What was your upbringing like?
I was born and raised in the Seattle area. My dad was in the broadcasting industry. He was able to raise some capital and got into buying troubled radio stations and turning them around. In addition to all the normal stuff, I actually was a student of The Little Gym, that’s where it was founded. My mom was in journalism, with the Seattle Times. By 2002, we moved to Arizona and by 2002 she went to the Arizona Republic.
Early leadership experiences?
I was always fascinated with the business my dad was in. I got an opportunity to ask questions. As an example, one of the radio stations he purchased in Alaska, it was struggling terribly, and the staff was really upset so my dad went in and introduced himself as a new owner and faced the disgruntled people. He said, what can I do to make this a better work environment for you, and he was expecting a long list of demands.
And they said, we want to have toilet paper supplied by the company, because now we have to bring our own toilet paper. And they said, we want coffee paid for by the company. And he said, coffee and toilet paper? Check! It was a lesson to me in taking care of people and recognizing what their perspective was.
If only it were always that simple—coffee and toilet paper! What about after college?
After my dad got out of broadcasting, he came to work for the Little Gym and he was the CEO here until 2013 when he retired. I went to work in broadcasting at ESPN in Connecticut. I quickly realized that wasn’t the career path for me. I obviously knew the Little Gym really well. I proposed the idea of finding a way to work together again. I was age 23, and I was at a corporate-owned store as the general manager, here in Scottsdale.
I will tell you, the results of the gym were very good, but my job as manager was very bad. There were situations I look back on and said, god what a jerk I was. I alternated between avoiding confrontation, and then when I needed to handle something I did it more abrasively than I should. I allowed there to be drama on the team. In October 2005, right before I turned 28, I became vice president of franchise services.
Was it tough being young and the son of the CEO?
I was acutely aware of both those things. When I handled things poorly it was because of insecurity. I was extremely focused on trying to be very credible, and work hard to have knowledge that could add value and provide analysis that made sense. I think that was what earned me credibility and ultimately respect.
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 email@example.com.
You've just been named CEO, at age 40. How has your leadership style changed?
I think I’ve grown into somebody that’s open to someone else’s feedback. The second piece is I think I’ve grown in showing people how I care and why I care and feeling comfortable being vulnerable in that way. It’s being willing to say I don’t know. When I was younger, I thought when I was the boss you know all the answers. The best thing to do is to get the people who work for you to give you the answers.
Worst day ever at your company?
During the recession, we had to lay people off. People understood it intellectually, but I think everybody that was left was just really, really, really sad. There was a lot of fear, and it was tough to keep the culture of family together when you’re pitching people out of your family. All of a sudden the whole sky is falling. How do you stop that from getting us into mass hysteria? The best things you can do in those situations is to not overreact. It’s just trying to be open and calm and reassuring to people.
Biggest lesson learned?
Integrity and trust. It’s important in any leadership position I believe to have a high level of integrity. The idea in Stephen Covey’s books is, trust is a learnable skill and a replicable skill that we’re working on building. Establishing that trust allows you to be able to lead. Ultimately, leadership comes down to, when I say we need to go here, they trust me, instead of saying, ‘Hmmmmm, let’s all talk about this’ and they go in a different direction. That feeds on itself.