Baby Tiger [Painful Lesson]

by Mark Fisher
*** Long one today. But there’s a huge takeaway here and almost no one talks about this issue. Grab a cup of coffee ***

There I was, 

Standing in front of the entire team of MFF trainers. And crying.

Now, I’m an emotional guy. I tear up a lot.

(Just like Steve Jobs. Read the Walter Isaacson biography. Steve Jobs was also a crier. Ergo, I am BASICALLY JUST LIKE STEVE JOBS.)

More often than not, when I tear up, it’s from happiness/gratitude/wonder/awe.

However, in this team meeting in 2015, I was barely able to talk. I was sobbing. Because I’d had a very painful discovery all thanks to a dream about a baby tiger.

You see, growing up, I never had my own animal.

Sure, our family had a succession of family dogs. And I LOVED them. But with eight people in my immediate family, I can’t say any of them identified me as “their person.” It wasn’t until 2017 when my wife and I got Gizmo that I had my very own dog and finally experienced that specific flavor of drunk-on-oxytocin pair-bonding.

But the first glimpse I had of this relationship was in a dream I had shortly before this team meeting. About a baby tiger.

In my dream, I had been given a baby tiger as a gift.

And I LOVED this baby tiger. He was adorable. Cuddly. Loving. And it was clear that this baby tiger looked to me as “his person.” It was magical. 

But I also knew this was a baby f*cking tiger. 

And baby tigers grow into adult tigers.

And it wouldn’t be safe for either of us for me to continue to live with this baby tiger. No matter how much I loved this little guy.

And so, with my heart breaking into a million pieces, I had to give this baby tiger away.

I still remember this dream. In part, because I was sobbing so hard in my dream that I woke my then-girlfriend up.

So what the hell did this dream mean? And how does it relate to your role as a gym owner?

Here’s what I’ve come to understand about this dream…

2015 was a VERY difficult stretch in my growth as a leader and for MFF as an organization. It was clear the business was evolving. And after several years of catching lightning in a bottle where everything (mostly) worked famously, the needs of the business were changing. And many members of the team were wanting the next thing; to grow, to evolve, to make more income, and to pursue their individual star.

And this was very tough on me. Many members of this incarnation of MFF were some of my best friends in the world. Several had been with me nearly from day one. In very real ways, we built MFF together.

So there was no small amount of anxiety as I came to understand not every single person was going to stay indefinitely. 

I didn’t have unlimited opportunities for advancement. It had become clear that my original vision –– every trainer will run their own Clubhouse! –– was not realistic. Not everyone has the desire and/or chops to run a business.

There were, of course, some management roles that some people could theoretically move into. But these roles required a very specific set of skills that not everyone had, no matter how well-intentioned or hard working they may have been.

And so it was, with a heavy heart, I came to a painful conclusion: no matter how much I loved my baby tiger, I had to set it free.

And no matter how much I loved my team, we were not all going to work together until retirement.

Now you might be rolling your eyes. Maybe this should have been obvious. But it wasn’t.

And even if this is obvious to you, my bet is you may not always do the right –– and hard –– thing for your team and your business.

Because what I’ve learned is this:

The team that gets you to $300k/yr isn’t always the team that gets you to $1m/yr.

You see this in all kinds of businesses in all industries. For instance, many a tech start-up fails because they’re unwilling to replace most of the founding team as the business scales and requires a different set of skills.

But the same principle can hold true in your training gym. 

If you plan on running your gym for 5 to 10 to 25 years, even when the business matures, you’ll always be turning over team members as they grow and evolve and want “the next thing.”

If you want a thriving organization and a tuned in, turned on team, you’ll have to get good at loving your baby tiger with all your heart AND setting the baby tiger free when you’ve come to the end of your professional road together.

This is hard to do in the best of situations. And if you’re someone who cares deeply about the people you work with, it’s even harder.

Sometimes they won’t know they’ve outgrown your business. They’ll stick around past their expiration date. They’ll become incrementally more stagnant. Their once glittery sheen of high performance will become a dull matte of “adequate.” But they may not be willing to leave the comfortable and warm embrace of your culture and the life they’ve known.

Sometimes they won’t believe that the business has outgrown them. They won’t understand that, in spite of their important contributions, the business needs a different kind of team member in its next iteration. And if you keep them around, they’ll prevent the business from maturing and reaching the next stage of its potential. And you’ll prevent them from achieving their next level of growth.

So what do we do?

1) Set clear expectations up front about tentative timelines. 

Make it ok for people to outgrow your business. For any front line staff member, let them know the general timeline before someone has reached the limit of growth with the role. This way if they do wind up being the rare bird who likes stability and continues to perform well year over year, it’s a nice surprise. And if they find themselves getting bored and ready to move on, it’s expected and ok. 

2) Give consistent feedback about their performance. 

The hardest part of this slow and incremental drooping in performance is that it’s so hard to catch. By definition, your strongest performers use discretionary effort to go that extra mile, often when you aren’t even looking. It’s very hard to hold people accountable when their only real crime is a meaningful but understandable slipping of energy and enthusiasm. Nonetheless, it’s only fair to all parties to address this directly if it starts to happen.

3) Clearly communicate any changing expectations as the business evolves. 

As mentioned, sometimes it’s not the staff member that changes, but the needs of the business. For instance,most training gyms don’t ask staff to participate in sales in the beginning. Over time, most  realize this is necessary. And there’s pushback from older staff who were not hired with this expectation who are uncomfortable with, and sometimes adamantly against, proactively selling your services. If and when your expectations for roles change, make a crystal clear line in the sand and hold people accountable to the new standards.

4) Be candid and direct when it’s time for them to move on. 

This is much harder to do than to say. But you can be both direct AND kind. Tell them you believe they have no more room for professional growth at your gym. The exact tone of this conversation will depend on the individual. But you can share this assessment in a way that supports the individual, your belief in their potential, and when warranted, a willingness to provide logistical help in finding the next professional opportunity.

It’s not easy to be a gym owner.

But if you really care about your team –– and the success of your business and your clients –– you owe it to them to be honest when it’s time to move on.

And if you build in this expectation from day one and make this ok, you can celebrate the ways they’ve grown and cheer them on as they pursue the next adventure.

Leadership ain’t for wimps,


PS Don’t forget, this Sunday is the LAST DAY to save $100 on my upcoming Time Management Workshop.

Learn more HERE.



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