The Health Club CEO Shaking Up Fitness Industry Stereotypes

In-Shape CEO Francesca Schuler is here to challenge your preconceptions about fitness industry employees, career paths, and leaders.

Leadership Francesca Schuler Headshot Column

Competing in a Tough Mudder is not something Francesca Schuler ever thought she’d do.

“It was not on my bucket list, but I’m so glad I joined the team,” she said during a break between sessions at the Motionsoft Technology Summit in October.

Despite some hesitation, the In-Shape CEO completed the obstacle course race with 37 members of her team in honor of the company’s Fight Cancer campaign.

“The teamwork required and trust in your partners mirrors what we do every day,” she said. “While fun for a day, thankfully mud and electric shocks are not part of our everyday routine.

“And I definitely don’t need to win. If I come in last, I'll make everyone else feel better.”

And that statement is Schuler’s leadership approach in a nutshell. As the captain of the California company’s 67 clubs, she’s driven by the desire to make her employees’ jobs easier.

Leadership In Shape Tough Mudder Column

The In-Shape team poses at the Sonoma, CA, Tough Mudder.

What It Takes to Be a People-first Leader

Schuler has practiced her people-first approach to leadership since she joined In-Shape as chief marketing officer in 2015, transitioning from a career in the wine industry. While the two sectors may seem diametrically opposed, they both play to her strengths of building consumer brands and creating experiences.

“What I loved about the wine business is how we did a ton to make it accessible and engaging, while still keeping it aspirational,” she said. “Fitness is very similar to me. So, what led me here was a passion for consumer experiences, a passion for a membership business where you can really build a long-term relationship with your members, and, honestly, the category itself. There is nothing more important than good health, so the role at In-Shape was a way to take my experience and marry it with a category I was super passionate about.”

One of the reasons Schuler decided to join the In-Shape team is she sensed that there was potential in the DNA of the people that hadn’t been teased out yet. She soon found that her people-first leadership was the perfect fit.

“Being a people-first leader to me is about three things: focusing on your team, listening to your team, and making sure that whatever language you create in the company and culture, it's relevant to the team,” she said.

Throughout her rise at In-Shape, from CMO to COO to, as of March 2018, CEO, Schuler’s guiding leadership principle hasn’t wavered, whether she’s running a board meeting or a Tough Mudder.

“My entire job is to make [my team’s] job easier so they can better support the members,” she said. “That's a very big theme for us at In-Shape and definitely part of being a people-first leader.”

Of course, none of this works without authenticity. Schuler strives to be open and honest with her team. She wants them to know that they can ask her anything and that she truly cares about them. And they believe her, if the delivery room photos she receives of team members’ newborn babies are anything to go by.

“Being a people-first leader means you actually take time to learn more [about your employees] than just, ‘Are you doing a good job?’ It's super important and it's super energizing for me...but even if it's hard for you, as a leader you need to do it because that's where the connection happens,” she said. “There's always someone who can do a good job and there's always someone that could find a good job somewhere else, but if they feel a connection to you or to your manager or to the company, they'll stay forever.”

The Benefits of Diverse Teams

When looking for job candidates with staying power, In-Shape leaders consider culture fit, diverse points of view, and whether the person represents the communities they serve.

“I think fitness is a fantastic category for anyone to build a career,” she said. “What success looks like has no physical features and we're very clear about that.”

As a result of these measures, the In-Shape workplace has become increasingly diverse—an achievement Schuler is especially proud of.

“If you don't have a diverse workplace, you will never get the best results,” she said. “My worst nightmare would be a team of people just like me. Diversity of thought is critical to win, I believe, and compete, because the world changes really fast; it is competitive, and if you don't have lots of different people looking at what's going on in different ways, you'll never be better.”

“If you don't have a diverse workplace, you will never get the best results.”

Francesca Schuler, CEO

In-Shape Health Clubs - California

Cultivating a diverse team is also a key component to attracting and retaining members.

“We're in the people business. That's what we do. We support members all day long. Our member base is incredibly diverse,” she said. “People will not feel like they belong or connect in our clubs if we have only one profile of team member.”

In-Shape leverages its workforce as a differentiator, regularly featuring them alongside members in advertisements. In fact, In-Shape ads only feature employees and members, adding another level of authenticity to the brand.

Turning ‘Jobs’ into Careers

Of course, it takes more than authenticity to foster employee longevity. The fitness industry has long struggled to be viewed as a field where one can build a long-term career, but Schuler just might have the solution; in an effort to develop In-Shape’s talent, she initiated a career mapping program for all staff members—from personal trainers to housekeepers.

“I tell everybody, 'I want you to take my job one day. That's my goal. I want you to take my job,'” she said.

The career mapping process is transparent and includes organization career paths that are shared with everyone. And the paths aren’t necessarily linear—Schuler describes them as “spiderwebs” with multiple routes to advancement.

Schuler has also been a proponent for breaking down preconceived notions of what kind of person can thrive in the fitness industry.

“If you'd asked me [years ago] if I'd be the CEO of a fitness company I'd be like, what am I going to do with a gym?” And if she—a successful brand-builder—had that bias, imagine what others may think.

Why We Need More Women Leaders

Another fitness industry stereotype Schuler has set her sights on is the perception that it’s difficult for women leaders to succeed. While the industry’s leadership is still male dominated, things are changing—and Schuler has some ideas to keep moving the ball forward.

“My message is: I want to bring more talent into the fitness industry,” she said. “I want more women in leadership in the fitness industry because 50% of America is female and 50% of the people who work out are women. We need more women leaders. And that's because I want to represent the communities that we serve...and I don't think our industry is doing a good enough job of that now.”

“We need more women leaders. And that's because I want to represent the communities that we serve...and I don't think our industry is doing a good enough job of that now.”

Francesca Schuler, CEO

In-Shape Health Clubs - California

Schuler actively supports the development of women leaders, both at In-Shape and by sharing her advice with other women in the industry. She encourages women looking to take on a leadership role to think about where they want to be in three years—and that doesn’t mean their next position.

“Think about where you want to be and what skills you need to develop. And think about developing skills and not just checking boxes of jobs,” she said. “Because, ultimately, what makes a great leader is a combination of skills.”

And as women leaders broaden their skill-set, they should thoughtfully consider the different qualities that make for a good leader.

“As you work for different leaders, think about what you love about them and what you hate about them and how does that help develop your own style,” Schuler said. “Having a signature leadership style is really important.”

One thing is for certain: Schuler’s leadership style is shaking up stereotypes in the fitness industry. And she doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

Over the next five years, Schuler said she hopes to grow In-Shape in a way that benefits its members, team members, and owners. She hopes it continues to be a place where people can grow their careers, get active, and, of course, create business value.

“For me, success would be to have many of the up-and-coming leaders that I see so much potential in all in big leadership roles,” she said. “We've got a ton of talent. A big, important piece of success is watching people develop and grow.

“And hopefully [I’ll] have fun and laugh along the way a little bit. I hope I love my job as much in five years as much as I do today. Because it's great. I feel really fortunate.”

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Marianne Aiello

Marianne Aiello previously served as IHRSA's Senior Digital Content Manager—a position focused on crafting and monitoring IHRSA’s digital strategy and covering IHRSA events.