Orginally Posted 12/05/09
When you spend your life fixing all kind of businesses, you come to realize that there are really just a few fundamental laws that govern whether a business owner will succeed or not. Even if you read endless business books, and limit yourself to just the literally thousands released during the last few years, you will find that most of these books can be boiled down to the same key points buried in a lot of fluff and filler that makes that book unique. One of these basic elements that is recurring in all the good books that you must seek the foundational truth of your business.
I was in Orlando last week to do a few hours of management training with about 70 of the senior staff people from many of the YMCA's in central Florida. It was a very motivated and talented group but most of the room had never been in a NFBA workshop before and had no idea what would really be taught. As with most groups, they initially requested me to do what most all groups want and that is for all outsiders to come and do training that supports their existing belief system, even when those systems might be dated or based upon false assumptions born from just too much of believing your own brochures and from too much inbreeding of ideas instead of seeking outside challenges that we all know force growth.
Where the Y's could be more effective, and where almost all small business get in trouble, is finding the way back to the foundational truth of that business. The foundational truth is usually a single sentence that defines the business and why it exists. Stray from your foundational truth and you will usually fail at some point.
For example, one of my good friends in the industry, Norm Cates, co-founder of IHRSA and 1st President some 30 years ago and current publisher of the Club Insider, and I were having lunch in Atlanta and were discussing IHRSA and its current financial issues and image problems. The surface reason why a company such as IHRSA would be down in revenues and losing membership would be to blame it on the economy, but that is just too easy and doesn't address the major foundational issues that will affect it as a viable force in the industry for years to come.
I believe IHRSA has simply strayed from its foundational truth and that it can't be fixed until everyone recognizes why it is broken and why it can't be merely patched. The foundational truth for IHRSA is that it is a trade organization that exists to help all fitness facilities of any size or function to be more financially successful. If this foundational truth is correct, then almost everything they are currently doing is wrong.
For instance, why pay Bill Clinton an enormous sum of money to speak for an hour and a half at a national convention? How does that match the foundational truth of the organization if they exist for the sole purpose of helping fitness businesses become more successful? This decision doesn't work with the foundational truth because Bill Clinton does not help any fitness business become more financially successful; therefore, there is no valid reason to pay him huge money merely to entertain fitness people.
The membership of the IHRSA trade association would be better served, and the money better spent on that membership, by bringing in as many small business gurus, such as Larry Winget, Jeff Gitomer, Tim Ferris or Paco Underhill, as they can afford and let these guys all do three-hour workshops. Sadly, you could probably get all these guys and more for what they wasted on Clinton, but when you forget why you exist then there are no guidelines to follow and everything you do becomes a disassociated random event.
In this example, the foundational truth, to help every fitness business of any kind become more financially successful, wasn't serviced by that choice of speaker. Either what you do enhances the foundational truth of the business or it violates that truth and should not be done. Another example by IHRSA is CBI Magazine, which is a slick piece that is almost totally irrelevant to any owner looking for ideas and leadership that should come from a national trade association dedicated to my business' success. The magazine is a great magazine but it is not designed to support a trade association whose purpose is to help its members become more successful, therefore, it should be radically changed to meet the foundational truth.
The Y's, which are as far from IHRSA as you can get philosophically, also suffer from a disassociation from why they exist. Remember, Y's are one of the oldest fitness organizations in the country and the longer you in exist in business the more likely you are to stray from your foundational truth. Y's have been helping people longer than every other chain in the country has existed and the Y's deserve our respect even if you don't agree with how they function.
To me, the Y's have a very self-evident foundational truth: Y's exist to change as many lives as possible in their competitive market. They don't exist to service the community. They don't exist to provide family fitness to those in their neighborhoods. And certainly not to for the vague reason, as the YMCA national website claims: The nation's 2,686 YMCAs respond to critical social needs by drawing on our collective strength as of one of the largest not-for-profit community service organizations in the United States. This is a noble statement, but how do you lead hundreds of staff and project change into the future with such a broad, hard to intercept claim?
Y's do great work, and yes, I acknowledge the tax issue that has been debated ad nauseam, but setting that issue aside, Y's fill a family gap that is lost in most markets. Orlando, for example, is flooded with almost every national brand, but the Y's are the only organization that is truly embracing families in that market. They do a great job but all Y's could do better if they return to the foundational truth, which again should be to change lives.
For example, most Y's are truly lousy at sales and many directors feel that even the word "sales” is almost evil in intent. And if the Y people use the traditional definition of sales in this industry they are right. Sales, as done by many of the big chains, are harmful and degrading to the client and all of those dated tactics should be avoided at all cost in mainstream clubs and Y's alike.
But Y's exist to change lives, or at least should if that is the foundational truth. If someone visits a Y and is handed a brochure and left to do their own tour, or simply walks around with a young counter kid, then the Y's have failed that person and have failed the foundational truth. Someone came into a Y for help and the Y staff, in a knee-jerk overreaction to the mainstream sales systems used by the nasty big chains (we're not like those bad people), often goes too far the other way and doesn't even have competent people to explain the prices and the many, many options a typical Y offers.
The Y failed the client because the client came in for help, was ignored beyond a "hello and here is the brochure,” and left to do their own tour or perhaps spent a few minutes with a undertrained counter kid, and then after wandering through a large and confusing physical plant, walked out because fitness is not rooms of equipment, it is a support system, and you can't understand that with a quick walk through in a vast building.
This potential member might then sign up at another club and we all know that if a de-conditioned person that becomes a member at some of the big, sales driven chains, will be eaten up as a sales number and left on the floor to die. He will fail because those clubs exist to get sales numbers, not change lives. The Y, because of a dated and misguided sales belief, actually hurt someone here because the person trusted a Y for help and guidance and no one developed any type of system that could powerfully help the guest realize the true difference of working out in such a family driven and supportive culture. In this case, the Y's forget the foundational truth: we exist to change lives and we have to start that process when the person first inquires.
If your foundational truth were to change lives, then the Y's would have to change their definition of sales. Sales could be redefined as: helping people get the help and information that they trust the Y's to provide. Again, if the foundational truth is correct, then how most Y's sell is wrong, because you can't change a life if you can't get the person into your system. Remember, the anti-sales belief sent this guy down the road to another club, which goes totally against the culture of caring and family that the Y's own and do so well and against the truth of changing lives.
We forget, as do our Y friends, that most people who inquire about fitness at a family style club are often confused and frustrated with fitness and many are scared or had bad experiences somewhere else. The sales encounter is exactly the place you would want to have your best and most highly trained people, meaning the ones who are patient and understanding, meet all potential members and to spend a lot of time answering questions and making sure the person understands the Y's culture and sense of family, two of the things the national Y's do better than most other mainstream clubs. You just can't do that with a cheap brochure and a guided tour by a young, inexperienced kid.
Drifting from the foundational truth affects all businesses, no matter how big or small. If you can't define your business, and the purpose of that business, in one sentence, then you can't make the decisions you need to make, train your staff, or even market your business because you don't know what the hell you are trying to accomplish.
When you explore your own foundational truth, start with the question, "Why do we exist?” Then ask, "What are we trying to accomplish with this business?” Avoid the trite making money statement. Making money is what happens if the foundational truth is correct for your business.
If your business isn't performing the way you expect, then always return to the foundational truth first. If you can't define your business simply, and what you are trying to accomplish with that business, then how do you train staff, market, and even paint the place because you are making random decisions based upon the situation at hand, rather than informed choices based upon fulfilling your truth.
Most importantly, you sometimes have to realize that you are so far away from your foundational truth that you have to tear it down and start again rather than patch and keep following the same flawed rules that are destroying you, such as IHRSA tries to do. In many ways, IHRSA is the same as the Y's with a lot of good people who need to return to the truth that created both of their organizations.