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“Your Words Matter”, 5 Lessons from Alex Bingham, the COO of The Little Gym

“As you move up in an organization and transition from managing a department or a couple of departments, to eventually leading a large portion of the company, you recognize that everything you say is not only heard but has an impact, for better or worse.”
I had the pleasure to interview, Alex Bingham, the incoming CEO of The Little Gym which has more than 350 locations around the world.. He’s currently the COO and was a student at the original location of The Little Gym when he was 2. Throughout college, he worked as a gym instructor and then started working for corporate in his 20s. He left for a career at ESPN for few years and then returned to corporate in the development department, working his way up through the ranks to his current position as COO, and soon-to-be position as CEO. He’s quite young also — he just turned 40.

What is your “backstory”?

For the past 16 years I have been involved with The Little Gym International in a variety of different roles. I started as the Gym Director of a corporate owned store where I taught programs and classes for all age levels, including Parent Child, Pre/K, Grade School, Karate, & Sports Skills. That experience led me to take on a Consultant role for our domestic and international locations, focusing on assisting our franchise owners with the pre-opening process and general operations. I then moved into a management role; first as a VP of Operations, from which I transitioned to Senior VP of Franchise Services overseeing Domestic and International Franchise Services, Marketing & Brand Development, Curriculum, Leadership and Training. That ultimately led to the current role of COO. But, you could say that I got my start with The Little Gym as a toddler. I was a student at the original location in the Seattle area from ages 2–5 years, where I was fortunate enough to have the company’s founder, Robin Wes, as my instructor, and during my college years I worked at a location of The Little Gym during the summer. It’s safe to say that The Little Gym has been an integral part of my life from a very young age.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

As Senior VP, I have had to wear many different hats. One hat that I was certainly not expecting to wear was that of an Instructor for a photo/video shoot that I happened to be on set for. I ended up “leading” some karate activities (for which I am not particularly qualified) in some of our promotional videos. Needless to say, my acting & modeling career didn’t take off after that.

So what exactly does your company do?

The Little Gym is an internationally recognized experiential learning center for children ages 4 months to 12 years. Classes are progressively structured and are built off the philosophy that children should experience success in a fun, non-competitive environment that enhances students’ listening, social and cognitive capacities. In addition to offering a wide variety of gymnastics, karate, dance and music based classes, The Little Gym also has summer camps, Parents’ Survival Night Out, special LEGO DUPLO and LEGO Juniors building events and Awesome Birthday Bashes that take the stress out of planning your little one’s special day.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I think that we inherently bring goodness to the world through what we do as a company — giving communities all around the world a place to bring their children to develop, grow, and just be kids and have fun. Beyond that, we have greatly expanded our philanthropic efforts over the past few years with a company-wide initiative called Big Hearts. As part of this, we have partnered with a fantastic organization, SeriousFun Children’s Network, which provides camp programs, entirely free of charge, to children and their families coping with serious illnesses.

Due to my position, I have also been fortunate enough to serve on the board for a local philanthropy, helping with their initial growth plans to educate children on the importance of kindness.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became COO” and why.

1) Your words matter. As you move up in an organization and transition from managing a department or a couple of departments, to eventually leading a large portion of the company, you recognize that everything you say is not only heard but has an impact, for better or worse. When you throw out an idea or opinion, you have to make sure you frame it the right way and provide rationale, otherwise it can sound a lot like a final decision that was made on the spot. I like to lead by gathering input, and if possible, gain consensus before making my voice heard. Being aware of the effect that all of my words have, and the importance of making known that my opinion does not necessarily equate to a decision, was one of the biggest transitions I experienced moving from a management role to a senior management role.

2) It’s hard to know the truth. As I’ve move up in management, I’ve found that feedback becomes less and less frequent and it becomes more and more difficult to accurately assess how I am performing (outside of the numbers). It can almost feel like you’re in a ‘feedback vacuum’ and so I have found myself often asking the people that report to me — How am I doing? What is working well? What is not working? What’s working but could be improved? I used to receive feedback whether I wanted it or not; now it’s more challenging to gather feedback even if I really want it. I think it is incumbent on you as a leader to continually seek professional growth and actively listen to your employees, so I’ve made this a proactive part of discussions with my team.

3) You and your behavior set the tone. At the higher levels within an organization, performance is gauged by so much more than just the numbers and managing to the top or bottom line. You have a greater responsibility than you realize in setting the tone of your company’s culture on a day to day basis, and that can resonate for months and years on end. Suddenly, all eyes are on you and you are not just beholden to your department, but to everyone in the company. Because of this, you can’t afford to get frustrated and fly off the handle or have a bad day — all of your reactions have a direct impact on how people behave and feel like they should behave in your company. It’s ultimately up to you to establish and keep the culture within your company.

4) You will feel a greater responsibility to the people around you than you expect. Being a leader is both a distinct honor and huge burden. People’s livelihood and families depend on your ability to be effective in your role. This is something that I, of course, knew before becoming COO, but could never truly understand and appreciate until I stepped into the role. You are the bridge between the shareholders and every person in the company, and you will feel equally responsible to both. It is a delicate balance that is difficult to prepare for, which is why cultivating trust and open dialogue is so important.

5) It is more humbling and exhilarating than you can imagine. To be able to, day in and day out, lead an extraordinary group of talented, committed, and passionate people is truly amazing. You work so hard to establish a vision for the company, and then to see your colleagues not only follow that vision, but accept it, and watch it come to life is such an emotional high and fulfilling experience. Seeing this happen and being able to celebrate the victories and successes with everyone involved is incredibly humbling and something that you want to do over and over again. It’s this support that you lend as a leader and guidance towards achieving a common goal that is the really fantastic feeling, and is ultimately what keeps me coming back at the end of the day.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.

Barack Obama: not even because of anything political, but because of the depth of human experiences he’s had in addition to the obvious intelligence, wisdom, pragmatism, and empathy he shows I would love the opportunity to spend some time and talk with him.