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Recruiting Your Gym Manager - What to Look for & How to do it

Updated: May 8


In my career, I have a been a General Manager or Gym Manager about 5 times. I've hired probably about a dozen GMs. Some have been great hires, some have been a disaster. I've trained, fired, and managed GMs. At one point I had six GMs reporting to me overseeing tens of millions in revenue and operating expenses across multiple states in the US. GM is an absolutely critical role, especially if you want to have any version of success in scaling and opening more locations. In this blog, I'll attempt to break down some of the key skills to look for and some great ways to think about the attraction and hiring process.

 

For the purposes of this blog, I am going to use the title "General Manager" because it is most applicable & transferable to the job market vs. titles like "Gym Director" and some of the others I see floating around the climbing industry. This is actually a fairly important point. In my experience, the climbing gym industry tends to operate in a vacuum, especially when it comes to matters of title, compensation strategy, and other important people operations issues. If you want to attract top talent and retain them, you have to be thinking about the other employment options out there for them. And I don't mean the other climbing gym(s). I mean being a GM at Whole Foods or the movie theater, or a fitness facility or anywhere else that a high performing GM could go work.

I am getting ahead of myself here, let's back up. There are two parts of the employee lifecycle we are going to be talking about when thinking about recruiting a gym manager:

ATTRACTION & RECRUITING

a graphic of the employee lifecycle
The Employee Lifecycle is important to understand and manage

"If you want to attract top talent, and retain them, you have to be thinking about the other employment options out there for them. And I don't mean the other climbing gym(s). I mean being a GM at Whole Foods or the movie theater, or a fitness facility or anywhere else that a high performing GM could go work."

As it relates to attraction & recruiting, here are the things we will discuss:
  1. Compensation strategy

  2. Job description and job posting

  3. The interview process

  4. Candidate selection

 

Compensation Strategy

I've written entire blogs on this topic, so I will give a brief overview here as it relates to hiring for leadership roles such as a GM:

  1. Don't make a number up. Do good market research with multiple data sources to figure out how much you should be paying a GM in your market. The rate should be competitive against similar jobs. It's up to you how high or low you want to come in in the market but don't fake it. Why should someone take a job at your climbing gym when they could go run a retail store in the mall for more money and better benefits?

  2. Put your salary range in the job posting. All research shows that this wastes less time, and attracts higher talent.

  3. Consider total compensation package, not just base pay. What is your bonus structure if any? What benefits might matter to someone coming to work at a climbing gym? **Hint: super generous PTO policy


Ultimately, top talent will be assessing you as well. Before they even show up to an actual interview. So if you want to attract top talent, you need to think like top talent. And top talent will know what they are worth. Once you have good market data on a pay range for the position in your market, if you want top talent, you can't come in to the market in the 10th percentile of that range.
climbers hanging out in an climbing gym that is for sale
How can you work to have a diverse candidate pool?

Job Description & Job Posting

Don't pull a bait & switch. The JD should be clear, concise, and include all the key roles and responsibilities of the job. Nobody wants to feel hoodwinked into taking a job that is different than what the posting said. Key things to include:

  • The Job Description:

    • How many direct reports will this position have? What functions of the gym will this role oversee?

    • What is the accountability of this role? What metrics or KPIs will this role be held to? How is success in the role defined?

    • Who does this role report to?

    • A brief overview of what the day-to-day looks like

    • A brief overview of the company: who are you, what do you, core values, etc

    • Who are you looking for? What are their characteristics? Avoid corny language that ultimately means nothing and you can't really assess like "team player", "good leader", etc. Instead use language that is meaningful and can be screened for: "demonstrated success in managing teams to achieve success", or "thorough communicator"

    • What are the requirements for the job? BE REALISTIC. I had a client who was paying very little and had a JD that read like the description for an executive at a large company.

  • The Job Posting -- If you want diverse candidates you have to use inclusive language:

    • Instead of "5 years experience in running payroll", say "demonstrated success in accurately managing and running payroll". It should not matter if someone has done something for 5 years, it should matter if they have done it well.

    • Asking for MBAs and college degrees can considerably exclude people. Really ask yourself if you think someone with a college degree is the only person who could do this job well.

    • Climbing experience: This is a hot take, but unless you want a lot of white guys applying you need to seriously consider if things like "Must have 10 years of climbing gym experience" help or hinder your candidate search. The best GMs I have ever hired had zero climbing experience but lots of demonstrated success being great managers and leaders of people.

    • Don't use gendered language "He will be responsible for customer service and risk management", instead "The General Manager will be..."


Quick tip: think about where you will post this. the CBJ Job board is an excellent resource, but if you want to diversify your candidate pool you need to be looking outside of our industry as well.

The Interview Process

I am going to try to keep this short. Entire books have been written on this topic so I suggest doing some research here. There are some definite guidelines that will make the candidate experience good and move you towards getting what you want in an efficient manner:

  • No more than 4 interviews. If you feel the need to have the candidate go through 5-6-7 or more interviews, your interviews are not good. Avoid more than 2 or 3 people in any given interview. There is a time and a place for a group interview though, use sparingly and appropriately and know WHY you are doing a group interview (for example: to specifically identify how this person manages many stakeholders. But you have to DESIGN the group interview to identify that)

  • Be deliberate about what each interview step is for. Have the hiring team collaborate on what you want to asses and the questions/process to do so. ----- consider using a scoring system: the interviewer has a set of questions that are asked of every candidate, and their response is scored on a 1-5 scale. This way you can put a matrix together and objectively see which candidates "scored" the best. Then balance that against subjective feedback from the hiring team

  • Always be up front with the candidate about what the hiring process is, and give them clear next steps after each step in the process because candidate experience matters. This is just good customer service.

  • Don't try to "trick" the candidate. This is a great way to show up as the kind of company nobody wants to work for. Let your candidate know what the next interview will be about and who with. It's great way to see how well they prepare.

  • Be ready to answer questions such as: "What is my opportunity for growth? How and when will I be given chances for income increases?" Good talent will ask these questions and not having a clear answer will be a turn off.


Candidate experience matters. How the hiring manager, your HR department and the hiring team show up during this process is extremely informative to what sort of company the candidate is interviewing with. Are you organized? Do you communicate and follow up? Is the process clear and transparent? All the basic principles of customer experience apply here.

social media of a climbing gym for sale
Virtual is fine. In person is great too.


Candidate Selection

I can't tell you who to hire, but I can tell you some things you might want to consider:
  • Someone who is willing and able to take ownership of everything that happens in your gym. The budget, the people, the risk, the customer service.

  • A person you can trust and build ongoing trust with. You need someone who will run the business with integrity and be proactive about problem solving

  • Someone who can manage a wide and diverse range of talent. In most climbing gyms you have high school kids, college kids, early career professionals, part timers, full timers, etc etc. This is a complex range of skills and knowledge to manage and coach.

  • Someone who can manage up. Can this person appropriate manage their boss? Can they appropriately manage you?

  • Someone to lead and define culture. I say it all the time: CULTURE = VALUES + BEHAVIOR. You want a leader that will set the tone and make sure the company's values are operationalized every day in your gym.


OK so how do you choose? There is no magic equation here and at some point you just have to make a decision. How you onboard, train and manage this person and set them up for success is the next important step to having a good GM. It doesn't end when you send an offer letter.
 
Rise Above has worked with clients on hiring and recruiting processes as well as company-wide compensation strategies. People Operations is a multi-factorial and complicated part of the business that must be run well. Payroll and personnel is your largest expense, manage it well and it will pay off. Need help? Let's talk.


 






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