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Ms. Hallmark: Empathy in Action at Corpus Christi Athletic Club

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Lisa Gorsline

Leaders across the U.S. are being put to the test as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, forced to make tough choices while ensuring the health and safety of their employees and members. 

Throughout this crisis, the health club industry has showcased a number of shining examples of great leadership. Among them is Lisa Gorsline, the president and general manager of Corpus Christi Athletic Club in Corpus Christi, Texas. 

Like thousands of operators nationwide, Corpus Christi Athletic Club’s 110,000-square-foot facility temporarily closed its doors in March. While this was a tough circumstance for the organization’s 12,000 members and 100-plus employees, Gorsline understood the importance of maintaining a positive attitude as a leader. 

“You’ve heard the saying, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going,’” said Gorsline. “Through the pandemic, we’ve been forced to be tough. Through all this I’ve tried to be resilient and have a positive attitude. Irrespective of how difficult the circumstances might be, I’ve tried to rally everyone together. While most people are busy complaining about their problems, I always try to focus on solutions.”

Gorsline has cultivated this positive mindset throughout her 35 years of industry experience, which has seen her serve in several roles, including group exercise instructor, sales representative and marketing director, prior to her current position. She has also served on the Texas Health Racquet and Sports Association board, and is a consistent presenter at IHRSA and other industry conferences. 

Gorsline got her start at Corpus Christi Athletic Club in 1985, working her way up the ladder to the position she holds today. 

According to Gorsline, the most fulfilling aspect of her role is belonging to a team fully bought-in to the vision, future and culture of the club. That culture is inclusive, welcoming people of all ages and fitness levels, family and customer service-oriented, and fun. 

“It’s a community within a community,” said Gorsline. “We work hard together, fight together, figure problems out together, celebrate together, fail and succeed together. It’s all about ‘together’ and the ‘team.’ We are stronger together, so we really strive to continue to build a team that can weather the storm as one. Not many teams can say this.” 

There’s been no greater “storm” than the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest challenges Gorsline has had to overcome throughout her career, and that Corpus Christi Athletic Club has faced in its history. Along with navigating the shutdown and corresponding financial uncertainty, the facility has had positive COVID-19 cases among some staff, presenting its own unique challenges. 

To successfully navigate these tough circumstances, Gorsline has leaned on a number of philosophies she’s cultivated over her long career, such as being an ardent supporter of the people she’s leading. 

Early into the club’s shutdown, for example, Gorsline lived up to her reputation as “Ms. Hallmark,” crafting homemade cards for employees to lift their spirits. She also put together a recipe book that included a number of employees’ favorite meals they had made while in quarantine. “I’m just trying different things to take their minds off everything that’s going on, and to try and make it positive,” she said. 

In addition, alongside the club’s ownership, Gorsline spearheaded free COVID-19 testing for all staff to ease fears throughout the pandemic. Each week, she calls staff who are in quarantine to see how they and their families are doing. 

For Gorsline, employees are much more than just a means to conduct business. She views each as an individual, and strives to know them as such. “I try to know my team,” she said. “I want to know what their personal struggles are, what’s going on in their family life, learn their pet’s names, are they dads, moms, grandparents? I am very compassionate and defensive when it comes to my team. I love them. And when they are hurting, I’m hurting.”

Ashley Donatello Salinas, the assistant general manager of Corpus Christi Athletic Club, said Gorsline’s support is certainly felt and appreciated by the staff. 

“She protects her employees,” said Donatello Salinas. “That’s something she feels very strongly about. She’s very thoughtful. She takes time to connect with the staff and learn about what it is they’re going through in life, how she can help in any way, and just make a deeper connection.” 

Of course, that doesn’t mean leadership isn’t without its challenges for Gorsline. Especially during times like a global pandemic, decisions must be made that aren’t always popular. In these instances, she turns to education. 

“At times, I must make some hard choices that aren’t always popular with the team, but as the leader of this company, I must do it,” said Gorsline. “So, I try to educate my staff when I must make some of these hard choices. I think this helps soften the blow a little.”

In addition, Gorsline strives to be open to feedback and supports two-way communication among her employees, ultimately fostering goodwill. 

“Just because I’m their boss doesn’t mean the employee can’t look at me and say, ‘Lisa, I just think you’re dead wrong on this. I don’t think this is the right way to go,’” explained Gorsline. “We then talk about it and we share our ideas, and sometimes I’ve changed my direction just by listening to my employees. Because they’re on the floor every single day, and they often know more about this business than I do. So I need to listen.” 

Brent Darden, the founder of Brent Darden Consulting, has witnessed Gorsline’s commitment to being open-minded firsthand. 

“Like all great leaders, Lisa has willing followers,” said Darden. “She always operates with a team-first attitude and cares deeply about those around her. Very much a consensus builder, Lisa not only listens to feedback, but seeks it out on a consistent basis.”

This collaborative approach has been showcased throughout the pandemic, as Corpus Christi Athletic Club strives to solve new and unpredictable challenges. For example, as a team, they have come up with a number of fun slogans displayed on signs throughout the facility that aim to enforce mask policies. Examples include, “You know the drill, cover your grill,” “Whatever your style, cover your smile,” and “Don’t make us ask, wear a mask.”

The team has also erected a brick wall upon entering the facility, where members can write what they missed most during the club’s shutdown. Comments range from “friends” and “racquetball” to “the staff” and “basketball with the boys.” 

Transparency has been another trait coveted by Gorsline and showcased throughout the past few months. When Corpus Christi Athletic Club learned of the club’s first positive COVID-19 case among staff, Gorsline and the club’s owner decided to share the news publicly, despite not being required to do so by the Health Department. 

“We share with our employees and members the good and the bad, because they are part of our family,” said Gorsline. “If I brought my grandson here to workout, I would want to be informed so I could make the decision of whether I wanted to come into the club or not. We try to do for our members like we would do for our own families. That’s always our motto.” 

Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, especially during crises when opinions are oftentimes varied and resounding. 

In that regard, Donatello Salinas gave Gorsline high marks for her calm, measured approach throughout the pandemic. “She hasn’t made any knee-jerk reactions, which isn’t easy to do because you have all this pressure from the staff, the media and your members,” she said. “It’s easy to make a decision based on a few people’s opinions. She’s definitely taken time to step back and reflect, talk to her REX Roundtable group, talk to us as the senior management team, and get our ducks in a row before we communicate to our members and staff.”

Ultimately, this decisiveness comes down to Gorsline’s attitude surrounding failure: it’s OK to do so. “Never be afraid to fail,” she said. “We all love a happy ending, but that’s only in movies and fairytales. Every business decision you make will either result in success or failure. I think failure helps us learn how to succeed and become stronger. It helps our followers see we are human and we’re not afraid to try something, or make a decision, even if the outcome is failure.” 

As Corpus Christi Athletic Club and the nation continue to navigate COVID-19, Gorsline is hopeful for the future. “At the end of this crisis, we’re all going to be stronger because of it,” she said. 

Along the way, Ms. Hallmark will not only be a cheerleader for her team, but a shining light in the storm. 

“It’s hard to be a leader in a crisis, but a good leader steps up to the plate, puts a smile on their face, and tries to distract from the negativity,” said Gorsline. 

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Rachel Zabonick-Chonko

Rachel Zabonick-Chonko is the editor-in-chief of Club Solutions Magazine. She can be reached at rachel@peakemedia.com.

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