Leaders: What I Wish I Knew as a Young Professional

mentor

Top women leaders in the fitness industry share the advice they’d share with their younger selves. 

Oprah Winfrey said, “A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.” 

In fact, mentorship is often touted as a key to career success, providing young and growing professionals with guidance on tough decisions and constructive criticism. 

Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a mentor — especially women. This year, professional services firm Egon Zehnder conducted a study that found, “only 54 percent of women have access to senior leaders who act as mentors or informal sponsors in their careers.” 

This is a shame, considering women — just like men — have high aspirations. The same study found that, “Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of women in the early stages of their professional career globally aspire to one day reach senior/executive leadership ranks within the organization.”

To achieve these goals, mentorship could be the key factor that makes or breaks their success. 

Thankfully, the fitness industry is bursting with successful, inspiring women who serve as excellent mentors for young professionals nationwide. 

Here, we compiled a few examples, and asked them to share the advice they’d wish they’d known when first starting out in their careers. Learn from these mentors’ mistakes, advice and hard-earned wisdom. 

Jill Shusterman

Regional Director, Wellbridge 

What do you wish you’d have known when you first entered the industry? My first piece of advice would be to understand how much opportunity for growth there is in the industry. If health, fitness or wellness is what drives you, there is something for everyone. It’s just a matter of putting youself in the right spot. When I started with Wellbridge, it really opened my eyes as to how much opportunity there was for professional growth that included my passion. Had I known just how many options there were, I think I would have started in the industry earlier. I’d also tell my younger self to listen more and talk less, to network whenever possible, to trust my instincts and to be less afraid of being judged for my mistakes.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made and what did you learn from it? I could start by saying that I write with a pen that has an eraser. But as a leader, I used to do everything to protect my team. I felt they shouldn’t experience any stress, so I would essentially create a bubble and take it all on. I thought it was a good thing because they wouldn’t be distracted. It wasn’t until later that I learned transparency is one of the most important tools in leadership, and how much trust that takes. If you’re not transparent, your team likely won’t trust you. If that’s the case, you will have a difficult time creating a culture of teamwork.

What advice could you give to someone on how to handle mistakes they might make in their careers or even their personal lives? Take yourself less seriously and find humor in mostly everything. Also, you shouldn’t be afraid to take chances and know mistakes are going to happen — they are important in order to grow.

What do you think are keys to being a successful leader? Relationships, trust, obsessively developing your people, having a competitive spirit and wanting to learn. To be a successful leader, you have to want to learn from everyone and everything.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? “Be famous for developing other people.” At the end of the day, it makes me feel like I’m making an impact. On my priority list I have the names of who I’m working with. Developing them keeps me engaged, it keeps them engaged, and makes a difference for our company.

What’s your proudest accomplishment? The opening and the success of our first Colorado Athletic Club in Boulder. To be such an integral component of the team throughout the entire process was a new experience for me. I was there months before the opening selling memberships during presale, building the team, working on programming, you name it. To be there at the beginning and launch a new club in the most athletic city in the country is something I’m very proud of.

Maica Peterson

Co-Founder, Chuze Fitness

What do you wish you’d have known when you first entered the industry? I wish I would have known both the benefits as well as the challenges of working in a family business. My godbrother is the CEO, my brother is the COO, my husband is the CMO and my dad and godfather are also founders. It’s pretty awesome and intense at the same time. I love that I work so closely with my husband — at the same time, boundaries naturally get blurred. I wish we would have known how to manage our family and work lives from the start the way we’ve learned to do now.

That being said, the best piece of advice I’d give my younger self would be to learn strategies when conflict arises or lines get blurry for my husband, Kris, and I between family life and Chuze life. We now identify when one of us is ready to switch gears and literally say a code word that basically means, “I want to hear what you have to say, but my brain is on overload so can we please take a break from this discussion?” And just like that, we table it. It’s simple, but works for us.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made and what did you learn from it? Last summer we were moving homes. I was heading up a 10-week full home remodel on the new house and hadn’t a clue what I was doing. Kris was traveling a lot, as Chuze was entering the Colorado market and our then 2-year-old and 5-year-old were out of school for the summer. With the company growing so rapidly and all of the above, extra stuff happening all at once, I really needed to ask for help with my roles within the company. Because I didn’t, I left some of our staff without the support they needed from me. We even ended up losing who I felt was a key employee who reported to me. We parted on very good terms, but I still feel like if my communication would have been better and I’d delegated some things during that time of personally chaotic circumstances, then she would not have even been looking elsewhere.

What I have learned from last summer is that asking for help when you truly need it is not a sign of weakness, rather a critical component for the ongoing success of the company. With such an aggressive growth plan all of us at Chuze have had to learn to delegate more and then trust our amazing people. Hindsight is 20/20, but I won’t make that mistake again.

What advice could you give to someone on how to handle mistakes they might make in their careers or even their personal lives? I think that when we make mistakes in our lives, we should reflect on them, then determine what lessons can be learned and move on so that we are prepared with a plan. If we do this, then when similar situations arise we can respond in a more productive manner. If you are going to do something great, then you are going to have to take risks, which means mistakes will happen. That being said, I don’t see making mistakes as a bad thing as long as we use those experiences to learn and grow.

What do you think are keys to being a successful leader? I think it’s important for even the strongest leaders to know when to follow. Know when to actively listen to the contributions of others. I think active listeners are the best communicators and ultimately achieve the best results.

Laurie Smith

Senior Vice President of Operations, VillaSport Athletic Club and Spa

What piece of advice would you give your younger self? I would tell myself that it’s not about me. Have an outward versus inward focus and a growth versus fixed mindset, and fully embrace servant leadership.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made and what did you learn from it? When hiring for an important position in our company, the search process dragged on for months as we tried to find the “perfect” person. I got “interview fatigue” and hired someone who turned out to be a very poor fit. I learned that the time wasted and the damage caused by hiring the wrong person is far more costly than the extra month or two it might take to find the right person.

What advice could you give to someone on how to handle mistakes they might make in their careers or personal lives? Own your decisions and actions, and freely and readily admit when you make a mistake.  Own it, fix it, learn from it and become a better leader and person as a result.

What do you think are keys to being a successful leader? An easy checklist is the Seven P’s: Passion — you love your job and your people and it shows; Purpose — you have a higher calling beyond your own self-interest; Persistence — you never give up and inspire others to do the same; Port in a Storm — you are cool, calm and collected under pressure; People — you put people first, tasks second; Performance — you deliver results; Play — you make the workplace fun for others.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? I love this quote from Muhammad Ali: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

What’s your proudest accomplishment? One thing that meant a lot to me was when the customer service training program I developed for VillaSport ended up being adopted company-wide by Syufy Enterprises, our parent company.

Jolynda Ward

Senior Vice President of Human Resources, Gold’s Gym 

What do you think you did well when you were younger, that other young professionals can learn from?  Looking back, I can tell you the best thing I did in my career was not being afraid to raise my hand and try things out of my comfort zone. This has served me well.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made and what did you learn from it? What comes to mind was not a huge mistake, but an experience I learned from. I once had a line-level team member who called me with a complaint. I was having a bad day and made her feel like I didn’t care. Her supervisor called me to let me know how I made her feel and I immediately called her and apologized and asked for her forgiveness. I also shared this story with my team so they could learn from my mistake. It’s important for others to see that you own your mistakes, no matter how big or small they are.

What advice could you give to someone on how to handle mistakes they might make in their careers or even their personal lives? The best thing you can do is own it. Don’t make excuses, and learn from the mistake so you don’t make it again. Making mistakes only makes you stronger. They are going to happen because we are all human. The key to success is handling them with grace and dignity.

What do you think are keys to being a successful leader? The key is communication. In order to be a successful leader, you must master the art of listening. You have to be able to provide feedback to your team members in an open and honest manner, without making them feel small. It’s important to take the time to compliment others and thank them for their contributions. I love calling people out of the blue and telling them when someone is “talking good about them behind their back.” It is so fun making people’s day.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? Hire people who possess different strengths than you. The more diverse your team’s strengths and skillsets are, the stronger the team will be.

What’s your proudest accomplishment? Grooming my No. 2 to take my position when I left my last company.

Melissa Haase

Regional General Manager, Midtown Health

What do you wish you’d have known when you first entered the industry? When I was younger I really watched everyone around me and asked myself, would I do that? Could I do that? Who do I relate to in this organization, in this structure? I constantly looked above me and thought, that looks interesting, I’d like to be there. I would encourage everyone else to do the same. If I could do it again, I would have sought those people out as mentors, rather than just watching them and trying to glean information from a distance. I understand now how empowering and meaningful it is to mentor and be mentored, but early in my career I would have been afraid to ask for it.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made and what did you learn from it? Very recently, I was excited about growth within the organization and took on too many projects to be effective. My own personal challenge has been wanting to do everything myself and not reaching out to additional resources for support. It’s a valuable lesson, that you can’t inspire others with leadership and vision when buried in task work. In order to be an effective leader I’ve learned the top priority is to have a clear vision, share it and inspire others to contribute to it. That has to come first, then you can establish that flow, where the work comes together and results happen.

The other learning I had from this experience is that reaching out to additional resources for support is not easy, it is hard work. In order to get help and support, you need to communicate clearly and consistently, have oversight for the work and discussions as needed. Even so, it is still better than trying to do it all yourself. If you can understand that level of effort required to enlist support, you can establish reasonable timelines, expectations and the teamwork to get things done.

What advice could you give to someone on how to handle mistakes they might make in their careers or even their personal lives? Don’t make mistakes bigger than they are. Put in the work to fix your mistakes or admit when you can’t fix it and need more support. You’ll have all sorts of internal thought processes and that’s OK. But don’t waste energy excusing or defending mistakes, it truly makes most situations worse.

What do you think are keys to being a successful leader? Having a vision and goals that can be shared by the team. Once it is shared, find ways for the team members to contribute to the shared vision and goals. Team members want to be valued for their contributions to the business. If that vision is not clear or shared, if they don’t believe they contribute daily, you will have difficulty reaching the organizational goals.

What’s your proudest accomplishment? I am married and my husband Paul and I have two daughters, Harper age 5, and Poppy, age 3. The combination of having a family and continuing my career is my proudest accomplishment. Being a working mother is uniquely hard — there are many responsibilities and sometimes multiple topics vying for my attention any given day. I love my job, my team and the clients we serve. I want my daughters to grow up seeing a strong, working mother, who leads her team with vision and verve.

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