‘Pick up the phone and take the heat’—advice from Pure Barre chief, in The Boss
“If you can put yourself out there to really hear the hard facts, you’re going to put the strategies in place that work.” —Christina Russell, CEO of Pure Barre
Tell about your upbringing and education.
I have one older sister, grew up in Orlando. I was a latchkey kid back when that was legal. I was 3 when my dad got back from Vietnam and they divorced. My mother was the head secretary of the whole bus authority. She bought her own house in 1977. We were proud of her.
I was a literature major. I started a Ph.D and I hated it. This was the most miserable group of people I ever met. I was editing physics textbooks on the side and went out to New Mexico. I became the lead editor for the physics division, for the Los Alamos National Laboratory. People would say, what do you do for a living? I’d say, I watch people blow stuff up and write about it.
You became an early franchisee of Curves, then joined corporate as a trainer. What did you learn in those roles?
I was head of training at Curves. We taught a simple model: provide the service, market the service, sell the service and lead. They had zero operations support at Curves, early on. They grew so fast it was, how do you retrofit? I think it’s what I love about franchising, is it’s about relationships. At the end of the day owning a business is about getting people to do things. Every single moment of your day was influencing others. If you learn to lead by values, in your own way, you can do good in the world.
What is one value important to you as a leader?
I think I learned early on, humility. Being in an iconic brand that was too big to fail, and how one can go from the pinnacle to struggling, was humbling. Don’t rest on your laurels. Early on as a leader I was cockier. The thing I learned watching the transition of Curves, the new owners have a difficult time knowing what I call the hard truths. You can’t blame the prior regime. People want to replay the game, but no—in the moment you might have done the same thing or worse.
You were CEO at Camp Bow Wow and then became CEO of Pure Barre in 2018. What do you do at first in a new job?
We try to get everyone pointed north. At Camp Bow Wow, it always happens when the founder leaves, they sense the disengagement. Don’t spend too much time on the folklore. I call it the worries and wins. It’s the first 100 days, every 100 days. I’ve found if the franchisees are in complete disagreement about something, the truth is somewhere else. Just listening is critically important.
It’s disciplining myself from making hard decisions right away. I will start the conversation, what’s on your mind? I try to do meetings right together, 11 to 14 meetings in two weeks. Why two weeks? You learn hot topics. If you spread it out, it shifts and changes. It just becomes noise again. You start to pick up on the common themes.
Beth Ewen, editor-in-chief, learns if it’s lonely at the top and other lessons from franchise leaders, and presents their edited answers here in each issue. To suggest a candid C-level subject, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are things radically different at various companies you’ve led, or similar?
The element that’s the same is the human element. People want to know that you care. The mechanics are different every time. You have to not believe your own stuff. You have to not get into the cookie-cutter mentality.
You said you don’t fear conflict.
In many companies there’s a Captain Kirk there somewhere but I’m Spock. I don’t get mired in that drama. Cheryl Bachelder [former Popeyes CEO} in her book talks about the power of data and facts. Rely on the data. You can cut through the emotion if you have the data. What I tell people, you think this is not a nice person, but think about when you were let down. You were mad. You were probably not a nice person either. They’re not wrong, they’re just mad.
Pick up the phone and take the heat. That mentality to let that person be angry is powerful. You can heal from there.
Many people avoid conflict. How did you get to this place?
Six years of therapy! One of the things I learned in therapy, pretend you’re an anthropologist. Then it’s not your fault. You’re just observing it and understanding it.
What’s one lesson about leadership to pass to others?
S ome version of listen. Listen, listen, listen, listen. If you can put yourself out there to really hear the hard facts, you’re going to put the strategies in place that work.