GX SKILLS: Group X, Gen Y – Managing Millennial instructors

One of the major challenges faced by fitness managers is how to manage instructors from different generations, says group exercise manager Leisl Klaebe.

Nothing in the world of group fitness stays the same. Discussing how to stay relevant in this industry, Marietta Mehanni notes, ‘Your core beliefs may never change, but the way in which you deliver them will’ – and that sentiment can be extended to the way in which we manage our teams. We will always believe in delivering the best group training experience to our members and participants – but the way we manage instructors to achieve this will change. One of the major challenges faced by group fitness managers is how to manage instructors from different generations.

The way it was

As a budding group exercise instructor, you’d do your Certificate III and IV in Fitness, get your multiple program qualifications, set up your ABN, pay your fitness registration, get your insurance, do your First Aid and CPR and hit the boards looking for a job.

Once you are allocated your first permanent class you treat it like gold and try not to get it covered unless the world is ending. You arrive early for class to build relationships with your members so that your class numbers will grow, your class will be safe on the timetable and you may be lucky enough to be offered other classes. You take anything offered to you, even covering other classes when it’s really not convenient.

You work hard, you pay for everything yourself – training, upskilling, additional qualifications. You do not have job security, superannuation or holiday pay. You have no bonuses, no incentives. You buy shoes, workout gear, choreography and music at least once a quarter, if not more. You pay for yourself to attend workshops and courses, losing income on those occasions that you get your class covered, so that you can be the best you can be and continue to learn from the master trainers and your peers.

You work early mornings, late nights and weekends, six or seven-day weeks, for a number of years, until you are established enough to pick and choose your classes to some degree and find a little more work/life balance.

You do it because you are passionate, you love it, you are a people person and you want to make a difference to other people’s lives.

You are valued for your hard work, your consistency, your dedication, your passion, your commitment, your qualifications, your skillset, your experience, your member connection skills, and your teamwork. You are an asset to the business because you are on the front line, you are the face of the business and you have direct contact multiple times a week with hundreds of members. You are a role model for members. As such, you stay on top of your game, walk the talk, treat your body like a temple (mostly!) and eat well, sleep well, hydrate, train hard, stay fit and take good care of yourself so that tomorrow you can get up and do it all again.

As an industry, aren’t we always encouraging people to find work/life balance? Is it really unreasonable for Millennial instructors to ask for it too?

The way it is

Enter the Millennial generation, and the game has changed – who are these people?

Born roughly between 1980 and 2000, and also known as Gen Y, there are more of them than there were of the generations that preceded them – GenX’ers and Baby Boomers. It stands to reason, therefore, that every industry, fitness included, must find the most productive way to work with them.

Researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss called Millennials ‘the next great generation.’ They are considered to be the most studied and talked about generation and they are the first generation in history to have grown up totally immersed in a world of digital technology, which has shaped them and their attitudes.

They are often touted as self-absorbed, entitled, lazy and narcissistic, but research has also shown that they are highly educated, tech savvy, team orientated, entrepreneurial, adventurous, compassionate, liberal, confident, progressive, practical, authentic, open minded, multi-taskers and fast learners.

Millennials are a product of our current society, which bombards us with thousands of messages a day. They are an impatient generation who don’t want to stick at something if they don’t enjoy it. They don’t like restrictions. They expect to be constantly in touch wherever and whenever. They want to do whatever they need to do and they want to do it quickly and efficiently. Millennials want to be true to who they are and they want their employers to respect their individual differences. They want to make the world a better place. Most importantly, they are not interested in the way it was, as they see the cost as too high.

Of course, the Millennial Generation comprises millions of individuals, so these traits are generalisations, but they are based on research and do give us a snapshot of many great qualities that we can work with.

Expectations of new instructors

Millennials are challenging the status quo, forcing us as managers and leaders to think differently and work differently. This is no bad thing. A lot of good can come from it, in fact. Let’s look at this in the light of the fitness industry specifically, and the Millennials working within it.

Millennial instructors have what the previous generations might perceive as high expectations of how they want to work and live. They want class variety, higher pay rates, freedom to cover as often as needed, a bonus for staying on their class for longer than two months, incentives to work nights and weekends, free child care, free family gym memberships and rotation of instructors on classes so they don’t have to stay in one timeslot. Is it unreasonable for them to want variety and extra compensation for working at times that most ‘normal’ working people would be paid loading for? As an industry, aren’t we always encouraging people to find work/life balance? Is it really unreasonable for Millennial instructors to ask for it too?

In a LinkedIn post from late 2017, Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, expressed his thoughts on working with this generation:

‘It’s become fashionable to bash Millennials, for expecting to be gainfully employed after borrowing thousands of pounds for a university education, for daring to hope to enjoy their jobs, and for demanding better employee benefits’.

He went on to recount the incident of a small London theatre that had made headlines for posting a job advert targeting millennials. Frustrated to be posting the ad for the third time in as many months due to the ‘poor quality’ of applicants they had interviewed to date, the job posters wrote ‘Dear Millennials…’ before asking ‘Are you just not taught anything about existing in the real world?’

Branson’s take on this was that ‘Employers are simply failing to adapt to the needs of a new type of worker. We, as employers, are dealing with a more confident, and individualistic employee with a completely different set of skills.’

He then cited an interview with Simon Sinek in which the author and motivational speaker discussed Millennials in the workplace, and argued that ‘it’s up to employers to work extra hard to figure out how best to support this generation and pick up the slack from the failings of society and their parents. Help them overcome the need to have instant gratification and teach them the joys and impact and the fulfilment you get from working hard on something for a long time that cannot be done in a month or even in a year.’

‘When any employee feels their skills are not being utilised, or that they are not making a noticeable or real impact, you get resistance. This is not to be mistaken for arrogance, it’s ambition.’

‘The key to great leadership’ Branson concluded, ‘is to adapt to the needs of your whole workforce, across all age groups, and certainly not to write off an entire demographic. Your business will reap the rewards of a more engaged team.’

X + Y = success

The solution may lie in several business models and a rethink of everything we have held to be true over time. One thing I do know is that it is critical for us as managers and leaders to manage both our Millennial and non-Millennial instructors in the ways they like to be managed. If we try to manage them all in the same way, we risk devaluing one group. On the flipside, we can’t be seen to be treating one group in what may be deemed a ‘preferential manner’: that is, any benefits, flexibility and incentives need to be made available across the board.

Managing mixed generations, and the friction that this can sometimes bring, may be one of the greatest challenges of your role, but by managing each team member as an individual you can build a team that benefits from the best attributes of every generation.


Leisl Klaebe is the Group Exercise Manager at Virgin Active Norwest and has nearly 20 years’ experience in the health and fitness industry. She is the winner of the prestigious 2017 Virgin Star Award. Leisl is also a Group Exercise Consultant. She can be contacted at leislk@me.com