Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Fitness Conference – Professional Impressions

My second goal for the fitness conference was to evaluate the potential of a career transition back into the fitness industry. A little background information is needed in order for my lessons learned to be relevant.

While in college, I worked half time as a personal trainer. I really enjoyed the work and learned as much from the people at the local Y as I did from earning my degree in computer science. Upon graduation, I evaluated the option of working full time as a trainer, but positions using my degree offered a premium of 20k per year.

Considering my student loans and the half life of a technical degree, I went for the money and started working full time the week of my final exams. I found the job on a flier in the computer science department – it was one of two I applied for. My entire job search had about 20 hours of effort invested in it.

Fast forward 5 years. I threw myself full bore into the position, advancing from a software tester to an accomplished technical project manager. Every year brought additional responsibility and pay, which I gladly accepted. My student loans evaporated, my salary doubled, I moved into a nice home, and I was able to save thousands every month. From the outside it seemed ideal.

Eventually, however, the constant change that comes with working on a fast track in a small company began to dry up. As my skills matured and I became very good at delivering projects, I found myself wedged in a niche. I spent a year doing the same tasks better and better, watching for further opportunities in the company. Lacking the foundational perspective that comes with a serious job search, I gradually became very unhappy with my work.

In December of 2008, after a year of trying to find satisfaction from my current job with no success, I resigned. With plenty of savings and limited expenses, I could no longer justify fighting down the same frustrating path. Thankfully, I had enough sense to be grateful for the opportunities that had been afforded me and invested the next two months closing out responsibilities with my employer. February 1st, 2008, I was officially unemployed. It felt like graduating college all over again.

Confident in my abilities but unsure of my needs, I applied for a few random positions and picked up a little consulting work. I also registered for the fitness conference. Within two weeks my expenses were largely covered, but I still lacked any real direction. February and March were spent eating out, doing continuing education to renew my ACSM cert, and voraciously researching how to find career satisfaction.

I uncovered quite a few insights during this period, gradually replacing the employment ideals of a student with the learned perspective of an experienced professional. Filling the gaps left by skipping foundational career research as a graduate rapidly shifted my perspective. By April I was anxious to resume full time work and confident in my ability to enjoy it. With the fitness conference on the horizon, I kept my head down and remained focused on the personal development that should have happened years ago.

Career Transition
On April 18th, I entered the fitness conference carrying all this on my mind. Within a few presentations, it became evident a career transition was not my answer. While fitness has held my interest for years, the gap between an enthusiast and an educated professional is dramatic. Certification indicates an interest to learn and is not a credential of authority.  I learn quickly and felt this was something I could overcome.

More troubling was the stark contrast between my low key analytical personality and the extroverts filling the conference center. While a complex problem unravels before me, rapidly building rapport with others is something I have always struggled with. Time has developed my ability to do so, but an intense period of meeting new people drains me. The irrationality of pursuing a career founded on daily self promotion quickly became clear. My fundamental personality is not going to change.

Convinced I was no longer at the conference to build a new career, I realigned my focus on the opportunity to observe leaders in their chosen profession. The great thing about a field founded upon self promotion is those who excel are stellar communicators. Each presentation brought professional insights that paralleled my experiences as a project manager and in many cases solidified information I ascertained from my career research. The most important points follow:

Lessons Learned
1. Personal presentation is a huge portion of success in any field, even one that provides the option for “working in our pajamas”, as one presenter put it. I was shocked to see fitness business guru Thomas Plummer suggest trainers should be conservatively dressed. He criticized the reality that trainers have more workout clothes than dress clothes, offering that a collared shirt demonstrates commitment to excellence as a leader, even in the athletic arena.

2. In an industry focused on teaching others to balance pursuit of excellence with proactive attention to physical and mental health, I expected an emphasis on maximizing a forty hour work week. Instead, I found myself listening to individuals who were clearly working 50+ hours a week and had been doing so for years. The time management lessons from Stephen Covey were prevalent. While the need for work / life balance was acknowledged, the demonstrated answer was one of integration, not segregation.

3. Mastery over a topic is not enough to produce an engaging public presentation. It must be targeted to the skill level of the audience and honed until it appears conversational in nature. Gray Cook did this so well, I went to his repeat presentation to hear him speak again. Much to my surprise, the “spontaneous” jokes and analogies he used to drive home the key points were identical in both lectures. Even his hands-on session was carefully crafted to manage the dynamic of teaching a large group, all the way down to telling people when NOT to stand up, avoiding the loss of instruction time to movement.

4. Regarding public speaking, the more experienced a presenter, the fewer and less complex the points they tried to make. Mark Verstegen’s entire talk could be summed up into “Simple things done savagely well”. Eric Cressey covered ten times the information, and I am still not sure what I learned from him. This is a lesson on communication I hope stays with me for a lifetime.

5. The importance of ongoing mentoring and professional network development was an extremely prevalent theme. Most acknowledged the majority of their ideas were “stolen” from others and emphasized the need to travel and learn from the best in their field. The abundance mentality was extremely strong, with an emphasis on developing niche expertise and referring clients to other experts for help outside that niche. Every presenter expressed sincere gratitude towards Perform Better, the attendees, and each other.

6. Effective business development relies upon nurturing a team culture with shared core values. Professionals who excel recognize this and promote the team culture ahead of their own interest. A good leader builds value development into the structure of their team, starting with the hiring process. Several speakers demonstrated commitment to an ongoing search for team members sharing their core values, even offering attendees the opportunity to apply for mentoring or employment.

7. Every single speaker who offered an opportunity had a built in screening process in place – they instructed prospects to contact a specific individual at their organization, not the speaker. Often the contact person was actually present at the conference, watching the lecture and standing by to help as needed. This was an excellent demonstration of the filtering that takes place to find team players, as well as the trust that can be delegated upon building a team culture based on shared values.

While I enjoy fitness, a career in the industry is not right for me. I left the conference with a strong reminder of attributes shared by professionals across all fields. The lessons learned remain with me and add structure to the framework upon which my career will evolve. I am very happy with the investment and will attend future conferences in my chosen field.