Katie Muehlenkamp of The Bar Method Brooklyn: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Constantly evaluate and re-evaluate how you can add the most value to your team. This will likely change over time. Adjust what you spend your time and energy on to accommodate the needs of the business and your personal happiness.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Muehlenkamp.
Katie Muehlenkamp was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and had a career in politics working in the nonprofit, private and public sectors in various capacities, including on John Kerry’s presidential campaign in Florida in 2004. She discovered The Bar Method in 2010 while living in San Francisco. Growing up as a competitive gymnast gave her a true appreciation for the unique combination of strength and grace, both of which she continues to develop as a student of The Bar Method. She became an instructor at the company’s flagship studio and then began working at the company’s headquarters office helping other owners open studios. In 2014 she moved back to Brooklyn with her husband and two children to bring The Bar Method to her hometown. She holds a BA from the University of Wisconsin — Madison and an MBA in Social Policy and Nonprofit Management from The Heller School at Brandeis University.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started taking Bar Method classes at the flagship studio in San Francisco in 2010. I loved it so much that I auditioned to become an instructor just six months later. I had just been laid off from a start-up and found out that the Bar Method corporate team was hiring a Franchise Development Coordinator. I applied for and got the job and spent the next couple of years helping Bar Method franchisees start their businesses. I loved helping women achieve their goals and being in an operations role. Prior to that, I had only worked in politics and issue-based nonprofits. I was so enamored with the Bar Method that the career transition felt right.
In 2013, I decided to open my open my own Bar Method franchise in Brooklyn, NY where I was born and raised. I moved to Brooklyn with my family and eventually opened two franchises there, both of which I still own and operate.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I underestimated how difficult it would be to navigate opening a brick and mortar business in New York City, even with my franchising experience. Not only does everything move slower than you want and expect it to, but problems arise that are out of your control. I learned the importance of keeping the ball moving in order to get my project off the ground. By problem-solving one step at a time, I’ve learned it just takes time to reach your goal. While its easy to become overwhelmed, it’s vital to keep your eye on the bigger picture and consistently work on solving all the little problems to help you succeed.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Carl Diehl, one of the founders of The Bar Method along with his then-wife Burr Leonard, was very helpful to me in my early years. I worked for him at the corporate office where he taught me best practices he had learned for opening and running his own studio. Burr was very focused on developing the Bar Method technique and Carl focused on the business side of things. He was passionate about helping women achieve their dreams of operating their own studios and was very open with his knowledge, sharing it with whomever would listen. He’s a kind soul and is very much responsible for the heart that defines The Bar Method, especially in its early years.
Another person who helped me was Hoddy Potter, a Bar Method studio owner in Kansas City, KS. We became friends as she was opening her first studio and she was The Bar Method’s most loyal evangelist. When I was in the process of opening my own studio, she would give me advice. Eventually, she became an investor, acting as a great sound board and one of my biggest cheerleaders. She was an amazing person and she passed away from cancer in 2018 at the age of 35. She was an integral part of my success and the brand’s success.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My vision was to create a thriving community of those who loved the Bar Method and felt empowered in-studio while taking classes. I’ve found it incredibly meaningful to not only take and teach Bar Method classes, but to become part of the studios’ communities. Before becoming an instructor, I loved feeling seen and welcomed by my former instructors. When I became one, I also loved the challenge of training and pushing myself to become better. I wanted to bring these experiences to other people.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
To no surprise, the Covid-19 pandemic was a very difficult time to operate fitness studios. We were closed for 13 months and I was forced to constantly pivot in order to keep the businesses going. There were so many changes during that time — health requirements and advice, government requirements and restrictions, where and how we taught classes, which employees were willing and able to work, and I had to communicate all of this to the staff. In the beginning, we never saw each other in person and even a couple of years later it was still rare. All communication was digital, which made it particularly important to get the messaging right. Despite my hard work, it was increasingly challenging to act encouraging about the situation we were in — realistic but optimistic, understanding and respectful of my team’s fears and concerns, but also intent on considering the needs of the business. It was definitely a balancing act and not everyone agreed with all the decisions I made. However, I made a genuine attempt to equally accommodate both my teams concerns and the needs of the businesses.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No, I never considered giving up. I went through phases where I was angry and resentful about the situation I was in. I was often overwhelmed and sad as well, but the studios are too close to my heart for me to give up on. Ultimately, this is what has sustained my drive over the years. In some ways my studios have become my children — I’ve created them, nurtured them, and constantly work on growing them. At the end of the day, they’ve become a reflection of who I am. So while I was often frustrated and unmotivated to keep going, I always knew I would hold on until there was nothing left. I constantly reminded myself there was a community of people who relied on my studios for their physical and mental well-being, so I wanted to continue providing a source for them. Plus, I still had start-up costs to pay off and my family’s financial future to keep in mind, so those were also huge factors to motivate me through the tough times.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
I’m a true believer in The E Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael E. Gerber. His philosophy that you must work on your business instead of in your business really resonates with me. As a small business owner, you wear many hats and there is much to do just to keep the day-to-day business going. It’s challenging to step away from it all and focus on the bigger picture and leading your organization. Several years ago, I realized my true value is not in being a service provider like my employees, but by leading the organization so my employees can be successful at their jobs. For me, that involves short-term and long-term planning, communication and helping to problem-solve.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think the most critical role of a leader in challenging times is to be the steward of the organization, looking after all its components. I try to think about my businesses as ecosystems and strive to keep each of the parts healthy to make up the whole. I think about how each part interacts with one another and how each is impacted by the change of another. I believe it’s my employees’ roles to do the specific jobs they were hired for well, while it’s the leader’s job to maintain a healthy and productive environment for them to do so.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I believe telling employees how important and meaningful they are to the organization is key. Each member of the team wants to feel valued and connected to something bigger than themselves. They need to know everything they do for the organization helps it succeed and their contributions are integral to a larger whole. It’s important to relay how their actions impact everyone else involved in the community — whether it’s other employees or clients. I think this sense of responsibility and accountability can help boost morale, even when things are uncertain.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I believe the best way to communicate difficult news is to be honest yet strategic. While it’s important to build and maintain trust within your team, it’s also important to think about what information is relevant to them and how it will impact their role as employees. I also believe it’s crucial to explain the reasoning behind your decisions and how you believe they will positively impact the organization. When communicating with the team, I always ask myself: How will my decisions impact each aspect of the organization? What do they need to know to be a productive member of the team? What’s the tone I want to convey and how is my language accomplishing that?
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I find it’s important to plan, but also to be willing to be flexible. I try to inoculate myself from potentially stressful situations by always having a manager that operates as my right-hand. I rely on them to take care of things on the day-to-day, but also try to hire and train more employees in advance of really needing them when I can. I do these things so I can safely sustain my role as a leader and not find myself in the weeds.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I’d say the “number one principle” is being willing to pivot in ways you never thought you would. I’d highly recommend being resourceful, thinking outside the box and keeping your head in the game. With that in mind, it’s also important to remember to go easy on yourself.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The first mistake I’ve seen from other businesses is making big decisions too quickly. While you have to be nimble, it’s sometimes better to let the situation play out a little longer. During the pandemic, a lot of businesses kept paying full rent without seeing how the pandemic and the real estate market would turn out. I saw many of those businesses close due to a lack of cash.
Another common mistake I’ve seen is not setting up a proper organizational structure. Having a designated team in place is essential to running businesses. If a business is too dependent on the personality of its leader, what happens when that person is no longer there? If you have high turnover of employees, how does a business sustain itself with all the change if there is no structure? By utilizing strong job descriptions, fair employee policies, and implementing customer policies, this should help mitigate potential organizational problems.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Constantly evaluate and re-evaluate how you can add the most value to your team. This will likely change over time. Adjust what you spend your time and energy on to accommodate the needs of the business and your personal happiness.
- Make difficult decisions and follow through on them, but do it with humility and grace.
- Try to understand how your decisions will be interpreted by employees and customers to anticipate their reactions (and maybe even alter your decisions based on this).
- Communicate with your team frequently and be honest yet strategic.
- Allow your interests and passions to change. Focus on what you do well and hire people to handle the other stuff.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Katie Muehlenkamp of The Bar Method Brooklyn: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.