Diversity Doesn’t Happen Accidentally—Most of the Time

Jane Riddell started her career in health clubs on a bit of a fluke. Attending graduate school to earn her master’s degree in kinesiology, she needed a job and applied for one at a small club in London, Ontario, Canada, that recently had been purchased by David “Patch” Patchell-Evans. She got the job.

Forty years later, she is president of Patchell Holdings Inc., which grew out of that small club to become the largest fitness company in Canada. It is the parent company of brands GoodLife Fitness, Fit4Less and canfitpro.

Riddell grew with the company, moving into a role as a manager of one club, then managing two clubs before becoming a district manager, then vice president and then chief operations officer and finally president.

“I'd like to say I plotted every step of the way, but I did not,” she told Club Industry in a video interview that can be seen in full above. “I was very fortunate. I feel like a lot of times I was in the right place at the right time.”

She also didn’t plot to ensure women occupied three in four of the company's leadership positions at vice president or above, or that four of the seven C-suite executive positions were held by women. That happened naturally, she said. (The other female C-suite executives are Pat Jacklin, CFO, Patchell Holdings Inc.; Maureen 'Mo' Hagan, COO, canfitpro; and Kathy MacKinnon, COO, Fit4Less.)

She credited the gender diversity to Patchell-Evans, who insisted they hire the best people who were a cultural fit.

“A cultural fit meant that this person had to behave in accordance with our core values, which were care, trust, integrity, peak attitude, personal fitness, passion and happiness,” she said. “Those core values really defined who we were looking for. It wasn't based on gender at all.”

That gender diversity in leadership was there from the beginning, she said.

“I think that that has helped us a great deal as we've grown as a company throughout the last 40 years,” Riddell said.

But gender is just one dimension of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and Riddell said that the company had not been as successful in ensuring it represented all Canadians in terms of race, sexual orientation and physical abilities.

“Before the murder of George Floyd, we thought we were a very diverse organization because we had such good gender equity,” she said. “We realized afterwards that, yes, we're very good in that one dimension, but diversity is multidimensional, and we weren't very good [in all dimensions].”

The “accidental” path the company had taken to gender diversity would not suffice for diversity in these other areas, so Riddell and the other executives rolled up their sleeves to create a plan for broader diversity within the company at all levels. And they did so during the COVID pandemic when their clubs were closed and they were focused on surviving.

“That's how much we felt it was going to be important to us coming out of COVID,” Riddell said. “We have come out of COVID now. We're doing really well. Our recovery is far ahead of our projections. And I attribute at least part of that to our focus on making sure that we have the right people, the best people for the job. And the best people for the job are diverse and different. They bring a different perspective to the table.”

Today, the company's net promoter scores are higher than they have ever been in its history.

“I can't directly attribute that to our strategy around DEI, but I know it has helped,” Riddell said.

It’s a mistake to not focus time on DEI, she said.

“You may not think you have the time, but if you don't have the time, you will pay a price for not making the time,” Riddell said. “In my opinion, DEI is one of the key strategic advantages that we have as an organization, and I think that that is what will help to draw really great people into your company and will hold them there and help them to believe in what you're trying to do.”

Patchell Holdings now has a diversity council and a director of diversity, equity and inclusion. It worked with BlackNorth Initiative in Canada, which helped the company create mandatory training initiatives that help teach about unconscious bias and anti-racism efforts.

It reviewed and changed its hiring process to cast a broader net beyond mainstream talent acquisition avenues so candidates include people from a variety of communities.

“That's what diversity is: bring people who are different than you to the table,” she said. “There's so much value there. It's not just the right thing to do, but it's the right thing for the business to do.”

Ultimately, the goal is to build inclusive leadership and promote people into leadership who understand the importance of including others in the circle.

“We don't all start at the same place,” Riddell said. “Even as women we don't all start at the same place. And that's what equity is really all about is helping people to get that first step up. So that's what an inclusive leader personifies to us and that's where we're moving towards.”

Through these efforts, Riddell learned to be ultra aware all the time, acknowledge and be transparent about mistakes, and give your people a voice.

“I know it's tempting to think that you know everything, but you don't,” she said. “In fact, you know very little. As you get further along in your career, you realize how little you actually do know. It's really important to have people who can help the organization at the table to lend a voice and lend support. By “people,” I mean all people.”

Steps to Take in DEI

Undertaking DEI initiatives can seem overwhelming, Riddell acknowledged, because you may want to do everything as quickly as you can. However, she said executives should instead be focused, selective and smart about their priorities, and they should know what they want to accomplish so they can develop a sound strategic plan.

She offered these three steps as guidance:

  1. Tap into resources in the form of people and organizations who are experts in this area because you don’t know everything, and these resources can prevent you from making mistakes and reinventing the wheel.
  2. Have a measurement mechanism, such as a survey, that helps you understand where you started, where you are now and if you're moving in the right direction. Survey often so if you are off course, you can course correct.
  3. Clearly communicate your objectives to your staff and provide regular updates, ensuring you are transparent about your progress or lack of progress. That means admitting mistakes or things that are holding you back. Doing so builds trust and engagement with your people.

Hear more about DEI efforts and other efforts at Patchell Holdings Inc. by watching the video above.

[Editor’s Note: In the video, Jane Riddell mentions IHRSA President and CEO Liz Clark but misstates her name as Liz Scott.]