[Devin Cornelius is currently in his final semester as a student-athlete at the University of Central Missouri, pursuing a Master’s Degree in Sport Management. He is currently a Sport Management intern at Athletic Lab.]
It is the way that successful high-performance facilities typically separate themselves from competitors. It can be the determining factor of a major recruit’s college choice. By definition, it is the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties, especially by education. ‘It’ is culture and the term is tossed around regularly. Evaluating the impact that organizational culture has on business is crucial to understanding why it is so important. The following evaluation is not comprehensive but explores topics significant to the area of culture related to the performance of organizations within industry and employee retention.
Dr. John E. Sheridan was able to examine what cultural characteristics within an organization created a statistically significant difference in the retention of new employees. Hazard rates, in this context, are the rates in which new, entry-level employees voluntarily leave their position. In his study, Organizational Culture and Employee Retention, Sheridan found that, on average, organizations emphasizing interpersonal relationships retained new employees for an average of 45 months while organizations emphasizing work task values retained new employees for 31 months. (Sheridan, 2010) Within this example, this 14-month difference is significant in a variety of ways. Sheridan explains that the difference in mean duration of ‘survival’ results in an opportunity loss of approximately $44,000 per new employee. Based on firm hiring rates within the study, the opportunity losses related to these differences in retention were between 6 million and 9 million dollars annually. In fairness, Sheridan examined accounting within his work. However, accounting is a market with high turnover, significant mobility within the field and a competitive market. Sound a bit like coaching? Sheridan’s primarily conclusion was as follows: a culture focused on interpersonal relationships was having a significant, positive impact on their finances compared to its work task oriented counterpart. Retention is just one metric that shows the success of a firm as related to its internal values.
Culture also maintains a significant impact on the ability to innovate. In a 2008 study conducted by the University of Southern California and University of Minnesota professors, corporate culture has the most significant impact on the ability to rapidly innovate. There will always be some level of consistency in an elite level training facility. Squat racks, platforms, med balls, etc. will be regular staples. However, the ability to compete comes with the ability to adapt and innovate your methods to the changing world around you. In the fitness world, a ‘new’ method, fad or guru emerges every day. While the industry changes regularly, it is imperative to continue to remain appealing to customers through all the gimmicks and noise. The profit margins of competitive gyms are not massive. Athletic Lab successfully markets itself and its abilities to regularly gain access to new training technologies that add value, and dare I say ‘flash’ to the gym. Staying ahead of the game is more about willingness to game the system than shelling out money for the newest product. Leaders that are constantly evaluating the means and methods of how their product is implemented with a willingness to allow contribution from others, regardless of rank, fosters a culture that remains aware of the field and ahead of the curve.
Culture is not necessarily synonymous to a company’s motto. You cannot speak your desired culture into existence. Your behavior, actions, philosophies, execution, and timing within your facility all develop your culture from day 1. In a well-circulated quote, Sir Ken Robinson appropriately stated: “The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued.” The Athletic Lab orientation that we attended upon arrival educated interns on the function of Athletic Lab, appropriate apparel, and daily responsibilities. However, it has been our time interacting with members, eating lunch with coaches and asking anything from their personal backgrounds to their philosophy regarding involvement in athlete’s personal lives that truly begin to expose and project the cultural foundations of Athletic Lab to an intern still finding their way.
Regardless of culture, turnover happens. Athletic Lab members are accustomed to the transition of an intern group whom they have met and become comfortable with being replaced by a new group of fresh faces. There are four intern groups a year. Even beyond interns, Mike Young is open about the fact that coaches on staff, including in the recent past, have had to part ways with Athletic Lab. People that could be described as integral have come and gone, and the facility has continued steaming forward. Mike Young is the founder, director, and owner of Athletic Lab. In the adolescent years of Athletic Lab, Mike relocated for two full years, coming back to a facility that had handled his absence gracefully and had kept the foundation and culture of Athletic Lab had remained sturdy. Certain things had changed but the philosophies that Mike and the initial Athletic Lab crew had instilled into the business continued to shine through. This is not always the case. Why? Culture.
In a marketplace that is arguably saturated, Athletic Lab has strategically separated itself from competitors in the area. The culture of Athletic Lab starts at the top. Mike is well educated in Sport Science, extremely experienced in coaching, and well-versed regarding his beliefs and his research. It is important to note his education. However, Mike’s background ‘on paper’ fits the mold of many people around the country and around the world. If you are interested in finding a coach with a Ph.D., certifications in various sports through multiple organizing bodies, and a mountain of experience to support his education, Mike meets your standards. In my previously mentioned orientation, Mike discussed the tier system at Athletic Lab and how coaches brought on staff improve their resume and increase their value by adding degrees, certifications, and experience. These all increase your reputation and assist in your progression towards becoming a better coach. However, it is repeatedly noted, none of this matters if you aren’t a fundamentally good person. The abilities to develop a rapport with clients, maintain positive relationships with coworkers and supervisors, build trust, and positively contribute to the overall environment are very hard to quantify. In coaching and in life, they are often more important than being able to develop an annual training plan from start to finish, or a deep understanding of bio motor abilities. These standards are not for Mike to throw on a PowerPoint slide the first day and forget about following the presentation. It is a part of the ‘Athletic Lab way’. The coaches at Athletic Lab exude these characteristics on a daily basis and it is an obvious part of their culture, which one can see upon entering the building. Young coaches and interns quickly develop relationships with existing members, and in a short period of time, successfully immerse themselves as a part of the staff. The interpersonal relationships mentioned by Sheridan are important in the accounting firms he utilized for his study. They are exponentially more crucial in a service industry that requires constant, direct interaction between employees, members, and the community as a whole.
Rather than requiring 40-60 hours a week at Athletic Lab plus extended hours of outside research, the minimum commitment to Athletic Lab is far different than many internship programs. Regardless of which season you begin your internship, it can take the path and schedule that is most convenient for you. The only minimum is that you complete 8 hours a week, ultimately accumulating 400 total hours. Interns have finished in as little as seven weeks, whereas some have taken longer than a year. There is a required curriculum including coaches’ professional development sessions, shadowing and coaching class offerings, written assignments, programming workouts, major projects, and other tasks, including a review of your facility management contribution by the Athletic Lab facility manager. The standards and requirements at Athletic Lab are made extremely clear, the requirements of the internship are flexible enough to allow for a variety of different interns to participate in the program, and it is an experience that introduces you to a learning environment, requires committed time, and eventually helps to develop you resume, work ethic, and ability to contribute. If you are serious and committed to bettering yourself, the pressure is low. The focus is on allowing interns to take the program in the direction of their preference. In my experience, the primary emphasis has been interpersonal. Athletic Lab gives every intern the ability to succeed at a pace, which they are able to manage, due to other daily priorities, with tasks and outcomes in mind. While I would describe the first couple weeks as an introduction period, you are very much involved upon walking in the door of Athletic Lab. While it is expected that you will stay within appropriate boundaries and follow the Athletic Lab education style, critiquing and improving movement of members is encouraged. In whole, the Athletic Lab philosophy is presented to you and you are asked to abide by it in your own way. Rather than create minions, Mike Young creates individuals. This allows interns to think independently, develop as coaches, train their eye, and, with feedback from those on staff, improve their ability to assist members. The ‘Athletic Lab way’ is not a phrase here, it is a set philosophy allowing a systems based approach, implemented from its introduction, to guide the presentation and execution of what is ultimately a product to be consumed. The culture of Athletic Lab is what sets them apart from the generic gym competitor that does not implore such a personal, rewarding experience to employees, members, or the community. It is, in my opinion, the reason Athletic Lab will continue to succeed with various moving pieces constantly being adjusted, added, and subtracted. Because of the culture here, the whole of Athletic Lab is greater than the sum of its parts.
Tellis, G. J., Prabhu, J. C., & Chandy, R. K. (2009). Radical Innovation Across Nations: The Pre-eminence of Corporate Culture. Journal of Marketing,73(1), 3-23. doi:10.1509/jmkg.73.1.3
Sheridan, J. E. (1992). Organizational Culture And Employee Retention. Academy of Management Journal,35(5), 1036-1056. doi:10.2307/256539