In The Trenches catches up with Damon Dukes,owner of the Athletic Asylum to discuss leadership, principles, values, planning,staff development,and a “before,during, and after” look at “readiness and resiliency” through this crisis
“My biggest thing to anyone who is struggling is just stay authentic.“
Damon Dukes is the owner of Athletic Asylum in Rosedale, Maryland. In this episode Eric sits down with Damon 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 afternoon. This is Eric LeClair with PushPress and we’re continuing our In The Trenches leadership series and I’m super thrilled to have an old friend and what I mean by old friend, I mean, someone that I got a chance to work with in the Level Method, and Damon stood out to me not only as a charismatic coach and competent, athletic development coach but more importantly, his care and his compassion for both his clients and his staff development. So I got a chance to watch him grow not only as a business owner, but as a coach, and I’ve seen him branch out and do a couple of very initiative driven ideas, and so hopefully we’ll cover some of those things today. Damon would you like to introduce yourself. Welcome.
Damon Dukes: Oh, thanks for having me, Eric. I appreciate it, it’s an honor to be on, and it’s an honor for you to think of me in that way. So Athletic Asylum, we’re here in Baltimore, Maryland. The gym started in 2013 and I started working out here in 2016. Quick transition from, you know, an athlete to a coach, from coach to manager and then manager to owner. Around 125 members before the Covid-19 Pandemic thing hit. Majority of people that, you know, have lost their jobs have just asked to go on hold until this thing is over. So that’s kind of the size of the gym where we’re at, about a 5500 square foot warehouse.
Eric LeClair: Okay, talk to me a little bit about your staff, the folks that you have working on behalf of you, for you, as coaches and interns. Let’s walk through that for those that don’t know you.
Damon Dukes: Yes. So there’s you know, I have two main coaches who are full time and Kristen and Tara, both Kristen and Tara share in the operations side of things, and then I also have four other coaches aside from them that are just strictly part time. They all have full-time gigs.
Eric LeClair: You directly focus on their staff development as far as certifications, hours worked um, education and my consumer education. Do you oversee any of that, or did you let them kind of develop how they see fit?
Damon Dukes: So a lot of them are very intrinsically motivated, and I like that. Whatever, you know, certifications they want to do, the gym will pay for it if we have it, if we have the funds available and we can work something out of paying that back over time, that works.
Eric LeClair: Now, do you have both for the company and for the inspiration for your coaches, do you have a working definition of leadership or set of principles or company values that you’ve tried to hold as your charter or as your standard that you want your coaches to emulate?
Damon Dukes: Yeah, I believe in leading from the front, leading the way, walk the walk, talk, talk, you know, it all means the same thing, but that’s really my vision or my principle when it comes to leadership. When I first started in the fitness industry, one of the first boss’, name was Dale Shadow for Brick Bodies, he sat me down one day and he said, you know, I’ll never ask you to do anything that I won’t do, and I would, you know, in his dress, shirt and slacks, and they’d be underneath the treadmills, you know, cleaning those things, so that stuff, and he’d be in the bathroom, you know, wiping the sinks down on things like that. So 17 years and it’s still with me. Now that I am in a leadership role, it’s the same thing. I lead from the front. I don’t ask my coaches or staff to do anything that I wouldn’t do. The values that are important to me are compassion, tenacity, accountability and, you know, authenticity or being authentic, those are some that come to mind and in that leadership role, you know, it’s the kind of plays in the hand from leading from the front, if I’m doing all those things, then that’s kind of what I expect from my coaches.
Eric LeClair: Excellent, and obviously it works well. Now you’ve got coaches on staff, they, in turn, service your clientele. You get good feedback from a clientele that your coaches are empathetic, charismatic, they communicate well. Obviously, in developing your coaches could you, can you look back now, even two weeks, three weeks, and think to yourself I’m ready, my business is ready, my coaches are ready for this coronavirus and we’re handling this to the best we can. Or have you noticed any, like, have you noticed maybe any holes or gaps that you’re like, dang, we have to improve this right away.
Damon Dukes: No, I’m actually no, I’m quite happy with the way that we’re handling things. It’s almost like we didn’t miss a beat. Now I understand, you know, it’s tough times, and some members are losing their jobs, but the overwhelming majority hasn’t. And a lot of people are, you know, they’re still paying memberships. Now, by the time I realized that this coronavirus was actually really gonna be a problem, it was almost too late. I want to say that I, you know, downplayed it, but I just didn’t know if I was, like, believing the hype, that this was actually gonna be something, and it was another week or so before we were shut down.
Eric LeClair: So did you guys choose to shut down before a mandate? Or were you mandated to shut down by your governance?
Damon Dukes: So I practiced jujitsu and my jiu jitsu school shut down. I was thinking, you know what, maybe, and another thing that’s important to me is you’re either part of the problem or part of the resolution. And so once, once I had made my mind up that we should shut down, we were already being ordered to shut down. So it was kind of like, right around the same time.
Eric LeClair: Ok, now, from a community standpoint, how was your message received? Were your clients surprised, were they supportive, were they fearful, how did you tangle with or deal with their mixed emotions?
Damon Dukes: Of course there was initial fear, but it’s far as a community goes, we’re not gonna focus on acquisition, we’re not gonna worry about that at all. What I want to focus on is your members or your group, so what I did was I just split the members among the six coaches, Derek, these are your guys, Doug these are your guys, so on so forth.
Eric LeClair: So you split them all up?
Damon Dukes: What’s that?
Eric LeClair: You split all your clients out to your coaches.
Damon Dukes: Split them all up and just kind of said hey, but I don’t have a script or anything like that, I just want you to continue to reach out to these guys once a week, we’re doing in home workouts, and we’re doing it through our software, which is Triib. They’re posting their workouts, if they notice that they’re not posting workouts, check in with them, see what’s going on and on social media and commenting when everyone else is trying to encourage everyone to post to the group and just stay engaged. Two weeks ago, we started doing Facebook live classes, we weren’t doing that initially, they feel like they’re part of a group again because we’re all logging at the same time and doing it together for the most part.
Eric LeClair: In addition to digitally broadcasting your fitness component, are you guys layering in any element of social that’s different. So are you getting together for Friday nights to have like a trivia night? Are you getting together for Sunday mornings to do, like I don’t know, I heard so many different ideas and options.
Damon Dukes: Yes, we’re doing, well, Friday, we did a virtual happy hour. Just a zoom call and everyone’s logged in, and we just drank some beers and chatted, and I may have drank a little too much. I was so excited that I was hurting Saturday morning, so my members got to see me in a different light, and next Saturday we’re doing a virtual partner workout, I don’t know how it’s going to play out, but everyone is getting partners ready, and they’re gonna be partners, but they’re going to be doing it like you Carrie, you’re gonna do this many reps, and then Beth, you’re going to do this many reps, so just throwing stuff up against the wall to see if it sticks. But that’s another thing, don’t be scared to try things.
Eric LeClair: Have you dedicated any part of your staff to reach out to those that may have fallen off, folks that frozen or placed on hold? How are you handling the clients that have had a distance themselves from your gym?
Damon Dukes: I take that on my own, so if they have to cancel or if they have to hold, I’m the one that they reach out to, and I make sure everything is handled, you know, if there’s anything we can do. Um, so, yeah, I kinda take that on my own back.
Eric LeClair: Have you had to have any hard conversations with any clients yet at all? Anybody struggling significantly. Anybody sick from your gym or ill, anybody lose anybody in the family yet?
Damon Dukes: Yeah. No, no, no one had anything with the virus hitting close to home or anything like that. No one that I know so far.
Eric LeClair: Awesome. Man, so I think the before, during and after approach to this everyone’s after seems to be semi ambiguous because we don’t know, we don’t know if this is gonna be in April, May, June, kind of a thing. Have you had the moment yet to put any energy towards thinking how you’re going to accelerate out of this turn and lay on the gas pedal and attack after? What would be your top three things that you know you’ll need to do when this is over? Any thoughts given towards that yet?
Damon Dukes: So we were actually about to do a big marketing campaign right before this thing hit, had it all set up, ready to go. So we’re kind of like we just press the pause button on that. And that’s exactly what we plan to, you know, to do whenever the doors do open. Back up all of our members that are on hold and getting them back in here if they are able to get back in.
Eric LeClair: Right because just because you might be able to open up doesn’t mean that they’ve got their jobs back and then can fit all back together again.
Damon Dukes: Yeah, I know, but I would say, like we had this big push for a big marketing campaign and we’re ready to go with that.
Eric LeClair: Is that a recruitment campaign for a program or for a specific offering?
Damon Dukes: Yeah, it’s just, you know, a six week foundations course I’ve run in the past and actually Level Method is good, you can really sit them down, you know, it’s kind of like martial arts school, I’m gonna hand you this belt, except for I don’t know what belt you’re gonna get because we’re going to assess you over the first couple of weeks and you’re going to get a level, and then you’re gonna know where you’re at, the coaches are going to know where you’re at, it’s gonna be great. And so we’re going to have a six weeks foundations course and market heavy for that.
Eric LeClair: There are coaches out there that are struggling, gyms that are either on the brink of closing or very close to closing, with all your wisdom and all your confidence, and all of your capacity, if you were able to share something with them, do you have a message for any other coaches that are struggling right now?
Damon Dukes: My biggest thing to anyone who is struggling would be to just stay authentic. Be yourself. They can feed off your inspiration without you really even having to know what to say or what to do. Just don’t try to be something that you’re not, people can see right through that, they can smell the BS, just do what you can, try to stay positive. I know it’s scary. I’m scared too. I’m not gonna sit here and BS you, but I’m not also going to, you know, try to be Superman here, they know that it’s a trying time. But I’m gonna let them see my vulnerability. And I’m going to stay authentic to who I am, and come out on the other end and hope it inspires them as well.
Eric LeClair: Well, I appreciate that. It is both sincere from the heart, and it is truly an authentic message. I mean, there’s so many folks that want to all of a sudden, pop up and be macho and bravo like high bravado, and you can tell it’s a front and it’s just not it’s not gonna run the test of time. Awesome. Well, thank you, I genuinely appreciate your insight. Um, and of course, everyone at your facility if ever anybody needs any help, we always say, raise your hand, call, connect, ask questions, from the team at PushPress, this is our next installment of In The Trenches, Damon Dukes, owner of Athletic Asylum, thank you, man, I sincerely appreciate it.
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