How Karen Raisch-Siegel is using vulnerability to give members and staff a voice and create the ultimate family atmosphere at LifeWorks of Southwest General.
When thinking about the qualities that make up great leaders, you may think of one’s integrity, communication style or ability to innovate.
More and more, however, it’s becoming apparent that great leaders are also vulnerable.
For evidence of this, look no further than Dr. Brene Brown who has successfully built her entire career on the topic of vulnerability. Her TEDx Houston talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” is among the most-viewed TED Talks ever. And her book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead” was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.
What we are finding, it appears, is that being open and honest — or vulnerable — is a leadership tool that can be extremely effective for galvanizing teams and building great organizations.
Karen Raisch-Siegel, the executive director of LifeWorks of Southwest General in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, subscribes to this philosophy. She is open and honest about her leadership struggles and successes since becoming executive director of the facility — which is owned by Southwest General Hospital — in 2000.
When she was first appointed to executive director, Raisch-Siegel had only been with the organization — and in the industry — for a few years. “I did a lot of learning, a lot of growing, made tons of mistakes, but feel I have succeeded,” she said.
However, Raisch-Siegel’s leadership skills and the organization’s success went to the next level after she began working with an executive coach.
“Full disclosure, the CEO of Southwest General Hospital got me the executive coach,” said Raisch-Siegel. “I think he saw in me a very high-energy leader, and when you’re younger in your career and are high energy, you don’t realize how fast or hard you’re moving. Also, my emotional intelligence was a lot lower back then. Even though my intent was always good and I never wanted to hurt anybody, I was plowing through a bit.”
Through executive coaching, Raisch-Siegel learned how to tailor her leadership style to match that of the individuals she was leading. Prior, she’d just assumed everyone was as passionate and focused as she was.
“I had no idea people did not work like me,” admitted Raisch-Siegel. “I had no idea they were not firing away, thinking of ideas, just so excited, so passionate. I learned you have to meet people where they’re at. And that really changed everything.”
As a result, Raisch-Siegel feels executive coaching is a tool all leaders can benefit from for identifying blind spots in leadership styles and ways to improve.
“The executive coach experience is, I think, instrumental,” said Raisch-Siegel. “Every leader should go through it, because you have to hold that mirror up and actually look into it. You can always hold the mirror up and just kind of take a peek and keep going the other way. But when you’re working with an executive coach, you have to take a hard look at yourself.”
On the other side of the executive coaching experience and in the years that have followed, Raisch-Siegel has since honed her leadership skills and crafted an organization that’s well suited to navigate the unique challenges of the current times.
For one, because of Raisch-Siegel’s openness, members and staff feel they truly have a voice.
“Karen speaks with a lot of candor,” said Stacey Ilko Hancock, the group fitness coordinator at LifeWorks of Southwest General. “But in addition to that, she’s really open to new ideas. We go to her often with suggestions on things we want to test or try, we discuss it, and then see how it goes. I’ve worked in many different fitness centers my whole life, and I’ve always been impressed by how much we’ve changed and tried under Karen’s leadership.”
This ultimately lends to a true family feel at LifeWorks of Southwest General, centered around a culture of high standards and collaboration.
“LifeWorks is a great place to work because we have an awesome team,” said Becky Bercier, the senior coordinator at LifeWorks of Southwest General. “Everyone, regardless of the actual sub department, fully understands we always lend a helping hand to make everything run smoothly. Oftentimes that means stepping out of your normal duties to get things done.”
According to Bercier, under Raisch-Siegel’s leadership there’s no ambiguity surrounding their top objective, which is ensuring members have a great customer service experience.
“We do everything we can, within reason, to make our members feel comfortable and provide a great workout environment,” said Bercier. “Every staff member I hire is told we roll out the red carpet for our members. They have so many fitness options in our area. The only thing that will always help us stand apart is our staff and how we make the members feel.”
This commitment to the member experience is showcased through LifeWorks of Southwest General’s high net promoter scores (NPS), which it tracks through MXM.
According to Blair McHaney, the CEO of MXM, LifeWorks was one of only five clubs across the company’s platform in 2020 to maintain a 9.0 out of 10 trailing six-month average on five key member experience metrics.
“LifeWorks in general would have to be in the mix as one of the crown jewels of member experience across the industry,” said McHaney. “They don’t just talk about customer experience — they truly deliver and improve the member experience at the highest level, day in and day out.”
Keys to their high marks in member experience are the engagement and responsiveness the LifeWorks of Southwest General team commits to each member survey they receive.
“We have a response team to ensure feedback is reviewed daily,” said Raisch-Siegel. “The key here is to act on the feedback. Whether to take on the suggestion, fix an issue or respond directly to the member, some type of action is needed. It is a lot of work to keep the member experience consistent and positive. This is not a program or something that happens quarterly. It’s every day and every transaction. Hearing from the membership frequently as well as having a member advisory committee keeps us on track and helps to guide us on what the members need and want.”
Member feedback has been stressed even more during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Raisch-Siegel utilizing MXM’s free reopen and shutdown surveys to keep abreast of current member sentiments and ensure the organization is on the right path.
In fact, due to the seriousness of the pandemic and unique circumstances, Raisch-Siegel has taken on the task of personally responding to each submission received through the shutdown and reopen surveys.
“After we shut down I did close to 800 survey [responses],” said Raisch-Siegel. “I felt I had to be the one to respond because I was the one people wanted to hear from. And since we have reopened, I continue doing all the survey [responses]. I don’t recommend that practice, normally. But I just feel because we’re still not getting the volume we used to I need to have the information and make sure nothing is missed, and so I can get a feel for how the members are reacting.”
According to Raisch-Siegel, having a high NPS score before the pandemic even started has been key to success — and it’s something all organizations should strive for moving forward to safeguard against future crises.
“A strong NPS signifies a strong foundation, high member engagement and a healthy business,” said Raisch-Siegel. “We worked very hard to reach out, listen to our members and stay in touch during our shut down. It gave them a sense we truly cared about their well-being. We had the foundation and trusted relationships already created so that during a time like this, we could continue the relationship as a trusted partner in their well-being.”
Another important factor in LifeWorks of Southwest General’s ability to navigate the pandemic is the fact it’s owned by a hospital, which reaps a number of benefits for staff and members.
On the employee side, staff receive robust benefits including healthcare and a generous amount of time off, which Raisch-Siegel said has been vital to employee retention. Being owned by a larger organization during a pandemic also gave employees a sense of security that their jobs weren’t at risk.
“We could continue doing what we needed to,” explained Raisch-Siegel. “During the shutdown of 2020, we invested $350,000 into our locker rooms, for example. This is budgeted capital dollars.”
Members of LifeWorks benefit from the facility being hospital owned as well, by gaining access to a team of highly-credentialed fitness professionals.
“Being hospital owned holds us to a higher standard of quality and care,” said Raisch-Siegel. “We believe everyone has the potential to live their best life and we are here to help. We help by providing the fitness expertise and the tools to guide and coach the membership.”
From her seat as the leader of a hospital-owned fitness facility, Raisch-Siegel sees first-hand how powerful medical fitness can be for individuals in improving their quality of life and safeguarding against illness.
“I feel medical fitness is a necessity,” said Raisch-Siegel. “For both physical and mental health, exercise is medicine. We personally witnessed this when members returned to the facility after being closed for only two and a half months. For some, their quality of life deteriorated. People know that exercise is good for them but it is getting them to do something about it that becomes the challenge.”
As a result of the negative mental and physical health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, Raisch-Siegel is hopeful the medical community will become more open to partnerships with gyms and recognize that exercise is medicine.
“Hopefully the medical community will experience the value of the fitness industry and understand we can help their patients to stay healthier, recover quicker and experience a higher quality of life,” said Raisch-Siegel. “As we work toward more integration with the medical community, I feel we’ll need to look for some type of licensure for our facilities. We need to be a respected and valued partner in all communities.”
In addition to licensure or credentials showcasing a gym’s standard of care, Raisch-Siegel feels data showcasing positive outcomes could be helpful for gyms looking to form partnerships with the medical community.
As an example, Raisch-Siegel shared the story of a program they created at LifeWorks of Southwest General after an orthopedic surgeon said he needed a fitness program to put his patients through before they got hip or knee surgery.
“He said, ‘They need to go through some fitness so they can recover faster. I know it’s going to help them,’” recalled Raisch-Siegel. “We developed that program and it doesn’t really make money, but it serves a purpose. Those people recover easier and faster. So, gather metrics, because I think gyms doing a bit more medical-based programs could go a long way.”
As Raisch-Siegel looks toward the future, she feels optimistic about the industry’s future and LifeWorks’ ability to continue offering a high-end customer service experience to members.
No matter what challenges lie ahead, as executive director Raisch-Siegel will face them with openness, honesty and a get-it-done attitude.
“My leadership philosophy is to serve my members and team the best I can,” said Raisch-Siegel. “A lesson I learned from the pandemic is that it becomes very challenging to serve when you feel depleted. I learned I must take care of me before I can take care of others and to surround myself more with those who are willing to find solutions and do what is needed.”