John Cristiano | Crain's Atlanta

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

John Cristiano


John Cristiano entered the fitness business in 1997 when he started running Gold’s Gym workout centers. In 2009, he left that brand and founded Atlanta Fitness. He sold that company to US Fitness Holdings in 2014, and Atlanta Fitness’ five locations became Onelife Fitness clubs. Cristiano now oversees all club operations in the Atlanta area and serves as a Onelife Fitness board member. The company, which now has six Atlanta locations, will open two new clubs in 2018.

The Mistake:

When I first started working in fitness in 1997, the biggest challenge was getting our team who worked on the front lines with our customers to understand the mission that we were trying to accomplish.

There were a lot of frustrations on the employees’ part because they never understood what was expected of them, and the outcomes were different than they were supposed to be. I thought they would just get how I wanted the job to be accomplished.

It took about six months for me to realize that I needed to communicate more. The turning point was unhappy staff members. It wasn’t a healthy work environment. They were just going through the process and didn’t really get the purpose.

I had to look in the mirror and evaluate what kind of leader I was. Am I helping the team follow the mission that we have for our end customer?

I started investing more time in the employees and explaining the why behind decisions such as implementing a new program or building a new feature into the gym. I had to instill in them why what we do on a daily basis is important.

Once I changed my behaviors, I saw the team’s behaviors change immediately. If you sit down and explain what the customer will get out of something, the buyback from each employee is that much greater. Once the employees understood the vision, they were able to accomplish it at a higher level than even I could.

Every day in business is an opportunity to become a student. 

The Lesson:

In the beginning, there was a lack of communication. I was new to the business. At the end of the day, our team didn’t know how to buy into the goals that I had in mind. We had to provide that vision.

Once we got them to buy into what we were trying to accomplish, the team started trusting us and we started trusting them. We were able to feed off each other to create some really big ideas.

I learned that by explaining more, we’re ultimately creating a more fun and effective workplace for employees to allow them to spread their wings. Because we’ve invested more time into the why of what we do, our turnover rate is a lot less than what it used to be. Now that we’re taking the time out to instill the basic principles in them, the team members feel like they’re a part of something and they stay longer.

Every day in business is an opportunity to become a student. You’re always teaching, but you’re always a student. A greater leader is someone who’s willing to understand that there are other opinions out there. My best ideas come from the people who deal with the customers on a regular basis. The most important voices are the ones on the front line that are communicating with our consumers.

I didn’t recognize that before. I thought I knew what the members wanted and that the staff knew what to do to accomplish that. So I had to look in the mirror and realize that I needed to be more open-minded. I had to become more of an influence to the employees than a dictator.

Follow Onelife Fitness on Twitter at @OnelifeFitness.

Photo courtesy of Onelife Fitness

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain's Atlanta.