Looking for Mr./Ms. Right

General managers have to be jacks (or jills) of all trades. They are required to jump in wherever needed. This means that, on any given day, they can do just about anything - from replacing the toilet paper and watching the front desk to giving tours and acting as a personal trainer. And that's not even including their normal duties: balancing the books, guiding club staff, putting together schedules, etc.

If this seems like a tall order for one person, you're right. But in reality, general managers must wear many hats, especially in small clubs. Moreover, they must execute their large workloads effectively and with a positive attitude.

"A good manager is someone who has good leadership skills, enthusiasm for the industry, strong product knowledge, the ability to problem solve and the ability to learn new skills," says Terry Dezzutti, COO at Merritt Athletic Clubs in the Baltimore region.

If you find a person who fits this description, you, as a club operator, are all set. You can put him (or her) into the general-manager role and turn your attention elsewhere. "If you do, you've hit a home run and you don't have to go back and do anything more," Dezzutti adds. "But if you put the wrong person in, it will cause havoc."

To keep the wrong person out of the position, you must recognize the major skills that a general manager should possess in order to run a successful club smoothly. Specifically, you should expect your general manager to exude the following qualities:

- The ability to hire the right people. "The most important job a general manager has is the selection of his key staff members," states Herb Lipsman, vice president of development at The Houstonian Club in Houston. "If the general manager makes good choices, his job is simple. If he makes bad choices, the job is a nightmare."

- Excellent follow-up skills. While general managers may have many re-sponsibilities, they are still required to delegate. Their job is to initiate, teach and motivate their staff to do different tasks. And, as the leader, they have to follow up and make sure everything is getting done in a timely manner. If it's not, then they have to figure out why and what they can do about it.

- Impeccable character. To be a good leader, honesty, integrity and trustworthiness must make up your character, notes Lipsman. "The thing that is going to make clubs successful is if all the staff believes in the vision of the club and wants to work hard for the causes that the leader has set," he explains. "If the staff doubts or can't trust the person in charge or questions their competency, then day in and day out, there are going to be a lot of separate agendas that are played out. Confidence in the general manager's leadership skills are vital to the success of the club."

- Insatiable enthusiasm and a love of the business. General managers have to work long hours because of the demands of the position. Therefore, the people who excel in this role are often the ones who love the health and fitness industry.

This is important. Consider that general managers hear about all of the club's problems - problems that they must solve with an upbeat outlook. If the managers don't like the fitness industry, they won't have the enthusiasm to deal with the problems.

There's another reason why a love of the business is crucial. The fitness field is not known for its high pay. If general managers don't enjoy their work, they won't be able to look past their paychecks. And they certainly won't be able to coach and motivate their employees, whose pay is even less.

- Friendly, sociable and calm personality. Managers must interact well with a wide variety of populations. "If someone is good with adults, kids and seniors, he will do a better job because he can relate to all of them," says Cody Sipe, director of the Ismail Center for Health, Exercise and Nutrition - a fitness center targeted at both university faculty/staff and community members - at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "You never know who you are going to have to deal with day to day."

Making nice with different age groups is only one requirement. The manager also must be good at handling all personality types - from hotheads to whiners.

"Someone who can handle emotional arguments with people and remain calm will be a much better manager than someone who gets irritated and angry back," adds Sipe. "They need to be able to assess the situation, handle it and move on from there - all with a level head."

- Extraordinary listening abilities. You can't solve people's problems without listening to what they are saying and hearing what they mean. A general manager who rushes around without giving full attention to staff and members won't hear everything. Managers who don't hear everything can't solve crises.

- A general knowledge of ALL club activities. "The general manager doesn't need to have an exercise physiology background, but he has to have a solid knowledge in exercise, dieting, nutrition and sports training," notes Lipsman. "They have to have enough knowledge that the staff and members perceive them to be an authority and someone who knows what he is doing."

Still, a fitness expert can't run a club unless he also possesses competency in business management. A general manager has to be able to read a balance sheet, a profit and loss statement, and so on. Furthermore, the manager must understand these figures and how he (or she) can influence them, adds Lipsman.

- A good handle on risk management. The fitness industry faces a variety of liability issues, such as labor laws, employment discrimination, sexual harassment, member injury, etc. General managers should understand these issues and keep the club protected.

- Ability to learn new skills. If you can't teach an old dog new tricks, then you don't want that dog as your general manager. Since technology continues to evolve in the fitness field, your ad for a general-manager position should read, "Technophobes need not apply."

General managers have to be computer- and Internet-savvy, and they have to be able to take on new business opportunities that reflect the technology, states Dezzutti. For example, if a club's tanning center is not bringing in the business it used to, a good general manager might suggest opening a computer lab in that space to train local businesses.

- A high degree of responsibility. Look at your staff for someone who takes his or her job seriously. This will be the kind of person you can ultimately develop into a general manager.

"You don't want to throw someone in a general manager's position who isn't ready for it," says Sipe. "It needs to be someone you have had time to groom."


Fired Up: How to Handle a Hire Who Doesn't Work Out

So you made a bad hiring decision and have a staff member who isn't working out. You want to let the person go, but you don't want him to come back later and say he was fired unjustly. Here are some basic guidelines to follow.

First off, the firing should never come as a surprise. "One mistake a lot of managers make is that they think about the problem, talk about it with other managers, but don't talk with the individual face-to-face before he is fired," notes Cody Sipe, director of the Ismail Center at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "Unless you verbally communicate with the employee about the areas you feel he is lacking in, how can he improve?"

According to Kimberly Glencer, human resources director at Merritt Athletic Clubs in the Baltimore region, all clubs should have a disciplinary procedure in place. Whenever you hire someone, he should get a copy of the disciplinary procedure in his employee manual.

A standard disciplinary procedure followed by all types of businesses is the old "three strikes and you're out" policy. The three strikes are handled like this:

- Verbal warning. First there should be a verbal warning where the employee, in a private meeting, is informed about his unsatisfactory job performance. In that meeting the employee should be given expectations for the future and told that if he does not meet those expectations by a certain date, he will be given a written warning which will go in his personnel file, explains Glencer. This meeting should be documented.

- Written warning. If the employee fails to live up to the expectations set in his verbal warning by the given deadline, he should then be given a written warning that again details his unsatisfactory job performance. New goals should be set for the employee's improvement and a new deadline should be set. At this time the employee should also be informed that if he fails to meet these new goals, the next step is termination. This written warning should be signed by both the employee and the employee's immediate supervisor.

- Termination. While it's not the easiest task to perform, termination should be done in a face-to-face meeting, states Glencer. The employee should be reminded of his verbal warning, shown his written warning and let go.

"You have to make sure that your reasons for termination are based on the person's work performance and nothing else," explains Glencer. Otherwise it could be misconstrued as discrimination.

Herb Lipsman, vice president of development at The Houstonian Club in Houston, believes that when a person has to be fired, his immediate supervisor has to assume a large part of the responsibility for the employee's failure. "They hired them, trained them and are supposed to be coaching them. If that person failed, then it is also a failure of the coach," states Lipsman.