Sophie Lawler was appointed as the new CEO of Total Fitness in June 2018, following nearly 20 years’ experience in the fitness industry.
Sophie is the first female CEO in the UK’s commercial sector, as well as being one of the youngest, and has helped to reverse a steady decline in membership across the brand whilst boosting member and employee satisfaction. This appointment gave Sophie the opportunity to transform a troubled organisation and unlock its huge potential.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I’m Sophie Lawler, and I’m the CEO of Total Fitness – the leading mid-market health club in the North of England and Wales.
I’ve had the pleasure of working for a number of leading fitness companies in my time. I first entered the professional world of fitness in the early 2000s when I joined Total Fitness working as an instructor and membership consultant to help fund my MA studies in Politics.
Less than 10 years ago, I took my first senior management role as Head of Central Operations at Fitness First, where I led a major operational restructure of the UK business, creating a platform for the subsequent turnaround (and sale) of that business. Following that, aged 34, I was appointed as Director of Strategy and Programming to the UK Board that had been tasked with turning the business around, before being appointed as Global Director to support the business’ transformations and subsequent transactions internationally.
Following a long and colourful career at Fitness First I’m now busy driving the turnaround at our 17 Total Fitness’ health clubs, through people-power. Working closely with the team we’ve spent the last year instilling a strong philosophy of all-level leadership into the business that focuses on authenticity, courage and ownership and the impact it’s had across the organisation has been phenomenal.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
In a word – no. I find the idea of planning too rigidly a challenge – life throws you hand grenades and you need to roll with it to some degree. What I did know when I was starting out was that I wanted to do something with exceptional purpose; but at that time I wasn’t sure what field I would end up in. I fell into the fitness industry after training as a fitness coach in order to fund my Masters degree (in Politics?!) and found it to be exceptionally purposeful. I loved being in an environment that focuses on being better every day, and every day I found myself wanting to grow and achieve. I still feel that way today and will always keep learning.
Just before joining Total Fitness as CEO I had been looking for ‘number two’ positions that would allow me to implement a business turnaround strategy. I heard on the grapevine that the CEO position at Total Fitness was open and after encouragement from peers and friends I picked up phone and asked for the job – and here I am.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
Of course. I specialise in business turnarounds and they’re always challenging because it’s not just about short term fixes by driving financial performance… sustainable performance turnaround means bringing people on a journey with you when the future isn’t clear, and that can be difficult. It’s the harder way to turn a business, but it’s better for everyone – the business (it’s more sustainable), the team (it’s more enjoyable and empowering), and most importantly our members.
A personal challenge I’ve had was learning to navigate the world of private equity with raging imposter syndrome. I battled with this for some time… I remember receiving a salary increase that brought me onto the same pay grade as the other directors and suddenly being very aware that there was a number on my head against which I had to deliver. I felt I had to prove that I was worth that number and it drove even more relentless energy and insecurity into my life at work. What I couldn’t see was that the rise was a reflection of the value I already brought to the table. I was already worth the investment and my voice was valid.
On a more personal note, breaking up with my husband while working in a high-performance and very pacey culture was a definite challenge. I was in the middle of a transaction process and there just wasn’t any opportunity to step off and deal with personal issues. I had to make that work and keep going and with hindsight this was at the expense of my overall wellbeing. That said, I’m pleased to say that today I’m really proud of the amicable relationship I have with my ex-husband and his new wife. We make a great team.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Becoming the first female CEO within the UK’s commercial sector was a huge achievement for me and something I’m very proud of. Since I’ve held the position we’ve made some brilliant progress. The team now own the shared challenge, are engaged with the business, and employees are staying longer – leavers have reduced by 35%. We’ve already been able to unleash the business’ true potential and reverse a steady membership decline with a total membership growth of 8,000 in 2019 to date. The transformation has also prompted a dramatic rise in member satisfaction, with a 28% increase in the Total Fitness’ net promoter scores (NPS).
For me, this shows the power of a ‘people-powered’ organisation and it’s been affirming for me to completely own the transformation, demonstrating that an authentic approach really is the key – character is more important than strategy every time.
My biggest personal achievement though has to be challenging myself to recognise that I was more than just ‘number two material’ and summoning the courage to pick up the phone to ask for the CEO job at Total Fitness, which I thought was out of reach. Since creating that opportunity for myself I’ve been able to build a resilient team and create a compelling purpose for the business and I couldn’t be prouder.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
You can’t do anything on your own – I believe that as a leader you only ever stand on the shoulders of giants – so I’ve surrounded myself with great people. I’ve built a network of trusted peers that question me and compel me to push harder and be better, so I attribute my success to them. The General Managers at Total Fitness in particular do a fantastic job – owning the topline performance enables me to do my job – creating the leadership culture and building the value strategy. I’ll always be very grateful to them and I think acknowledging gratitude and showing appreciation verbally is key to success in business.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
Mentoring is important and comes with great responsibility; I have been mentored in the past and have been asked about becoming a mentor but I don’t currently mentor anyone one-on-one. I do however believe that leaders need to be coaches and so some level of mentoring is just part of your job. I deliver an immersive three-day leadership programme at Total Fitness to all levels of the business – be they senior management, general management, club heads of department, maintenance engineers, or cleaning attendants. The programme is delivered to a maximum of eight people at any one time, so the sessions are intense, personal, and focus on developing the person, rather than the work they deliver.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?
Honestly, I believe the best thing we can do to accelerate gender parity is to stop talking about it and get on with it. Secondary to that, I think generating a culture of inclusion and personal development rather than job development will help immensely – I find women in particular respond very well to personal development – I like to ask them; “What are you assuming here?”, or, “What’s stopping you? Is it fear?”. The problem isn’t gender diversity, it’s leadership culture. Get that right, and the right level of diversity for your business will come.
I got the CEO job because I am absolutely the best person for it – my gender didn’t even enter into it – and yes, we have a 50/50 gender pay split here at Total Fitness.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
‘Less pride, more humility.’ If you’re too proud you can’t listen well and you can’t learn well. I think if I’d been less proud and defensive in my early career I could have learned a lot more.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
I’m in the thick of Total Fitness’ turnaround at the moment. We’re busy preparing the base business for growth and raising capital against that plan. There’s plenty to keep me busy for the time being. In 10 years’ time, having hopefully completed a good number of turnarounds, I want to take a step back to develop my skillset in influencing further by taking on more non-exec roles. Everyone likes problem solving for others but being a non-exec you can’t do that – you’re there to ask the right questions, manage stakeholders and coach others. Working in that capacity would test my fallback position of just getting on and doing stuff. That would be a personal development point for me, but for the time being I’m focusing all of my energy on taking Total Fitness above and beyond.