As I transition out of my full-time role after over 17 years with Life Time, the Healthy Way of Life Company, I find myself reflecting on the incredible journey I’ve had.
To honor my experience with this amazing company and the people who make it what it is, I’ve decided to share the whole story (well, the nutshell version, anyway).
How does an group fitness instructor(known back then as an “aerobics instructor”) from DC who was initially told at the age of 18 that she “didn’t have what it takes” to even teach a class somehow make her way to the top position for the group fitness department at the number 1 healthy way of life company in the world?
It all started in 1999…
At age 26, I applied to be a full-time trainer and group fitness instructor at the Life Time Fitness @ the Easton Town Center in Columbus, OH. I had moved from the DC area, where I was born and raised, to OH one year earlier to be close to my mom after she had a heart attack. I remember my brother, Brian, had to tell me 3 times it was indeed a health club that had just opened and was looking for fitness professionals because the water slide and rock climbing wall threw me way off.
I was hired and the journey of a lifetime(no pun intended) began. I started training clients, teaching classes and falling in love with this new company my brother had found had found for me. Within 3 months, I stepped into the role of assistant group fitness department head, under the leadership of the amazing Crystal Kirk – one of my greatest mentors and dearest friends to this day. Crystal was the first to hire me at Life Time. She’s the one who opened the door for my journey to begin. I learned so much from this incredible woman…not just about being a good manager; but about being an authentic human being. To this day, Crystal is one of those friends with whom I can just pick things back up as if we’ve been talking every day, even if it’s been months. What a blessing.
A few months after I started, Crystal decided she wanted to be part-time to have more time with her kids, so we literally “swapped” roles and I became the group fitness department head, supporting a fabulous team – the 38 best instructors in all of Columbus, OH. While I was still in Columbus, I began traveling across the US, presenting at various fitness conferences. I was living what felt like a dream come true – I was passionate about helping people, passionate about supporting an amazing team and so passionate about training and educating. My cup was full and, even though I easily worked 60-70 hours/week, I never seemed to run out of energy.
After being at the Columbus location for ~6 years, I transferred to Dallas, TX for one year to both open our Flower Mound location as the group fitness department head and to support that market as a regional training specialist. After almost a year in that role, I was asked to join the national training team. My first project was to create our signature step class. This is when I really began to make my way around the country, visiting various club locations and witnessing first hand the level of passion and talent our instructors and managers had within them.
It was in 2006, our founder and CEO, Bahram Akradi asked me to step into the role of director of group fitness (well, he actually told me I was going to do so). Believe it or not, I said ‘no’ at first. It was a huge undertaking and responsibility that, quite frankly, scared me to death! I doubted my ability to be able to step into the role and do it justice…to be able to support the instructors and managers in the field in the way they deserved to be supported. But, luckily, Bahram saw something in me I didn’t quite see in myself. He said things like, “commit to taking on this role for just one year and you’ll be able to do whatever you want in this industry.” And, what finally got me was – “Kimberly, you’ve been working for me for almost 7 years, climbing a mountain with all the work you’ve done. You now have an opportunity to stick a flag in the top of that mountain…to really make a difference. How could you turn back now?” As you can see, this is a man who can sell ice to an eskimo. I agreed to take on the director role and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It wasn’t without challenges and even all-out battles…but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
In my almost 10 years as director, we accomplished a great deal as a team. We implemented the 5 Star Development Training and EMPOWER! events to ensure we were invested in the development of our greatest resource – our team. We launched additional signature programs as well as LifePower Yoga. We began and built a national training team and implemented the exclusive instructor program(ELI). We formed great partnerships that uplifted the brand. We grand opened dozens of clubs filled with bright, enthusiastic talent.
To have the opportunities like the ones I’ve had with Life Time are literally “once in a lifetime”. I do not take this for granted…not even for a moment. These were some of the best years of my life and I will never forget all that I experienced and all that I learned. I find myself completely filled, even overflowing with gratitude.
So, to all of the amazing and incredibly talented instructors, teachers, studio managers, and area leads – THANK YOU for being the reason I jumped out of bed with a smile on my face and passion in my heart for over a decade. You inspire and change lives every single day. I have so much love and respect for you all. And I will always be grateful that I had the opportunity to serve you.
To all of the hard-working support groups at the corporate office, from IT and HR to marketing and PR; from media and legal to all the incredible administrative assistants; from customer service to construction and real estate. The list goes on and every human being at that corporate office needs to know the important role they play in the success of the most amazing healthy way of life company on the planet. Thank you all for helping me – I couldn’t have done my job without you.
Beyond the heartfelt appreciation I feel for the above groups, there are a handful of special people in particular that I’d like to honor because they were each so very impactful as a part of my journey at Life Time and I appreciate them all so very much. In order of “appearance”(to the best of my ability) on my Life Time path…
Jayme Zylstra(Sr. Education Specialist): You were the first director of group fitness for Life Time. I remember meeting you for the first time in Columbus, OH when I was the group fitness department head. You saw something in me that I only hoped I could one day see in myself. You gave me my first opportunity to become a master trainer and present at an industry conference. You helped me have a platform to bring to life my passion for educating. I always looked up to you and will always carry so much appreciation in my heart for you and your willingness to support me in those early years.
Pat Regan(VP of Purchasing): You were the first person who showed me kindness when I moved to Minneapolis in 2006. You were my first friend at the corporate office. I’ll never forget that 5k where we ran/walked together, every step of the way. For all the years since, as we meet in conference rooms or hallways, it would be with a smile and a hug. You helped me navigate some pretty tough waters throughout my journey and I thank you for that. Your kindness made such an impact on me. I will love you forever, my friend.
Angela Hayes(Event Manager, EMPOWER!): From the moment I stepped into the director role, you were pretty determined to hate me…mainly because my stepping in was a change that made you feel uncertain. It’s kind of funny to look back on that considering we’re the best of friends now. You were the original national operations manager, back before it was even a full-time role. We’ve always teased how, in our time working together, you “toughened me up” and I “soften you”. What a great partnership. When you fell in love, moved away and had to step out of your corporate role, I was so sad to lose that connection…and your amazing abilities and strengths. That’s why, when we started EMPOWER! and needed to build a team to support it, you were the first person I called. I knew, with you on the team, we stood a much greater chance of success. It has been amazing! Thank you for standing by my side, unconditionally, to this day. You are one of a kind and I can’t imagine this journey without you!
Emily Booth(Program Manager, EDG Cycle): Em, we have been through so much together. It’s hard to believe it was over a decade ago that we were paired up to the “change the world of group fitness” as we knew it. Who would have though that the word “change” would have been so real for our journey together? So much change. But you always worked through it with passion in your heart and ALWAYS a desire to do the right thing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone work harder or CARE more than you do. You have so much talent oozing throughout you – you can do anything you set your mind to. I hope you always remember that and never let any walls hold you back. You will always hold a very special place in my heart.
Jen Ryan aka Jennifer Ryan Corkran: Oh Jen, it would take an entirely separate piece and more words than the dictionary has to offer to be able to express how much your partnership and friendship has meant to me over the years. After I moved to Minneapolis, I was traveling around the market, taking department head’s classes and I took your Mixx one Saturday at the Eagan club, just to get to know you a bit. We met in the cafe after for a chat and I was immediately amazed by your insight, your intelligence, your humor and your passion for Life Time. Then, as I got to know you better, I learned that you had the ability to accomplish in 10 hours what would take most people 40. Soon after that, based on your skill, intelligence and ability, I asked you to be come my first full-time national operations manager. Now you manager team member relations – how perfect. The people we’ve served in the field could not be more blessed to have you in their corner for all these years. I am blessed to continue to have your friendship in my life.
Mark Thom(former VP of the Fitness Division): MT, I learned so much from you about running a business. You helped me understand necessary things like “KPI’s”, “P&L’s” and “EBITDA”. You challenged me to think through every plan thoroughly, ensuring I had my “I’s” dotted and “T’s” crossed. I’m pretty sure my IQ went up at least 10 points just from the few years I worked with you. I really appreciate how we were able to be so different and yet somehow meet in the middle with a mutual respect and professionalism. Oh, and thank you for not letting me quit when BA laid into me in the Chanhassen cafe that day. Whew, my journey would have ended that day if not for your ability to stay calm and help me process. You’re the best!
The GF Brand Managers – Kaycee Dunfield, Katie Haggerty, Donna Thomas & Abrea Wooten: Where to even begin with you talented group of Rock Stars. There’s no team of people on the planet more passionate about education, growth & lifting people up. The signature programs at Life Time would not be where they are today if not for your boundless hard work and passion. It was an honor to build this team. It was an honor to support you as you supported the field. It was an honor to bear witness to each of your strengths and abilities – all so different yet all so phenomenal. You each continue to evolve your role but I can say that, no matter what role you serve in, Life Time is so incredibly lucky to have you! You will always be family to me. I love you all from the bottom of my heart!
Tory Schaefer(Operations Manager, LifePower Yoga): Had you known when I took you for tea back in 2011 how intense this journey would be, I sometimes wonder of you still would have said yes. All I know is that I’m so glad you did. I never could have launched LifePower Yoga without you. You’re love and passion for yoga as well as your insight on behalf of the students and teachers are second to none. You live your life from your heart and it is an honor to have worked with you. You’re like family to me and I can’t tell you how much I will always appreciate that you took a leap of faith with me so many years ago. LifePower and Life Time is better because you agreed to be a part of it.
Tom Manella(VP of Personal Training): My “my brother from another mother”. You were a friend and confidant as we navigated through our director roles, side by side, sharing challenges and best practices; supporting each other along the way…while managing to keep things light. You are so wicked smart and amazing at what you do and yet, oh how you’ve made me laugh on some of the toughest days. I thank you for that. Your friendship and humor in the office made even the most challenging times doable. But I will never go to a Timberwolves game with you guys ever again. 🙂 Thank you.
Jeff Zwiefel(COO): JZ, you were my first “boss” at the corporate office over 12 years ago. I remember going into my new director role with such a deep level of respect for you…which has only grown over the years we’ve worked together. You taught me the importance of putting those who work in the clubs first to ensure the best possible member experience. You taught me how important it was, to the best of my ability, to be “one step ahead” so we could best provide the support and resources needed to the front line staff. You’ve been one of my greatest mentors. I thank you for remembering, even when I was being the biggest pain in your @$%, that my heart was in the right place and I always just wanted to do the right thing for those I was tasked to serve. And I thank you so much for being willing to laugh…at us and at yourself. We love you not only because you bleed Life Time; but also because you’re so down-to-earth and real. I’ve learned authenticity goes a long way in this world.
Bahram Akradi(Founder & CEO): Last but certainly not least…BA, you’ve been both a mentor and, quite honestly, like a brother to me for many years. In 2006, you saw something in me. You saw an ability for me to be a leader. Then, you taught me that, as a leader, it was okay to make mistakes, because it meant I was making decisions and taking action…and “a leader has to take action”. From you, I learned how incredibly important it was in business to communicate openly and show respect to absolutely everyone, regardless of any interpersonal issues we may have or how we may be wronged along the way…because it’s about the greater vision and mission. You taught me how to lead from the heart. You even taught me it was okay to end a meeting or conference call with the words, “I love you”. And it never felt strange coming from you because we all know how much you love each and every one of us – from the executive team all the way to the in-club instructor teaching just two hours a week. And now, I can’t imagine not letting a team I work with know that I love them….because I really do. I’ll also never forget how you supported me when I lost my brother in 2007. It helped me come out of a very dark tunnel. All said and done, I just have to thank you for having a bold dream called “Life Time Fitness”. Thank you for going up against the odds to make that dream become a reality. Thank you for giving thousands of people opportunities to make a positive difference in this world. Thank you most of all for leading with love – it impacted me more than you will ever know.
That’s a snapshot of my journey – truly an experience of a lifetime…an experience of Life Time. It hasn’t always been easy, that’s for sure. There have been many battles along the way…many with yelling, cursing and of course, tears. But here have been many victories and moments to celebrate as well. And that we get to make a positive impact on this world with what we do makes it all worthwhile.
I have tremendous gratitude and love for this phenomenal company and brand. I just got to the point that I felt I had done all I could do at the corporate level and now I will continue to proudly serve the vision and mission to the best of my ability as a teacher at our Laguna Niguel location.
Onward and forward I will go, following my heart’s desire to build something new for our industry. I will take all of the experiences and lessons learned from the past 25 years with me. I will do my very best to be worthy of serving an industry and people I adore.
I know that my desire to “make a difference” and help others live an “inspired life” will guide my every step. I look forward to what the next chapter brings.