An interview with Dave Mortensen, co-founder and president of Anytime Fitness, who has a virtual black belt in the art and practice of emotional intelligence in the workplace
At the heart of Dave Mortensen’s secret to success is his vivid memory of feeling what it is like to be at the very bottom. He began by working at the front desk of a health club for $4 an hour. Even then he had a vision of his future success, and a need for self-esteem to keep his dream alive. That’s why he told his family and friends he was working as a personal trainer. It worked; he eventually bought that health club. Even now, with more than 3,000 franchised health clubs around the world and a new headquarters in Woodbury, a top priority is the emotional well-being of his employees.
MNBIZ: Why is emotional intelligence so important for leaders?
MORTENSEN: Emotional intelligence (EI) is what differentiates great leaders from just people who happen to be running a good business. It’s as important to care about an employee’s personal goals as it is about their impact on the business.
MNBIZ: What is your definition of EI?
MORTENSEN: EI means understanding the person sitting in front of you, and what makes them move spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically. People sometimes get that mixed up with sympathy, but that’s feeling sorry for someone. If you want to help someone move forward in life, you have to have true empathy, understanding where they’re at so you can help them grow.
MNBIZ: What led you to this idea?
MORTENSEN: I think every leader should practice servant leadership in some way to serve the people within their organization. Part of that is realizing that someone sitting in front of you with the greatest resume may not have the same type of personal skills or social goals in life that align with your organization. A lot of people make the mistake of hiring someone that may be great for the business, but not great for the culture.
MNBIZ: This seems to oppose the old business standard of only using your head and counting dollars, while leaving your heart at home.
MORTENSEN: Yes, as companies grow, they do get fiscally managed. The first thing that drops is that personal emphasis. A big differentiator for Anytime is that our number one stakeholder is our own staff. So when things get tough, we need to put more interest in those individuals rather than less.
MNBIZ: Any examples?
MORTENSEN: There’s a woman in our organization who has a big fear of heights. We brought her skydiving, and had her jump out of a plane to overcome fear. It’s one thing to have those fears, but another to understand that this is something people want to conquer. True EI is helping people overcome the barriers that they want to conquer, not necessarily the ones they don’t. I see fear as an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real.
MNBIZ: How did she do?
MORTENSEN: When we began the flight she started weeping and said, “Bring me down!” But just having a community of people around her helped. We said “Even if you don’t want to jump, at least stay in the plane.” When the time came she jumped. It was a huge feat for her to overcome that barrier.
MNBIZ: Has she repeated that or has she shown any acceptance of heights?
MORTENSEN: I don’t know if she’s repeated it, but she shares that story often. And when you can actually share a story of overcoming something in your own life, you’ll impact others who want to make a change in their life.
MNBIZ: Does this level of care extend to your franchisees?
MORTENSEN: Yes. A year ago, we visited one our franchisee’s stores, and had to deliver a tough message — the store was substandard to our brand. You see, consumers want to be proud of where they walk into, no matter if it’s in Iowa’s smallest town or in Tokyo, Japan. We took the time to really listen to him, and understand his performance. We had to have a little bit of empathy and really draw into his emotions. Then we explained why we needed him to step up. You need a little bit of EI to deliver a message like that.
MNBIZ: What happened?
MORTENSEN: This guy not only did a full remodel on his gym, he actually has delivered such an experience that we’ve received multiple accolades from his own consumers. Just recently he won a customer service award.
MNBIZ: How do you get that culture to be the norm across all your facilities?
MORTENSEN: We built a customer service standard called PLEASE. It is simple and actionable practice that we train with in our organization. Start by being Personable. Then Listen, which balances out EI with Empathy. Next, Anticipate the need for an individual to help them overcome the barriers in their life and show a Sense of urgency, to help them get there. And always, Encouragement.
MNBIZ: How does this play out?
MORTENSEN: If we can deliver that customer experience, we can approach the true concerns of the consumer, and it’s not just about gaining weight or losing weight or getting healthy. It’s about truly changing their life. How is this going to make them more productive in their daily life, be a better parent, be a better worker at their job, or the most important aspect of our lives — be happy?
MNBIZ: How do you create a good atmosphere?
MORTENSEN: There are a couple important key traits. One, you simply have to care. Two, you’ve got to be willing to be vulnerable — letting your guard down, because that enables people to grow.
MNBIZ: How would you advise others who want to have an emotionally intelligent workplace?
MORTENSEN: I think the biggest thing is to make it strategic. Make it a plan within your organization, and make a conscious effort to help deliver the experience for the people who serve the organization. Everybody talks about ROI, but we talk about ROEI — return on emotional investment. Most companies have strategy plans that don’t include the culture, the environment and the people in their organization. In every one of our annual strategy plans, a half of a percent of all our annual revenues goes toward the people inside this organization. That money is an investment toward changing the environment every day.
MNBIZ: Do you have anything else you want to say about EI?
MORTENSEN: You need to learn it, you need to practice it and you need to teach it. You can learn EI from a one-year old all the way up to a senior citizen. Because that’s really what EI is about: people.