As our team took to Pan Ams in Florida and traveled for Spring Break, our latest Easton Team Virtual All-Hands Meeting brought us a surprise episode with special guests, Peter Straub, GM of Centennial, and Ian Lieberman, Director of General Managers.
Easton strives to be as transparent as possible in all aspects of our business, from the desk to the mats, to Operations. As many of you know — these meetings are for everyone, but most specifically they are for our fellow staff to get to know the heads and hearts behind our leadership. As we progress with our monthly virtual meetings, we hope that along with keeping you updated on our goings-on, we’ll bring more of these [semi] one-on-one conversations with leaders in our community.
In this episode, Mike Tousignant dives into management, opening a new school, and moving into a leader of an established school. Both Peter and Ian have experienced being GMs, building up an academy and then passing it on to another hand of leadership. Most recently, Peter handed off Littleton to Professor Nick Maverick before going to Easton Centennial.
Starting from the ground up
Opening a school is no small task, and Easton has opened many. Each time, the process is the same: small classes, few staff, and endless work. More often than not, the initial days might bring more semi-private lessons than packed mats, and GMs run ragged between teaching orientations, leading classes, and selling memberships right after.
When Professor Peter Straub first opened Littleton in 2018, he had just come from Easton Denver where he headed up the Jiu Jitsu Department under Professor Ian as his GM. While he knew opening up a new academy meant a great opportunity for him and the residents of Littleton, it felt undeniably bittersweet. Denver had 800 students, and Peter taught noon classes 30 people deep. He’d trained at the academy since 2011 when he first moved from Boulder, and his entire social network had become centered around that community.
Though it was only a 30 minute move, Peter went from training in advanced classes to training with two or three white belts the whole night. Sometimes nobody would show up.
“You’re going to have classes or days when you only interact with a couple of people,” says Peter. “You can take that one of two ways: ‘what a bummer’ or ‘I’m so happy you’re here, I get to give a free private lesson.’ For the first couple months it was rough.”
Still, Peter persevered and managed to turn Littleton into a thriving martial arts team, understanding that creating a good environment begins with how we frame it.
We’ve all witnessed it — how a coach’s mindset bleeds into everything that happens at the school. When we frame something for ourselves in a positive way, we can shape it for our students positively too.
Later, when the academy’s busy and thriving, you’ll inevitably encounter those few who stuck around since the start, who talk about the “good ole’ days” when class had five people. For anyone struggling with this exact situation — starting a school and feeling like you had to go five steps back to get ten steps forward, breathe. The “good ole’ days” are now.
One of the best ways to help us develop a positive framework comes down to our openness to learn. There’s a reason Easton has a reading list full of staff favorites. Constant education of things outside of us, fiction or nonfiction, help us break our tunnel vision and put a framework on things.
Choosing succession over ego
When you first launch a school, prepare to do all the work yourself. In early days, Peter cleaned, taught and ran the front desk. Then, over time as the school grows, you find other people to do those jobs. Eventually, you’ve got a rock star in every corner of the team and you’re able to step back to do your job the best possible way.
Good leadership requires trust in succession. The school might be your baby, but if we don’t entrust its care to others, it can never grow beyond us. It’s not a good sign if you’re doing everything yourself, and as soon as you’re gone things fall apart.
Your ego can also nip at your hand when leaving your post, even if you know the school lays in good hands.
“As much as it makes me really proud to see [its growth],” laughs Peter, “it’s kind of sad for my ego because I’m like ‘man, that used to be me…I used to be part of this big, thriving community’, and now I walk in and they’re like, ‘Who are you?'”
Professor Ian experienced a similar situation when he stepped out of his role as GM of Denver and handed it off to Professor Carlos Espinosa. His advice to Professor Peter, and to all of us, comes down to not making it about you when you leave. It’s about Easton, not Peter or Ian.
You’ll want to write that letter to the students thanking them for the time spent, but you should resist the urge. While it comes from a genuine place, it’s not really beneficial and in a way, makes the transition about you. Instead, use the opportunity to boost the new leader.
“The exit is almost invisible,” says Ian of his departure. “The people in the school didn’t really even notice I was gone, and that was a conscious decision. I wanted Carlos to be able to step in there and fully assume that roll, and everything that goes with it.”
Trusting in succession comes down this: you have to just WALK AWAY and let them have a new leader.
In both the martial arts world and on the business side, this piece goes far. Like a kid on a bike with training wheels, eventually you’ve got to let them go. Sure they’ll crash and make mistakes, but it’s the only way they (we) learn.
Take on the hard conversations
One of the biggest parts of leadership lays in doing the dirty work. We don’t mean cleaning toilets (which you’ll also do at first); we mean having the hard conversations.
You might not like being the “bad guy”, but when you don’t give the hard feedback, you can hurt others. Imagine if your coach didn’t correct improper technique on the mat. You wouldn’t improve, and you might even injure yourself or your training partner.
A large part of learning how to have the hard talks lays our prep work. Ian, who didn’t always do them well, tells us that for him it came down to “a lot of reading, and a genuine desire to get better wherever you can and to admit you don’t know things.”
First, you have to know what you want to achieve. Question your motives before you go in: why are you having this conversation? Why are you going to say, and why do you want to say it? Will it help you achieve an end, or is this coming from your ego?
If you’ve answered all those questions and the conversation still needs to be had, then make sure your thoughts are organized, you have a clear destination, and know what values you plan to uphold no matter what.
Everyone has different techniques for having these kinds of talks, but the end goal is always the same: making something better. Ian sometimes imagines these challenging conversations as videogame simulations, where obstacles are what make it fun to get to the next level. Peter tries to inject as much humanity into it as possible, making sure that the way he’s talking to the person is ultimately what’s best for them, not just for him. Both agree that you can’t take anything personally.
“I love the book Radical Candor,” says Peter, “because Kim Scott talks a lot about caring deeply about somebody and therefore being willing to challenge them directly.” (Full title: Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity)
Brene Brown, a professor, author and podcast host known for her research in the space of shame, vulnerability and leadership, is another great resource to look into. Approaching hard conversations from a place of vulnerability might feel counterintuitive, but you should never underestimate this superpower. Rather than looking weak or wrong, in reality the core of vulnerability lies in strength.
In the end, it comes down to choosing your “hard.” Do you want a hard life or a hard conversation?
The longer we go without confronting things which need addressing, the further they spin out of control, and the harder everything becomes. While it may suck, frontloading the work and having one hard sit-down can save you a lifetime of resentment against your partner or your coworker.
To hear the full conversation and learn more about some of our amazing coaches and leaders, listen to the episode yourself!