In The Trenches catches up with John Stull, owner of CrossFit MKT to discuss leadership, principles, values, planning, staff development, and a “before, during, and after” look at “readiness and resiliency” through this crisis.
John Stull is the owner of MKT Fitness in Columbia, Missouri. In this episode Eric sits down with John to discuss leadership, principles, values, planning, staff development, and a “before, during, and after” look at “readiness and resiliency” through this crisis.
Eric LeClair: Welcome to In The Trenches, a weekly podcast series dedicated to entrepreneurial leadership, the principles and values that define and develop it, as well as actionable steps that you can take to immediately lead your team to victory.
Good morning. My name is Eric LeClair, and I represent PushPress. We are starting a brand new series called In The Trenches, a portrait of leadership through crisis, and I am so happy and honored to have with me today, John Stull, one of my very favorite coaches. I had a chance to get to know him through a bunch of different initiatives and projects with PushPress, and John brings a tremendous amount of character and personality and discipline and focus to the table, and I am just super happy that we get a chance to open this leadership series with John’s take on this so if you wouldn’t mind, John, could you tell me a little bit about MKT?
John Stull: Yeah. MKT, we opened in January of 2017. Right now we have three coaches that work full time with me, where their sole job is to be a coach, and they earn their income through personal training and nutrition coaching and coaching classes. We have 120 members in our gym, and we really follow CrossFit true to the manner born, we really believe in the methodology. I love the vision that Greg Glassman has painted up in the mission that they’re pursuing. And we’re behind it 100%. Our gym has a thriving community. Qe really from day one wanted a family atmosphere, a family community, and that has really saved us through these tough times. You know, you see a lot of gyms and chains and franchises that completely shut down, and they’re not earning any revenue. And we have gyms all around us that are really suffering right now, But thanks to our community and our ability to evolve and move fluidly and quickly through this, we’ve been able to increase the value that we provide for our members and maintain them. Um, so it is, yeah, MKT is my life, and it is my life’s work coming to fruition, and all my experiences thus far have led to an amazing gym.
Eric LeClair: Awesome. So I’d be hard pressed to ask this because you seem at least outward facing that you’ve got everything squared away. And so from a personal standpoint, if I were to ask you, do you have a belief or an operational definition of leadership that you hold dear to you or care to emulate?
John Stull: I do, and I kind of steal this from John Maxwell. You know, I’ve always believed that a great leader knows the way, goes the way and then shows the way and doesn’t ask anybody to do anything that they won’t do themselves, is the first to act and to dive in and also builds people up. You know, I’ve had coaches that I’ve loved, and I’ve had coaches that I hated, and I learned equally from them all. Uh, I’ve learned the way I don’t want to coach, and I look at my staff and my team as my teammates. And if I was gonna be their captain, you know, how would I want to support them and encourage them? And, you know, I treat them the same way I would treat members. And now you treat everybody with kindness and grace, and, um, I don’t lead with the heavy hands I lead with, come with me, do this with me. How can I help you? You know, um so, yeah, I believe I have a unique style That’s been mixed from many different experiences and influences that I’ve taken the best practices of what I really appreciate what resonates with me, and that’s kind of where I’m at.
Eric LeClair: That is refreshing to hear. Sometimes I get in topics of discussion like this with a few affiliate owners, and I ask them about characteristics of leadership or attributes of leadership, and I just get no answer whatsoever. Um, have you studied leadership or do you read or try to improve upon yourself from an owner’s or leader’s standpoint?
John Stull: I have, and it started when I worked as a freakin bus boy at IHOP and I wanted to move up. I wanted to earn more money. I knew I could help more people within the restaurant, and I wanted to become a manager. And so I started reading books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, started listening to every podcast I could, started reading everything that John Maxwell was putting out at the time and listening to a lot of YouTube videos. And so I was just really hungry. I knew that I was the right person, but I didn’t have the right skill sets and experience is yet. And I didn’t really have mentors either, so I had to seek them out. And I knew I needed more help, and so, yeah, I’ve been all in on studying leadership for the past 10 years.
Eric LeClair: Outstanding. Any illuminating moments? Or the big, bright light bulb ah-ha moment where you were ready to dive in and charge into the fitness industry.
John Stull: Yeah. Actually, it happened when I was actually in prison. And when I was in prison, I spent my time reading and working out and and working. I was lucky enough to kind of stay out of trouble long enough to get on, you know, good graces with the prison and able to work. But other than that, I was just reading and studying and working out. And I read every muscle and fitness magazine that I could go on and in the back of one of the magazines one day was an advertisement for a certified personal trainer. And the whole time, you know, we’re about three months leading up to that. I was just completely torn, I’m like how am I ever going to get a good job. I’m a felon. How am I going to make it in this world with this label? And it occurred to me that if I run my own business, nobody is going to do a background check, or ask for my resume before they hire me for my service. And I’ve always been, you know, people pleaser, I’ve always gone out of my way to want to help and serve other people. And I knew that if I was going to turn my life around and make a difference in this world, I had to completely devote myself to serving others and turn my life into a life of service so that’s how I kind of was like, you know, this is what I’m gonna do. I’m going to get out. I’m going to get an education. I’m gonna get certified, and I’m just gonna start training people how to work out, it’s what I know how to do.
Eric LeClair: What a whirlwind of difference that must feel inside. Amazing.
John Stull: Oh, man. It’s just to see, like, dreams come true and build that confidence in myself of aiming at something, knowing if I do the work and take the steps to get there, I could do it. And I know if I could freaking do it, I can coach anybody else to do it.
Eric LeClair: Yeah. So How did that help prepare you to develop a staff? I’m trying to get, like, a background for the audience that’s gonna be listening to this. Were you challenged when it came to developing other coaches or other managers?
John Stull: Yeah, that’s that’s always been the challenge for me because I know how to do things the way that I want them to be done, and I never really actually even sought out, um, other coaches or, you know, try to pull people along. Every coach on my staff right now has come to me by referral, you know, a member going to coaches say, Hey, if you want a coach, you should go work with John, you know. They didn’t start out with a formal, you know, on boarding and coaching development process. And I still don’t necessarily believe in, you know, formal evaluations. And it’s just a constant feedback loop of water cooler talk as coach Bergeron would call it is like, you know, we have feedback every day after every class. I asked my coaches, hey, what could I do better? They ask me, what can I do better? And we just have open dialogue and work it out and it works.
Eric LeClair: Yeah. Awesome. Well, obviously none of us could have thought or envisioned or prepared, truly, for the extent of this. I mean, go back two weeks, go back three weeks and we saw conversations, and we read nervousness, and we saw certain states taking action faster than other states, and it was almost like a domino effect. One state started to issue some considerations, another state started to follow suit. And before you knew it, you had statewide closures. You had stayed home orders. You had, you know, for us in California, we watched other states closed down before we did, and luckily, that gave us, let’s say, a week advanced notice. Um, briefly take me through your timeline of you watching this happen at the national level while preparing at your local level.
John Stull: It’s kind of like going through a bad break up, like you can kind of see the writing on the walls and you’re kind of in denial at first.You’re like, no, I don’t want to mess up my cozy life, you know, and everything I have going on and see you in a little bit of denial, and I went through that, too. I’m like, oh, my gosh, we’re fit, we’re strong, we live in Missouri, we’re in the middle of the country, everything reaches us last, and it’s not gonna be that big of a deal. And then about two weeks ago, reality slapped me in the face, and then you go through like, okay, this is reality. And then a little bit of a grieving process. I went through a couple of days where I was just a puddle of mud, you know, like, what am I going to do and how am I going to support my coaches and support my members? And, you know, all this is so new for me. I knew I had a big challenge ahead and myself, and so it took me a couple of days to really tie my boots up and say, all right, this is what I’m gonna do, and I’m gonna do it.
Eric LeClair: What pulled you out of that funk, pulled you out of that mud?
John Stull: Just knowing that I had so many people relying on me, you know, it’s like my members. They needed direction. They needed to know, hey, everything’s gonna be okay, you know? And so did my coaches, they needed me, man. And that’s really what it’s about, you know? Plus, I have a family that I have to take care of. I have a son. This is my livelihood, and I’m not gonna go down.
Eric LeClair: Right. Good. Excellent. OK, so I want to kind of break the last chunk into kind of a before, during and after. So before we knew that all these different gym owners were kind of acting or I should say, reacting to the situation cause it was fluid. It was changing almost on a daily basis. Um, talk to me about where you were mandated to shut down or you chose to shut down. And then what actions did you take immediately upon the shutdown?
John Stull: Yes. So we had, you know, it was important to me to show the community that we’re doing our part. And so a week before that, we were mandated, our city got a stay at home order about 10 days ago, and a week before that, we had already kind of seen it coming, and it started slowly transitioning, so I put class caps on our classes and said we’re only gonna have eight people in a class with the coach, and that lasted for about a week. Then I started offering the classes at the gym, but I started doing zoom classes the week prior before the stay at home order. So I already started to transition and kind of work through this and phases.
Eric LeClair: Okay, now we’re in the during phase. I mean now I believe every state has gyms mandated as closed, Um, and we’ve all had to pivot every single gym owner, coach, trainer is now a distance coach, a distance trainer utilizing technology like Zoom or whatever other video conferencing software they choose to use. That’s what’s expected, and this is kind of, I don’t want this to be seen as a trick question, however, we know that competent and quality leaders are always going above and beyond. So if there’s an expectation to do A and B, the competent quality leader is gonna be doing A and B for sure, delivering high value additional service, I mean, excellent service, but they’re also going to be taking the initiative to do other things. And so, besides delivering the classes, what else is MKT doing? Not in delivering figures, content, but as leaders in the community, leaders of your staff. And what are you charging your coaches to be doing in this time above and beyond delivering classes, any projects you want to share?
John Stull: You know, I kind of told my coaches that not much really changes, ou know, if we truly believe in the model of we put our community first, we put our coaches first, we work on developing our coaches, e work on building community, developing our community and our relationships, and then we focus on our systems and processes and marketing in profits. Right? And so for them, what I’ve done is I have divided up all of our members amongst my three key coaches. And so they all have 40 clients that they’re in charge of, and they’re held accountable to contacting them once a week via their preferred method of communication and an official meeting is just like a coaching call. It’s just like a consultation, we’re doing goal setting, we’re setting action steps, and we’re really getting them honed in and focused on, hey, what am I gonna do to stay active and to continue making progress towards my goals? And then each week the coach will call them and follow up with them weekly so that they can hold them accountable or just action steps. But more so to just let the members know that we care and that we’re available, we’re here for them, and that hasn’t changed either. The coaches they get compensated 20% of each member’s membership payment on their list. And so that provides the coaches $1000 base income. So right off the bat, our EFT hit yesterday we collected all over membership payments. And when the next payroll hits, I’m cutting the coaches 20% right off the top, and then the coaches also are writing personal training programs, and I said, hey, during this time, guys, if you want to write any of our current members online programs, you guys can you can handle that with them, you know?
Eric LeClair: Okay, thinking through the potential for disaster, meaning months of this, have you sat down and either written or thought through, it’s April, what about May? What about June? Have you been having those hard conversations with your staff yet from a communication standpoint, like we’re gonna weather this storm or anything, talk me through that if you have anything.
John Stull: That is definitely super important to keep things realistic and not to over promise. And so, like, they know that they’re gonna have to be hungry like they’re going to have to get out there and hustle a little bit, too. And so some of them have been hired by our current members to do odd jobs like landscaping, and they’re kind of keeping that on their forefront. But, also what we’re doing is we have already developed online personal training service through our website. Right now we’re getting a lot of practice developing content in marketing and working with our current members. And so we’re launching a marketing campaign next week to start pulling in more clients from online. And it’s actually really refreshing. I’ve had two members say, what can I pay you to have access to your online classes and to get the SugarWOD code, to get back into the private Facebook group for members only. Like the members are talking, They’re talking to their friends and family, and they’re saying, hey, this isn’t a very valuable service and it’s keeping me going. I’m actually having some members working out six days a week who barely made it to the gym two or three days a week. They don’t have to commute, you know, they get to sleep a little bit more, and so I see so much good coming out of this, and it’s really challenging us that, you know, we’re all survivors. I think any good coach has been through, survived some adversity, has gone into it, and is kind of prepared to handle change, and to evolve, you know, roll roll with the punches and face adversity head on.
Eric LeClair: Would you say, if you were to have to speak honestly about yourself any major nervousness or fears in yourself that you had to personally work on during this time?
John Stull: The biggest fear is just losing members, you know, and not being able to deliver to the members into the coaches and seeing these people that I care about and love so much, you know, suffering or going on somewhere else, finding something else like that. I don’t want to lose any of my relationships like that’s just the most important thing to me about this whole thing. I noticed that I built the family that I’ve always wanted in my gym. And so that’s the biggest fear I have. I have a pretty unique situation where I have a great partner who handles all of the finances and works with our accountant and their diligently working with SBA loans, and I feel very secure as far as financially with the way the future’s going. We’ve been smart with our money this past year. We’ve been stacking money in the bank and it’s paying off. Now that gives me the quiet confidence to keep doing these small little things that we have to do every single day and build a focus on the details without being consumed with the worry of the big picture.
Eric LeClair: Excellent. Way to stay focused, man. It’s such an important aspect of maintaining control and only focusing on what you can control logically in time sensitive moments, right? So, like tomorrow, April 3rd, documentation is due for those loans. Some people are still busy spinning off, falling away from their focus. They’re missing this chance, and I love hearing your framework for organization and for keeping people moving focused, client centered, coach centered, and then, of course, yourself. Any message you want to share, this will be the last piece, any message you want to share with gym owners right now that are struggling, if you were to have to lend a hand or share one bit of knowledge, what would you tell the struggling gym owner today?
John Stull: I would tell them to ask for help if you’re feeling overwhelmed and you don’t know what to do, you’ve got to seek somebody out who’s got a handle on it and take what you can and make it your own and roll with it. This is not the time to hide away. We have every opportunity right now to kind of hide away. We don’t have to be in front of people every single day. I’m learning this firsthand. You know, the first week of this, I really kind of burnt myself out. I wasn’t really working out. I wasn’t sleeping very well. I wasn’t eating the way I normally do. And I could kind of tell that my decision making wasn’t as quality towards the end of that week, and my patience was very, very thin and so I was catching myself saying things that people that I regretted and so I think the most important thing that we can do right now is take care of our health and keep ourselves in a state of readiness so that we were prepared to make smart decisions quickly and with the right head on our shoulders.
Eric LeClair: Dig it, man. I totally dig it. Well, I sincerely appreciate your insight. My hope is that folks can take some of these steps, take some of the lessons and apply them here in the coming weeks. We don’t know if this is gonna be done by the end of April, May or June. But I’ll tell you what, we’ll circle back in a month, folks might be telling a different story, so I really sincerely appreciate your time.