Life Time SVP of HR Jess Elmquist reflects on making the shift from “educator” to “manager.”
By Jill Laybourn
A journey is not just going from one place to another or from this career to that career: It is a process of continuing to grow and evolve in order to strive for excellence. Five minutes with Jess Elmquist, and it is easy to see that his “journey of a thousand miles” is more of an epic adventure.
It has taken him from classroom to boardroom and from teacher to corporate leader. It has even, figuratively speaking, taken him from a little pond to a big ocean, and from being in the driver’s seat to being the snowplow for others’ ideas. Essentially, his journey has led to career success as the Senior Vice President (SVP) of Human Resources (HR) and Life Time University (LTU) at Life Time, The Healthy Way of Life Co.
Classroom to Boardroom
Elmquist was raised in a household of educators, and his first career step was along the same path. After six years of teaching, he began to pursue a master’s degree in Education and Administration. During that time, Elmquist met and built a friendship with Life Time Founder and CEO Bahram Akradi. Through that connection, a broader, more expansive opportunity to use his skills presented itself, ultimately taking his career path in an unexpected direction.
“I took the leap to become a part of a missional company in the business world,” Elmquist said. “It was through the right timing and the right place that [I was] led to the right opportunity to step out on a new journey.”
Elmquist took a one-year leave of absence from the teaching job he loved, and discovered he could make the same type of impact in the corporate world. He joined the team at Life Time in 1997 and has been making an impact within and through the organization since.
Although Elmquist’s journey in the classroom ended, he did not leave his teaching experiences behind. “I had no idea at the time how important my background in formal education was going to be inside the business world,” he said.
For one thing, his educational path helped him to understand human psychology. “In my Education degree, I studied the greatest psychologists about learning—how people think and how people are motivated.”
This knowledge proved to be helpful in his early roles working as Director, then VP of Business-to-Business Sales and Marketing. Elmquist’s educational background and business success, along with his passion for people and their development, led to several other positions, including his current role, where he leads a team of nearly 300 in establishing vision and strategy and ensuring the Life Time mission is fulfilled every day.
In hindsight, Elmquist can see how his experiences working in operations helped him appreciate the importance of HR and training to supporting the business. “We not only understand what we do,” he said, “but also why we do what we do.”
Getting Solid Structures In Place
Since Elmquist’s start at Life Time, the company has grown from 500 to more than 22,000 employees, making the management of human capital extremely important. He admits the road to success has not always been smooth, noting that it is a constant journey as a performance-based company.
“It’s incredibly important to build very predictable and strong structures in HR, LTU and recruiting in order to sustain this high-octane organization,” Elmquist said.
Educating and training team members plays a vital role in Life Time’s success and dates back to the early years of the company. “As an executive in HR, one of the critical attributes of a people-driven company is to have C-Suite support at the highest level. Bahram Akradi, our Founder and CEO, and Jeff Zwiefel, our COO and Executive VP, have consistently—both in good years and during the recession—continued their commitment to our certification culture to support team members and the member experience. That level of support is critical to the success of any great organization.”
One of the structures Elmquist helped develop is the casting and recruiting process. In order to attract and retain the best talent, Elmquist believes that managers need to know exactly what they are looking for in a role before hiring. Much like a movie director, a manager needs to cast before they recruit.
“People often think casting and recruiting are the same thing, but this is not the case,” Elmquist said. “Casting requires laser focus, knowing exactly who you want to hire. Recruiting is finding and hiring that person that fits that role. The leading customer service companies are the companies that cast first and recruit second. You need to be crystal clear on who should be hired so you won’t take the first person. You’ll keep saying no until you can say yes to the best hire.”
Another structure Elmquist helped build is LTU, which ensures that team members are trained and certified to do their jobs. “We make sure in LTU that we know that the team member knows,” Elmquist said. “We accomplish that through great education and training and assessing them through our certification process. “One hundred percent of our more than 22,000 team members nationwide are certified for their role. They have what they need to provide an amazing member experience. Experiences that are uncompromising, keep the environment safe, keep it entertaining, keep it educational and keep it innovative. This is what customers can expect from our part-time team members all the way up to our highest-level executives.”
Being the Ocean & a Snowplow
Since its inception in 1992, Life Time has been on a journey from a small business in Minnesota to a nationwide, billion-dollar company. It has grown to 108 club locations in 23 states and one in Canada. It also boasts more than 150 athletic events, including the world-renowned Life Time Tri Series and iconic Leadville Race Series.
But great companies and great leaders do not reach the first goal and make camp. They arrive, briefly bask in their achievement and then get out the atlas and decide where to go next. This explains Elmquist’s quest to continue to grow as a leader. There are many principles that ground him in leadership, one being humility.
“If you want to lead and make a large impact, you have to get low and serve,” Elmquist advised. “Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher in the Tao Te Ching, talks about being like water. The ocean is the largest and strongest body of water. Because it is the lowest, everything flows to it. If you want to make a large impact, if you’re going to influence people long term, your quest has to be to get low and serve your team.”
Another step in Elmquist’s quest to provide great leadership is through problem solving and communication for his team. He compares it to being the snowplow, and his direct reports are the drivers of that plow. It is a fitting metaphor in the cold months of Minnesota. Elmquist is confident in giving his team the driver’s seat to develop new ideas.
“I regularly remind my team that your hands are on the wheel,” he said. “Your foot is on the gas. I am the plow in the front clearing the way.”
He adds that he wants his staffers to have a clear objective, understand how fast they need to move and show him they have all of the logistics worked out. Then, he said, “I am outside moving the snow, the rocks and the clutter off your path so you can reach the goal and accomplish your objective for the betterment of the company and the customer.”
With Elmquist’s numerous accomplishments and success, it would appear that his “journey of a thousand miles” has reached the pinnacle, but he is not done yet.
“With the amazing team I’ve been surrounded by, I don’t believe there’s anything we can’t accomplish. Our team success creates opportunities for more success, and we have a long way to go in supporting this great Healthy Way of Life Co.”
It seems, then, there is no stopping Elmquist or Life Time. The epic journey continues “one step at a time.”
Jill Laybourn is a freelance writer based in Colorado.