take yourself off the pedestal.

A movement continues after its leader is gone. A movement feeds on itself, requiring little inspiration from the top. A movement creates its own momentum.

In a section called “Establishing Authority,” I’ll break this process down completely. For now, just be aware of the “icon problem” and start referring clients to other coaches for help. When you remove yourself from a role, hand it over completely, and let everyone know.

I had a booming personal training business in 2012: 30 clients spending a minimum of one hour each week with me. The revenue was a major part of our business. It was a risk to stop taking one-on-one clients, but I knew the only way I could devote the time necessary to creating a sustainable business was to cut back. I simply didn’t have any other time.

It was scary to hand clients off to another trainer, but I started to identify some who might make the switch. I told them the change was absolutely necessary, and that I’d miss training them, but others were eager for the opportunity. Unfortunately, I forgot one detail:

“Why can you train HER but not ME?”

Because of my own “icon problem,” I had to remove myself from personal training entirely. I couldn’t pick and choose a smaller clientele, because someone’s feelings would be hurt. I had to establish the expertise of my other coaches quickly, and then stop doing 1-on-1 training entirely.
You can avoid this problem by demonstrating the expertise of your replacements BEFORE you step back. If your coaches want a career in fitness, they can have it, and you can help by creating opportunities for “intrapreneurialism” and then backing away.


One more thing!

Did you know gym owners can earn $100,000 a year with no more than 150 clients? We wrote a guide showing you exactly how.