The Black Belt Business Podcast

Systemizing Academy Processes + Having a North Star

Sep 27, 2023

We’re back with the Black Belt Business Podcast! Each episode brings you stories, strategies, tactics, tools and resources that will help you establish and grow your martial arts school.

In this episode, we feature Easton Kids BJJ Program Director Jordan Shipman and our Longmont academy’s Muay Thai Department Head, Micheal Phipps. Along with the podcast host, Eliot Marshall, our guests discuss what it means to have a north star, course-correction, and systemizing academy processes to successfully scale a people-centric operation.

Watch the full episode here!

In our last episode, we talked about the importance of creating a roadmap with things like core values, agendas and agreements to get everyone on the same page. But as leaders in action, how do you get people to actually do the work? 

Even when you have core values in place, how do you align class-teaching style, front-desk systems and employee engagement so that everyone across all schools is operating at the same level of excellence?

These things can be tricky with one academy, but when you have multiple locations, they become even more critical to nail correctly. Easton Training Center utilizes a decentralized command system to ensure that we have trusted leaders at every position who all model their behavior and process off of one main example – our Program Director. 

For example, while Sean Madden is the Muay Thai Program Director of all of Easton, we have others in place at each academy who head up the academy’s individual Muay Thai programs, its Department Heads, who all report back to Coach Sean. It becomes the responsibility of those DHs, like Micheal Phipps, to make sure that everyone on the striking team is on the same page. 

Even with a set curriculum taught across all academies and well-trained instructors, over time, as coaches get more comfortable and relax certain aspects of teaching, we will inevitably encounter entropy – a slow divergence from the centerline. 

While diverging from the standard isn’t always bad – we want coaches to develop and explore their own teaching styles and strengths – when these individual nuances begin to reflect in a class that is slowly diverting from the standard, it becomes crucial to bring everyone back.

One of the best ways to kick entropy is going back to the basics. If your academy has a Department Head, have them evaluate each instructor’s class once a year and give feedback. How are they excelling and bringing new life to the program? How are they straying from the centerline? 

“It’s a natural thing that happens,” says Eliot, “whether it's entropy or whether you think you got it and want to put your own flare on it a little bit. We’re not talking about this to be like, ‘don’t be different.’ It’s natural at every school and every academy across the country.”

Part of a Program Director’s job, like what Jordan does for Easton’s Kids BJJ program, is work with the various academies’ Department Heads (DHs) to make sure that all of the schools’ Kids BJJ programs are in alignment. He communicates with the DHs who then communicate to and lead that academy’s instructors. 

With this sort of command model in place, the idea is that the instructors are looking to the DH at each location, who is modeling their methods and behavior off of the Program Director. In the case of Phipps in Muay Thai, Sean Madden hones the program’s vision, delivers it to Phipps, who then delivers that vision to all of the instructors under his command.

“It’s human nature to decay,” Jordan says. “Whatever we’re doing .. getting older, or get really good at something and then something happens and we decay. A big part of the program director role is to make sure entropy doesn’t veer too far off course.”

A game of telephone

How can you watch for these shifts so that you can catch entropy before it does any real damage to the overall strength of your programs?

The best plan of attack involves devising pipelines and systems that centralize these models. 

With training a large number of instructors over a period of time (let’s say, 25 years like Easton), at a certain point it comes down to generational differences. We don’t mean age – we mean, where on the spectrum in the program’s history a certain instructor obtained their training. 

For example, before Jordan became the Kids BJJ Program Director, he was the General Manager and the Adult BJJ Department Head at Longmont. Jordan has a background in theater and production, and the generation of instructors who watched him in action and who Jordan trained first-hand all brought their own version of this embodied energy to the mats. 

However, as Jordan stepped away from teaching those classes, the next generation of instructors trained under those who watched Jordan. They had some of the qualities that Jordan emphasized in his teaching style, but overall had gotten further away from that centerline than the previous generation of instructors had. 

Like a game of telephone, we begin to lose some fidelity as instructors shadow a different crop. This comes down to an organizational problem of scale and why many schools don’t go on to duplicate their systems and scale in number. 

Alternatively, many of you out there who own school don’t want to scale. You don’t need to run more schools, you just want your one academy to be the best it can be. In many ways, being people-dependent in one school is easy – or at least more easily manageable.

When you have two or more schools, however, scaling and maintaining fidelity of the culture, systems and product becomes more difficult – especially when every person you’re depending on has their own perspective.

Scaling solutions: input, feedback, and accountability

To successfully scale your business when you’re people dependent, you have to make your company a system-dependent company. 

One of the ways that Easton combats the natural pattern of entropy and divergence goes back to having one model that sets the standard for everyone to follow, using technology and automation to assist our fluid human nature.

This has come in the form of creating instructional videos for everything from front desk operations to training for Jiu Jitsu orientation instructors to other fundamental tutorials. 

While video can never replace the in-person experience, it can give you a systematic and consistent, every-single-time set of inputs for every single person. That way, if you notice something missing at a foundational level, you can tweak your inputs until you get the desired output.

Having a centralized system where all of these recordings live can help set a singular standard for everyone to return to, but only if the school’s DH keeps a close eye on the department and knows when to utilize this shared vault. If the input is the same every time, the output has less chance of straying from the standard.

“If you don’t understand something,” Jordan says, “you fill it in the best you know and that's where it begins to divert. The further from the source you go, the quality suffers.”

The tricky aspect of this always returns to the fact that nothing beats learning martial arts in person. This heightens the importance of the human factor and responsibility of the DH to closely watch his or her instructors to make sure everyone stays on track, and to course-correct when needed. 

The trouble then becomes – how do you know that the input went in properly, and that everyone understood the same thing in the same way? You can’t hold someone accountable to something they haven’t agreed to, so you have to know whether they understand the assignment. 

As a leader in a people-centric operation, it becomes equally important not just to have a standard to return to, but to know how to properly communicate to your team so that everyone feels seen, heard and inspired to do their part. 

To connect with instructors and successfully communicate input, we like to use the PCP rule (sometimes called a shit sandwich) – praise, correct, praise. However, this works because rather than starting out with a correction, which can have people shutting down or raising defenses, they feel seen first. Then, they’re naturally more open to hearing more, and working with any suggestions for their improvement.

This is what I saw.

This is how it can be better.

I’d like to see you work on that.

Most of the time people just need a small course correction. Let them know they’re doing a good job, but with a few tweaks and course corrections we can all do an even better job.

With systems in place, the biggest part of your culture should include building relationships and investing in people. This ensures that you don’t become a revolving door of temporary staff, and that your employees can build trust, rapport and experience, and grow with you over time.

“I can’t do everything, and a leader isn’t supposed to," says Phipps. “They’re supposed to empower everyone else –  to be as good or ideally better than me.” 

Keeping people accountable is a big part of any leadership role, and bringing it back on yourself as a leader is one of the most powerful tools you have. If people are constantly tripping up and coming in late, or what can you as a leader do better? Do your staff have all the tools they need to succeed? 

Rather than approaching conversations and critique with judgment or anger, using a curious approach and investigating where the disconnect lies will ultimately lead to a better relationship and trust between members of your team. 

And when you do mess up as a leader, don’t sweat it – but do take accountability. 

We’re all human. We won’t always deliver feedback skillfully, and when we do this we have to own it and do the repair work. Give people the space to tell them how you feel — really listen and don’t get defensive.

It takes time to build and develop trust, and as a leader one of your biggest responsibilities will be to keep all of these relationships strong while maintaining a big-picture, systematic vision of thinking. 

If you can achieve this, from the widest angle of your scope to the smallest, minute details of how all of your instructors teach class and even more importantly – understand the assignment – the better you’ll get at business and run a successful company, small and large.

Get the Easton.Online Podcast directly to your inbox!

Enter your details below to get email notifications when new episodes get published.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.