How to Stay True to Your Mission as You Grow Your Empire
SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan says that its customers, not numbers on a screen, that will most help you stay the course.
Editor’s Note: Inspire Me is a series in which entrepreneurs and leaders share what motivates them through good times and bad, while also sharing stories of how they overcame challenges in hopes of inspiring others.
When Melanie Whelan joined SoulCycle as the company’s chief operating officer in 2012, the popular fitness brand had only eight studios. But over the course of three years -- using her past experience at Virgin and Equinox – she helped grow the business from a handful of locations in New York City to 50 in seven markets around the country.
In 2015, she stepped into the role of CEO. Under her leadership, the company continued to expand, recently opening its 90th studio.
But as proud as she is of what she and her team have accomplished, sometimes the demands of being the CEO take her away from what motivates her the most.
“I think the hardest part is not being in the studios every day because it's such an inspirational place to be,” Whelan told Entrepreneur. “We say you learn more at the front desk in 30 minutes than you do looking at it at a spreadsheet or presentation all day in the office.”
When Whelan starts to feel overwhelmed and discouraged, she says that stepping back into the studios and interacting with the riders and her staff keep her feeling like she can tackle anything that is thrown at her.
Whelan shared her insights about how to make sure everyone is invested in the company’s long-term goals.
What was the last major challenge you had and how did you motivate yourself to tackle it?
Opening in Canada for us was a big moment for the business. We were opening a in not just a new market, but a new country.
We were challenging ourselves to think differently about the customer experience and what needed to be culturally evolved by moving outside the United States versus what we needed to stay true from a brand and experience perspective. It forced us to ask a lot of questions around how we wanted to evolve as we grow.
In a high growth business, you have a group of people who are part of your heritage and then a group of people who have come onboard with dreams of the future. It’s important to make sure that you foster dialogue and connectivity between [those two groups] to get to the right answer. It can be a challenge, and I think it's a big part of my role.
What is a specific lesson from an early boss or mentor that inspires you today?
My whole career was in business development and my responsibility was building business plans and building management teams to go after opportunity. At Virgin my mentor at the time said, “When you build a culture and mission-based business, every person really matters and make sure that every person on the leadership team is enrolled in the mission and the purpose of what you're trying to accomplish is so important.”
At the [time] I didn't really fully comprehend how important that is and how hard that can be when you're talking about a geographically distributed workforce and diversity of background and experience. Having a single song sheet from which everyone is singing and making sure that everyone is enrolled in where you're going is so important and that's one thing that was instilled in me a long time ago.
Who is a woman that inspires you?
My mother. She instilled in me the power of possibility and belief in yourself. She always would say, “If you want something done give it to a busy person because that person has figured out how to multitask and get it all done.”
As a working mother of two kids, the plate can be very full, but there's always an extra five minutes in the day to return a phone call, answer a question or to write a thank-you note.
What do you do to motivate and inspire your team?
My role is to make sure my team is clear on the purpose and the mission of where we're going as a business. But in terms of how to motivate them, I think you hire great people, get out of their way and let them do their thing. And when the going gets rough, just get back to that purpose and make sure you stay on that true north. For us, we've got two studios connected to our headquarters in New York, and there is a class pretty much every hour. You can always get right back to that purpose. I always say, “Put it on the handlebars and the answer is going to be there.”
For those women who are looking to start a business or take a new leadership role, but are feeling discouraged, what advice do you have for them?
Start with listening and understanding the challenge, the problem, the role and the elements that go into it. Understanding both internally what is happening and externally what the factors are either working against or for you, and then trying to be as objective as possible with your conclusions and your priorities based on everything that you've learned from listening.
So often, especially for younger team members, when they're given a new role, they're so eager to prove themselves and to accomplish something in a short period of time. Often, the best accomplishment can be understanding the opportunity and articulating where you see you can add the most value and making that as objective as possible, whether it's with numbers, facts or research. By listening first and by fact gathering, you're enrolling people in your success because they feel like they have co-authored what it is that you're setting out to accomplish.
Nina Zipkin is a staff writer at Entrepreneur.com. She frequently covers leadership, media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.