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#TeamCool: How Fitness Australia Turned Culture Into Action

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, November/December 2013, Feature

By: Joe Rominiecki

Summary: At Fitness Australia, being cool is part of the job. The 23-staff association's culture, dubbed "Team Cool," is the foundation for how they communicate, meet, and evaluate performance. And none of it is by accident. It took years of work to from catchphrase to cultural framework.

At Fitness Australia, being cool is part of the job.

It even says so in its most recent job listing: "Position Specification and Description for the New #TeamCool Member."

In July, the 27,000-member association for fitness professionals Down Under needed two new member-service staff. After taking in resumes, first-round interviews took place over coffee. In the second round, candidates were asked, among other things, what historical figure they'd be most likely to dress up as. The third round brought four finalists to the office for a day of work taking member calls.

Then, says Angie Karpouzis, digital media coordinator, "We hired the two coolest people, basically."

She is not joking. Fitness Australia hires to fit its organizational culture first and technical skills second. And that culture, as they call it, is Team Cool. By now, you're either intrigued or rolling your eyes. Team Cool? What does that mean?

At first, "Team Cool" was just a nickname that Fitness Australia's member- service staff gave itself. But then it started to grow. Now it belongs to the full 23-person staff. It's baked into the way they communicate, meet, and evaluate performance. They even have T-shirts. Whatever Team Cool means, it's working.

Fitness Australia has grown from 20,000 customers to 30,000 since 2009. Revenue is up 45 percent in the same time. In the past year, its Net Promoter Score—a customer-loyalty metric on a scale of -100 to +100—went from -20 to as high as +69.

#TeamCool in Numbers

50%
The amount of Fitness Australia's general manager of operations' time spent on developing its "Team Cool" culture.

45%
Fitness Australia's revenue growth since 2009, around the time it began working its "Team Cool" culture into its daily work habits.

Right around the time Fitness Australia began to define Team Cool is when all this good stuff started happening. It turns out the very act of trying to answer, "What does it mean to be Team Cool?" was the crucial first step.

At First, A Vibe

Prior to 2008, Fitness Australia was a federation of seven state and territorial organizations, but that year they unified into one national association—an opportunity to start fresh, says Robert Barnes, general manager of operations at Fitness Australia until this past September.

"We were finally one staff, we had one CEO, we had one board of directors, we had one logo. I could build a foundation of all that now with a team of people that felt very much together," he says.

Barnes' boss, CEO Lauretta Stace, gave him the reins over developing the new organization's culture. "She just gave me the leeway to explore," he says. Barnes estimates 50 percent of his time was devoted to organizational development.

At the most basic level, the goal "was to make work a really safe and enjoyable place for people to come," Barnes says. A father of two, he works an early schedule, leaving at 4 p.m. each day.

"So, I was bringing the kids to work and saying, 'These are my kids. This is why I leave you guys at 4 o'clock every day, to be with them. But I promise you, at 8 o'clock, once the kids got in bed, I would be back on my computer,' " he says. "That level of openness really started opening a lot of peoples' eyes to what could be achieved and the trust levels that could be achieved between the team members when you are being that totally authentic person. I am only one person. I am not working Rob, and I'm not father/husband Rob. I'm just Rob."

A commitment to openness in the Team Cool ethos is matched by a faith in self-awareness. At the newly merged organization's first all-staff retreat, everyone completed a DiSC behavioral assessment, which identifies a person's core personality traits and tendencies. This has continued with new staff, and a one-page grid that shows every staffer's DiSC type is shared on Fitness Australia's intranet and posted above desk phones.

As Barnes worked to make Team Cool stick, he realized it needed to become more tangible. "We all completely understood and bought into the vibe of it all, but it had to be something else. And also I was at that point where I felt we had matured enough as a culture where people should be held to account for their behavior."

Then, Action

Today, Team Cool shows itself in the way Fitness Australia goes about its work. None of these methods is revolutionary on its own, but together they clearly embody and reinforce the values the organization holds dear.

Daily huddle. Every day at 2:22 p.m., all staff join for a five-minute meeting and phone call. (The staff is spread across five cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth.) "We don't try to solve problems on there, because it's a short telephone call, but we flag issues that might be new, and we talk about good things that have happened to us as well," Stace says.

Cultural Clarity

"You can't say something drives the success of the whole enterprise unless you can tell me how it shows up in your workplace," says Jamie Notter, management consultant and coauthor of Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.

With that in mind, Notter and Robert Barnes, former general manager of operations at Fitness Australia, overhauled the organization's performance reviews to clearly describe and define the desired behavioral qualities of its "Team Cool" culture. "The hardest part was actually writing the language," Barnes says.

Here are two examples of how Fitness Australia's performance describes high- and low-performance behavior:

Decentralization

Low-performance behaviors: Overemphasizes hierarchical or central control, either by holding on too tightly or by abdicating responsibility. Blocks others who want to exercise ownership behavior.

High-performance behaviors: Always seeking new ways to embrace decentralization and extend to colleagues the opportunity to speak, decide, and act in the best interests of the organization.

Learning

Low-performance behaviors: Overly focused on blame (or avoiding it), unwilling or unable to work through difficult conversations. Frequently reverts to what is already known or existing areas of comfort.

High-performance behaviors: Disciplined about having conversations that generate deep learning and not afraid to change as a result. Embraces the learning opportunities in failure.

Weekly one-on-one meetings. Supervisors meet with each of their direct reports once a week, for 30 minutes. In Barnes' meetings, "They get 10 minutes to talk about what's up with them, I get 10 minutes to talk about what's up with me, and then we have 10 minutes to share what it is that we would like to do next," he says.

Monthly all-staff meetings. The full-team meetings are straightforward, with a big-picture status check from Stace and a chance for comments and discussion from anyone on staff.

Skype and Yammer. The former, a free video-conferencing service, connects distributed staff members who otherwise wouldn't often see each other. The latter, an internal social networking platform, allows staff to chat and share knowledge without having to send email or call meetings. "We are on that all day sharing stuff, personal, work," Karpouzis says. "It's a massive, massive collaboration space for us."

Performance reviews. Evenly split between technical and behavioral competencies, the twice-yearly review system puts clear language around desired behaviors (see sidebar). This, says Barnes, was the most difficult organizational process to mold to the Team Cool culture. In 2011, though, he found help in a book, Humanize, by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, CAE. "I saw actual language that was speaking back to me what I've been trying to describe far less eloquently for a long time," Barnes says.

In Humanize, Notter and Grant urge organizations to eschew traditional management models for ones that embrace, rather than suppress, human behaviors. It identifies elements of culture, process, and behavior that make an organization "open, trustworthy, generative, and courageous." These elements, a dozen in all, range from decentralization and authenticity to inclusion and experimentation. Fitness Australia staff are evaluated on all 12, but here the weekly one-on-ones come in handy.

"Performance reviews happen really quickly around here only because I feel like I have the same conversation with my boss once a week," Karpouzis says. "There's nothing she doesn't know that I haven't talked to her every Monday about for the last six months."

Hiring and firing. Both lean on cultural fit. Job candidates are asked to complete a DiSC assessment during the interview process. Fitness Australia believes technical skills can be taught more easily than behavior, so they look for a willingness to learn—one of the 12 Humanize elements included in performance reviews.

"We have a saying here. Whenever someone starts working here, within a week it's like they've worked here for years," Karpouzis says.

Barnes also dismissed three employees in his seven-year tenure for a lack of fit with the Team Cool culture. Each time, the organization offered to assist the employee in finding a new job elsewhere.

Selecting employees for culture, Notter says, is not for beginners. "It only works when you deeply know your own culture. I think that disqualifies most organizations," he says. "Unless it's tying back directly to what drives your success, you can't say that. Zappos can do that. They nailed it. Netflix can do that because they've drawn the connection down to their strategic success drivers, and I think Rob has, too."

Now, a Self-Sustaining Culture

In an ideal world, an organizational culture could grow from the bottom up, without leadership from the top. Culture, after all, belongs to everyone. But, as Karpouzis puts it, "I think you have to have change agents."

For Fitness Australia, that person has been Barnes. He wasn't at the very top of the organization, but he was close, and Stace both gave him freedom to experiment and bought into the results herself. Little by little, the pursuit has taken Team Cool from catchphrase to cultural framework.

"It needs champions, no doubt in my mind," Barnes says. "But then the champion's job is to make themselves redundant to that need."

To that point: Barnes announced his resignation from Fitness Australia in late August, to join association-management-software firm Aptify. The departure of a chief-level executive from any staff is a shock to the system, but Barnes, Stace, and Karpouzis all say they are confident that Fitness Australia's Team Cool culture will live on.

"The great thing is that the Team Cool culture is now institutionalized across the organization," says Stace. "Although Rob has been central in helping to drive the development, understanding, and learning around organizational culture, it's the team members who have taken this on board, improved their own behavior, attitude, service levels, and productivity as a result of this learning, and they are the ones who are delivering the results."

Joe Rominiecki is senior editor at Associations Now. Email: jrominiecki@asaecenter.org

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