Jane Riddell, the chief operating officer of GoodLife Fitness, is known as a rock both the company and its employees can depend on. “She’s got a very steady personality, and people can trust and rely on her,” said David Patchell-Evans, the founder and owner of GoodLife Fitness. “She is part of the brand.”
Today’s comparison as a rock-steady leader is a bit humorous when you look back to Riddell’s start with GoodLife. At the time, the company only had one location, and Riddell was in college earning her master’s degree in physical education. She looked at the opportunity to work at GoodLife as just a job to get her through school. She didn’t foresee it turning into a career.
Riddell, 30 years later, is at the helm of GoodLife Fitness’ operations, in addition to being named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network in 2013. Looking back, she laughs at the fact she thought her time at GoodLife was temporary.
“I’d had a bunch of jobs up to that point and they were always ‘work’ for me,” recalled Riddell. “I was never really overjoyed about the idea of getting up and going to work. This job was different.”
What exactly made working at GoodLife Fitness so different from other jobs? According to Riddell, it all came down to the people she worked with. She thought back to that first job and said, “It was like going to a party every day where you met all of your favorite people and your best friends. It just didn’t feel like work at all to me.”
Having great people surround her has been a staple throughout Riddell’s entire career at GoodLife Fitness — from her first job as a jack-of-all-trades selling memberships, working the front desk and teaching exercise classes — to her roles as manager, regional manager, vice president and COO.
“It’s been quite a ride,” said Riddell. Throughout the journey, Riddell has been an anchor, helping to keep the company on track as it grew from one location to more than 310 in Canada. In fact, GoodLife Fitness’ reach currently goes so far that one out of every 35 Canadians is a member of a GoodLife Fitness location.
According to Patchell-Evans, the company wouldn’t be where it is today if not for his ability to place complete trust in Riddell’s leadership. “I know that Jane always has my back, and she knows I always have hers,” he said.
However, Riddell’s current leadership skills didn’t come naturally. According to Riddell, Patchell-Evans continually challenged her to step outside of her comfort zone, especially during her first years with the business.
Riddell thought back to a time that Patchell-Evans went to visit the U.S. on a whim, and left her in charge with little forewarning. “Over that four-day period I learned so much and grew so much, and I think it gave me a lot of confidence that I could handle a lot of different situations very well,” Riddell recalled. “The trust that he showed in me to do that was very humbling. That was a great experience for me.”
Riddell and Patchell-Evans’ trust for one another is natural, considering that “trust” is one of the company’s core values. According to Riddell, GoodLife Fitness’ core values and deep culture are key factors in its widespread success in Canada. In addition to trust, GoodLife Fitness’ core values include caring, integrity, peak attitude, passion, personal fitness and happiness. “Those aren’t just words for us,” said Riddell. “That’s the framework that we hang all of our decisions and all of our behaviors on.”
For example, the core values are a key component of GoodLife Fitness’ hiring process. “About three years ago, we decided that it was more important for us to hire for a cultural fit than it was for us to hire for skills, abilities and experience,” explained Riddell. “I think that’s a fairly radical concept and it actually has worked very well for us … if you don’t have the right people out of the gate, it’s always going to be a struggle. You’re always going to be trying to fit the round peg into the square hole.”
Sometimes, GoodLife Fitness utilizes odd strategies to help flesh out whether or not a prospective employee is a good cultural fit. For example, at some point during the interview process, interviewees will be put through a semi-vigorous workout. “We actually don’t care how fit they are,” said Riddell. “What we care about is their attitude during the whole process. We want to make sure they put 100 percent effort into it — that they’re not complaining, not making excuses and not whining. In a regular interview, it’s really hard to get a good read on somebody. So this is a way to really get down to the core of who that person is very quickly. It’s really a great indicator of the character of that individual.”
To further gauge a prospective employee’s character, GoodLife Fitness uses “Engagement Cards,” which sport sentences such as, “I need the people I work with to support a healthy and active lifestyle,” or “I need to consistently learn new skills and develop my current abilities.” During the interview process, the prospect will be asked to pick a handful of cards that they closely identify with.
“You pull these cards out, and you really get a sense of what’s important to that individual,” explained Riddell. “They’re very revealing and I think they’ve helped us a great deal. I think we’re probably the only organization in the fitness industry that does this type of process and it has paid off in a big way for us.”
In the grand scheme of things, why is it more important for a company to hire for a cultural fit than for skills and abilities? According to Riddell, doing so allows her to have trust in the people working below, above and beside her, which is an extremely valuable thing to have in a team. “People who aren’t a good fit with our organization self-select out fairly quickly,” said Riddell. “These folks who have stayed with us really passionately believe in what we’re doing. Every single one of those people walk and talk the core values.”
According to Riddell, another key to the company’s success is its willingness to take risks. Riddell cited GoodLife Fitness’ acquisition of 10 Bally Total Fitness and Sports Clubs locations in 2007. At the time, the company had never acquired more than one or two clubs at a time. Acquiring 10 was a risky investment.
“It was a big risk for us,” recalled Riddell. “We knew we had to take these clubs, turn them around quickly and make them profitable. I think everybody had a few sleepless nights before we came to the decision that we were going to do it, and it was a great learning opportunity. It provided us with a template we could use for future acquisitions that we’ve continued to improve.”
Riddell also credited GoodLife Fitness’ success to its ability to break down the barriers prospects put up toward purchasing a membership.
Having more than 300 locations, for example, helps break down one barrier. “We have a lot of locations, which makes it very convenient for people, because we know that if people have to drive or walk for more than six or eight minutes to a club, that’s going to be an excuse [as to] why they don’t want to workout,” explained Riddell. “So we try to put lots of locations into the Canadian market. We’re trying to get into a lot of smaller centers, smaller communities, because our vision is to give every Canadian the opportunity to live a fit and healthy good life.”
Another way GoodLife breaks down barriers is by making a good impression so that prospects want to join, and members want to stay. “We work really hard at teaching our people to smile, be friendly, accommodating [and] get people checked in quickly so they’re not waiting,” she said. “And we try to also train our people to take care of member issues quickly, so [issues] don’t have to be escalated to our member experience department. If somebody has a problem, they don’t want to have to call a 1-800 number to talk to another person. They want to get the problem resolved right there.”
In addition, ensuring clubs are clean is a standard Riddell believes breaks down a major barrier to entry. “People don’t want to come and workout in a dirty club — end of story,” she said.
Riddell has learned these facts and more because of the long history she has with GoodLife Fitness. In more than 30 years, she’s held virtually every role at the company and, as a result, has killed a lot of time within the company’s locations. Even as COO, Riddell spends seven to 10 days out of each month touring many of GoodLife Fitness’ clubs.
“Days when I’m on the road, my time is absolutely consumed,” said Riddell. “I get up early, do a workout and then it’s just consumed by being in clubs and watching and listening, talking to people and observing — kind of doing an inventory of how clean the club is, making sure equipment is working, people are happy and the energy is really positive.”
Although Riddell doesn’t get to talk to members as much as when she did at the start of her career, chatting with members is still one of her favorite activities. During any of her club visits, she always takes the opportunity to speak with at least one or two.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to learn and to really get honest feedback,” said Riddell. “And sometimes they’ve been extremely honest with me and given me some very good, thoughtful suggestions. It’s one of those things I still enjoy doing the most — having that regular contact with the people who are the reason we’re here in the first place.”
When Riddell isn’t on the road, she hunkers down at GoodLife Fitness’ corporate office in London, Ontario. There her focus switches from club visits to business development. “Days in the office are times when I’m able to really focus and concentrate on the more administrative part of my work,” said Riddell.
During these days, instead of talking to members, Riddell attempts to chat with as many employees as possible. With more than 300 people located at the corporate office this can be challenging.
“I used to know every single person and everything about them,” said Riddell with a laugh. “Some days, I’ll come in and think, ‘Gee, I don’t know who that was. I hope they work here, because I just let them into the building.’ So I really try hard when I’m here to get out of my office and walk around and talk to people … just to meet people that I don’t know and tell them who I am. Because it’s so easy to get isolated — [to] just keep your head down, get buried in e-mail and meetings, and not have that human contact here.”
However, employees at the London office aren’t the only ones Riddell cares deeply about. Widespread happiness among the company’s more than 13,000 employees is a key concern.
“We want to make sure we have a good reputation, and one of the ways we do that is by treating our people really well,” said Riddell. “When they are treated well, they’ll go out and talk favorably about us, and that’s the best word of mouth that we can get. We work really hard at creating an experience for our associates that makes them want to be with us for a long, long time.”
According to Patchell-Evans, Riddell’s concern for her employees and their wellbeing is a trademark of her leadership at GoodLife Fitness. “The key thing that makes our company different is this concept of caring, and the key architect of making caring happen — and not just being a thought — is Jane,” he said.
As Riddell looks ahead at the next five years with GoodLife Fitness, she hopes the company will continue to make an impact and reach even more Canadians than ever before. Riddell explained that like the U.S., obesity is on the rise in Canada, and more and more people are living inactive lifestyles.
“My hope is that we continue to grow and expand,” said Riddell. “We’ll continue to be a leader in Canadian society to advocate for healthy lifestyles for people.”
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