I Went To The Gym For Cardio Training And Left As A Better Boss

This leadership coach learned more about performance management from her personal trainer than she’d expected to.

I Went To The Gym For Cardio Training And Left As A Better Boss
[Photo: Kosamtu/iStock]

When I sold my company a few years ago, I decided to trade the sweat of building a business for the sweat of getting in shape. It was time to develop muscle rather than a global enterprise. I assumed I’d be leaving behind the world of leadership–which had been the focus of my company’s business–even if only for the time being.


But I couldn’t have been more wrong. I discovered that some of the most skilled leaders are in the gym, and one of them is Roddy Cardona, a tier-three personal trainer at Equinox in Toronto, who works with me on my flexibility, cardio, and core. Here are a few important lessons I’ve picked up by working out with him that have already made me a better boss than I was before hitting the gym.

1. It’s All Built On Individual Connections, So Focus On Those

Personal trainers have the luxury of focusing on one person at a time. From the moment I arrive, Roddy concentrates on me. Even his comments show his interest in me as a person, not just a client with X, Y, and Z fitness goals: “Have you got plans for the rest of the day?” “Have you written any articles this week?”

Judith humphrey and Roddy Cardona

It may sound obvious that effective managers need to cultivate that one-on-one mind-set, but it’s easy to lose sight of as your team grows and your responsibilities threaten to divide your attention. A little bit of individualized focus goes a long way. If you’re in a meeting with a team member, don’t look out the door, glance at your phone, or call to someone who’s passing by. Concentrate on the one person who’s with you.

In a group meeting, if your direct report shares an idea, respond as though it’s just the two of you in the room. Say, “Wow, I never realized that,” or “I’d love to know how you arrived at that conclusion.” Give your team members that individualized experience–it’s those one-on-one connections that your credibility as a manager is built upon.

2. Motivate, Don’t Boss

The best personal trainers are skilled motivators. They never boss; they inspire. Roddy will often invite me to try something new, telling me specifically how it will advance my goals. What’s more, he makes it sound like fun; he makes me want to engage, even when I know it might be difficult or uncomfortable.


The best bosses take the same approach. Invite your staff to take on new projects. Show how the work will help them get better at their jobs and move them closer to their overall career goals. No, not every work task is going to be enjoyable, but those that you know will challenge your team members and engage their interests actually can be fun to tackle–so make them sound that way.

Sometimes, it’s just about adding context. Explain why helping a particular client will be a special opportunity, or why you’re so excited to see a direct report nail an upcoming presentation. All this takes time, sure, but unless you put in that effort as a manager, your team member won’t be moved to achieve the goals that will help them and your organization succeed.

3. Expect To Adapt Your Management Plan As You Go

My personal trainer designs an individual program for me–and constantly reviews and fine-tunes it so I can continue to advance. The same goes for effective bosses and managers, who need to set cascading goals for their team members, then shift course along the way depending on their progress.

You have to take it as a given that your direct reports will crave new opportunities and mobility, even if they don’t come out and say so. If you can continuously provide new changes for them to learn and excel, they’ll be more likely to stay with you over the long haul.

4. Make Time To Listen Intently

One time when I felt the exercises Roddy was asking me to do were too difficult, I asked if we could talk over coffee about the challenges of the program. His response was, “Absolutely!” He explained what he hoped we could achieve together but agreed we could reach those goals more gradually. He was very supportive, thanked me, and clearly modified the pace of our workouts.


Great bosses do the same. They create environments where team members feel they can speak openly with them. When somebody raises an objection or questions something, don’t feel you need to react to it on the spot. Yes, this is a slower approach, but it’s the better one. Go for coffee or grab lunch together, listen without judging, embrace a shared solution, and reinforce the new approach with positive feedback. And even when staff don’t come to you, make sure to reach out to them.

5. Stay Positive When The Pressure Intensifies

Roddy is enormously positive–which is great, because praise is a much better motivator than criticism. Rather than just cheering every achievement equally, though, he makes a point of noting whenever I’m performing well under more challenging conditions. When I struggle with a new kind of squat, he reassures me that this one is “harder than the last version.” When I do deadlifts, he tells me, “I’ve added more weight than before.” “Great job,” he’ll say at the end of a session or a routine.

Leaders need to apply the same positive approach. Don’t worry about sounding too nice–your people want to know they’re doing a good job. A manager’s role is to instill confidence and make their team members aware of how they’re improving. Don’t be afraid to say, “Great job.” Likewise, when there’s a problem, don’t just say what they’re doing wrong, explain how they can make it right.

6. Customize Your Instruction

My personal trainer has explained to me that he delivers instruction in different ways, depending upon the client’s approach to learning. For some clients, it’s enough to just tell them what to do and get out of their way. Others require a fuller explanation. And still others (like me) need him to get down on the floor and demonstrates the technique.

Effective leaders know how to customize their instruction in much the same way. If someone is working on a project, it may be enough to tell them what you want–some people resent a boss who hovers. But in other cases, an employee may want you to explain how and why to do it a certain way. Still others might need you to sit down and work through it with them the first time, this way they’re confident enough to take a swing at it themselves the next time.


Before long, it’ll be a matter of muscle memory–and your whole team will get stronger as a result.