Women in the fitness industry: Emma Lehner talks about management, responsibility and diversity
FIBO series: Women in leadership
"You have to be able to inspire people so that they can recognise the significance of the company goals for themselves and their own potential”
Emma Lehner is a pioneer in the fitness industry in many respects – as a company founder, as a woman, as a business leader, and as a visionary. For Emma, leadership, social responsibility, and advancing the fitness industry go hand in hand. Emma Lehner is the co-founder of EMS boutique studio chain Bodystreet. Bodystreet is the current holder of the Global Franchise Award and won the Best Franchise System award for 2016-17.
In 2007, Emma Lehner and her husband Matthias Lehner founded the world’s first purely EMS studio. This single studio has since grown to become 320 studios. The number of employees has gone from three to over 1,000, and they now have a presence on three continents and more than 40,000 members.
Emma Lehner's expertise extends throughout the world of professional sports and sports medicine. Lehner was formerly a professional athlete, and she was a member of the Tanzanian National Athletics Association. She also holds a spot in the global ‘100 Influential Women In Franchising’ list, and is a Senator in the ‘German Senate of Economy’. We spoke to her about women in the fitness industry, her personal management style, and the challenges currently facing the fitness industry.
FIBO: Please tell us your personal story: what inspired you to launch Bodystreet?
Emma Lehner:I came to Germany from Tanzania about 40 years ago. Sport is my passion, and I decided that I wanted to make it my job even after my career as a professional athlete was completed. I worked as a sports physiotherapist in a hospital for people who were seriously ill. It was an experience that made one thing clear to me: I wanted to work in prevention. I wanted to help prevent these ailments from ever occurring. That is how I ended up as a personal trainer in the fitness industry, and right from the start, it was my dream to someday open up my own fitness studio. In 2001, my husband and I took over a small, conventional fitness studio in the centre of Munich.
How did you go from a conventional fitness studio to a globally successful EMS franchise operation?
Lehner: Our focus has always been on service and on continuous support. Right from the start, we utilised a system of fixed appointments and intensive consultation. Even so, it goes without saying that we did not reach all the target groups we had hoped to. Then, while I was at FIBO in 2006, I found out about EMS technology that was entirely new to the fitness market. I was impressed straight away, because I had been familiar with this method from my time working in the hospital. In 2007 we began offering EMS training in a fashion boutique. The principle was clear: people could shop and then start training for their ideal dress size straight away. By helping them achieve their goals, providing them with personal support, and offering training that was not time-consuming, we were able to make satisfied customers out of the women who trained with us. These women began bringing their husbands and boyfriends into the studio, and we started growing, gaining ever more converts to the Bodystreet method and creating new Bodystreet fans.
In 2009 we decided to begin franchising our concept, and this has allowed us to open up a path into the industry for quite a lot of people. Our vision was transformed into a fitness movement. Our micro-studio model became its own category in the marketplace.
You are responsible or some 1,000 people worldwide. What is your definition of good management?
Lehner: I see myself as a sort of team coach. The focus is on the individual, and each individual must be able to grow. Ideally you are not working ‘for’ someone, but are actually part of the company yourself. That is when the ‘big impact’ occurs.
A good manager has to be able to inspire people with their ideas. It is all about passion and the ability to exert a positive influence. A good manager is a type of influencer. Naturally you must yourself be deeply convinced of your own vision, and you have to be able to communicate it. Management is not a sprint – it is a marathon. Management is a long-term sustainable strategy that has a great deal to do with your own abilities and your own character.
Where do your values come from?
Lehner: For me, management has a lot to do with sport. What are the characteristics that distinguish top athletes? Discipline, authenticity, perseverance, resilience, teamwork, determination, helpfulness, fairness, responsibility, self-discipline, and an ability to take criticism. A manager should see themselves as a role model and mentor. Trust is also very important. Let’s take working at home, for example. This is a topic that has really caused a lot of trouble for many employers during the coronavirus crisis. Why is this? Because of a lack of trust.
Women are under-represented in management and leadership positions in numerous industries. How can women find their place in the fitness industry?
Lehner:Mindset plays a decisive role. Many people still believe the idea that ‘it’s a man’s world.’ As a result, numerous women simply do not see themselves in management positions, while men are of the opinion that they belong in these roles. Women need to become more confident. We need to leverage the strengths of our gender. We should not attempt to do too many things at once – it is important to focus on one thing to reach our personal goal. And naturally it is important to pursue professional development and broaden our management skills.
But it is not possible for women to change everything on their own.
Lehner: No, it is not. It is not only the right mindset that is important, but also the right social and political conditions. This includes the ability to re-enter the workforce after taking parental leave, as well as support for women entrepreneurs. There are huge opportunities available for women today, as well as excellent role models in the political and business words – including the fitness industry. Examples include Silke Frank, Jennifer Halsall-de Wit and Emma Barry. Unfortunately, however, there are still not enough women creating new businesses in the fitness sector.
How important are networks for women?
Lehner: I think networks play a key role. Bringing together different personalities can be very fruitful. These encounters allow people to learn from one another, and this offers each party tangible benefits. Companies should encourage this – and not just at the executive level. At Bodystreet, employees not only have the chance to get to know one another in various gatherings, but can also come into contact with our partners. This is a key component of making people and companies fit for the future.
How can we achieve greater gender, ethnic and cultural diversity in the fitness industry – even outside the management level?
Lehner: We have to accept globalisation. Big things can be achieved when people from different cultures get together. Broad-based expertise drives corporate growth. Bringing diversity to life will be even more important to the fitness industry in future. Obviously it is not always easy to avoid preconceptions, but we must embrace diversity and be open to everyone. Doing so will help us to create a better future.
In your opinion, how closely is management responsibility tied to social responsibility?
Lehner: All three pillars of sustainability must be firmly anchored in each company’s agenda. This also pays economic dividends, because it makes companies attractive employers for the young generation in particular. We can impact people’s living conditions and opportunities on many levels. This is something we care a great deal about at Bodystreet, so it goes without saying that we pay attention to what our suppliers do here. How do they produce their products? What are their working conditions?
The orientation is staff is also part of the process – this includes occupational health management, equal opportunity and diversity. It is also important to us that we train our employees and offer them professional opportunities. With our ‘Second Generation’ project, we are striving to develop the managers and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.
Does the fitness industry have a special role to play when it comes to social responsibility?
Lehner:We should not always wait until people are ill to act. Instead, we have to take preventive action, especially for young people. Our ‘Bodystreet Kids Foundation’ goes into schools to do sports with children and talk to them about healthy nutrition. More and more children are suffering from the ‘diseases of civilisation’, including obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. We teach children how to take responsibility for themselves. The fitness industry as a whole could accomplish so much here.
As the coronavirus crisis recedes, a lot of people are talking about the industry’s future. How do you see it unfolding?
Lehner: Many industries will be experiencing changes, because consumer behaviour has changed. The focus will be on three areas: home training, health, and digital fitness. Most of our customers are not professional athletes. They are looking for an experience. Hybrid models and outdoor offerings will be increasingly important. Gaining new members is going to become a bit easier for us, because people want to take preventive action. Sustainable products and services are also going to become more important.
The coronavirus pandemic has made us more conscious of our health. How can the fitness industry take advantage of this?
Lehner: We have a huge opportunity here. Clearly we must first get through the crisis. Companies have to react flexibly, and they have to be adaptable. People need structured change management, agility, process optimisation, and employee coaching. People have to be creative – they have to introduce innovations and implement measures to improve health. Everything has to be thought through strategically. We also have to take advantage of digitalisation. We need to offer a more comprehensive range of services than in the past. We should also be giving our members tips on how to lead a healthy life outside the fitness studio.
Together, we can leverage this crisis to achieve positive changes throughout the industry, raising the health and performance of society to a whole new level. That is something we can be proud of. We will succeed in showing more people the benefits of an active lifestyle.
Network for women in fitness: The Women in Fitness Association (WIFA) is a network that brings together women from throughout the fitness industry to share inspirations, create synergies, and establish valuable relationships. A WIFA membership offers you the chance to come into contact with influential and ambitious women from around the world, to learn from them, and to share your knowledge and experience with the network. More information is available here: www.wifa.org/wifade