Raphael Bender of Breathe Education: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Positive focus: Another of our core values is to face challenges with optimism. In service of this value, we start every meeting with positive focus, and we also have a dedicated positive focus meeting once per week for the whole team. Positive focus is super-simple. We each share something we are feeling positive about. It could be anything — coffee and puppies are recurring themes — but people share personal stuff too, including work-related wins and positive outcomes for our students, anything goes. This is a really quick way of setting off a positive tone in a meeting, and a positive springboard for the rest of the day.

Weare living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Raphael Bender, CEO of Breathe Education.

In 2006, Raphael started a Pilates and yoga studio in Melbourne’s CBD called Breathe Wellbeing. At the time, it was Australia’s largest specialist yoga and Pilates studio. After he began training Pilates instructors for the studio, Raphael saw a huge opportunity to help people transform into a better version of themselves. This realisation eventually paved the way for Breathe Education, which is now the most popular Pilates training program in Australia.

Raphael has a Masters degree in Clinical Exercise Physiology (Rehabilitation), a Bachelor degree in Exercise and Sports Science, a Diploma of Pilates Movement Therapy and a STOTT PILATES full certification. He’s also the host of the Pilates Elephants podcast, along with his co-host and team member Cloe Bunter.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Igot into Pilates reluctantly, and with zero intention to do so. Had it not been for my friend’s certification program (and the fact that she urgently needed a favour) Breathe Education would not exist.

However in 2006, in a start-up yoga studio in Melbourne’s CBD, Breathe Education was born. At the time, it was Australia’s largest ‘specialist’ yoga and Pilates studio, but after I began training Pilates instructors for the studio, I saw a huge opportunity to help people transform into a better version of themselves. This realization eventually paved the way for the most popular Pilates training program in Australia.

Breathe Education distils complex research findings into a simple, science-based approach delivered in simple, manageable chunks via its e-learning platform, and helps transform its students into confident, fearless, scientifically literate, profitable Pilates instructors. Since 2008, Breath Education has certified more than 2,750 Pilates instructors, making the program the most popular Pilates training in Australia.

The curriculum is a mix of old and new, matwork and reformer, history and science, teaching skills and business principles, and even lessons on how to deliver classes online. Students learn from virtual teachers based across Australia, from Melbourne, Sydney, the Gold Coast, Perth and Thailand, Breathe Education’s online training empowers instructors from across the globe, including the UAE, UK, USA, Asia, India, NZ, Europe, and Australia.

Where education is concerned, I have a Masters degree in Clinical Exercise Physiology (Rehabilitation), a Bachelor degree in Exercise and Sports Science, a Diploma of Pilates Movement Therapy and a STOTT PILATES full certification.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I got into my current industry (Pilates) as a very reluctant favour to a friend. My friend was in charge of a Pilates certification program that coming weekend at our mutual workplace, and didn’t have the minimum number of students she needed to go ahead with the training. My friend begged me to enrol in the Pilates program as a personal favour to her — which, after a lot of eye rolling, I did. Under extreme sufferance. Sixteen years later, and I couldn’t be happier with my career, the niche I’ve chosen or my business. But there’s no way I could have predicted I’d end up here.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The one that comes to my mind right now is something I learned from entrepreneur Tyler Garns. He suggested we divide all our activities by value, into:

  • $10 per hour activities
  • $100 per hour activities
  • $1000 per hour activities
  • $10,000 per hour activities
  • $100,000 per hour activities

Doing that exercise has had a profound impact on how I prioritize my time. The $10/hour activities are things I could literally pay someone on Upwork $10/hour to do. The $100/hour activities are things like seeing individual clients. For me, leading a $4.5M business, both of these things are truly not the best use of my time. At the other end of the scale, a $10,000/hour activity is something like doing a sales call with a prospective client, who’s lifetime value may be $10,000. That sounds pretty good, but it’s still not the best use of my time, although occasionally I do make an exception. $100,000/hour activities include things like increasing our lead-to-sales call conversion on our US website from 10% to 18%, to match the performance of our Australian website. That is literally a $250,000 per month top line activity for us.

When I put that in perspective, it becomes obvious to me where I need to focus. In fact, it becomes obvious where we need the whole team to focus. Right now we have a cross functional team including salespeople, marketing, customer success and product people all working on this problem. It’s worth this amount of resource because the upside is so big.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Several people have mentored and influenced me significantly. Sabri Suby, founder of King Kong digital marketing agency, taught me how to think like a marketer, and still does. From Sabri I’ve learned that understanding the customer is at the heart of any successful business, and we’ve become fanatical about talking with our customers and prospects. We have a whole program dedicated to understanding the voice of the customer, and around half our team regularly makes discovery calls to simply talk with customers and prospects to learn about their problems, desired outcomes, and obstacles from the customers’ point of view.

This has been a game changer for us, because it enables us to build products that solve real problems for our customers. I think the mistake I see new business owners make most often is they miss this step — they build the product first, then find out if anyone wants to buy it. We do it the other way around — first find out what people want, then build it. Then get feedback from the customer and make adjustments.

Probably the other most valuable single piece of advice I have received was from my friend and mentor Tyler Norton, who advised us to increase our prices by 80% at the start of 2019. That took a lot of courage to do, but the result was incredible. Our revenue simply went up 80%, and our profit went up by over 100%. We didn’t lose any customers. That was an inflection point in our business.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

This is actually a hard question for me to answer. Before the pandemic we were 80% distributed — that is everyone worked from home 4 days per week, and we all came together physically one day per week. We used to think this “together day” was important to maintain those water cooler conversations, and generally to facilitate communication and team cohesion.

But even before the pandemic we were not thrilled with many aspects of weekly co-working. Travel time ate into family time for many of us; plus it’s easy to get distracted with so many people present, and focus-work suffered. Because of this, several months before the pandemic we collectively decided to reduce the frequency of co-working to one day per month.

In March 2020 we simply dropped that one day per month, and we really haven’t looked back. We’re not going back to a physical office. We are now a fully distributed workplace — there is no office, and we’ve found it incredibly liberating. Both our team and our customers are reporting higher levels of satisfaction, community and morale. And I truly believe our shared commitment to our mission has never been clearer, stronger or more aligned.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

I’ve heard a lot of my friends, fellow entrepreneurs say it’s challenging working remotely — we haven’t found that to be so. The main challenges I hear are maintaining effective communication, morale and human connection.

[Main question of our interview] Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)

I think thriving as a distributed workplace is entirely possible, and accessible to most companies. For example WordPress is a fully distributed workplace with over 5,000 team members right across the globe.

OK, so this is how we roll:

  1. Start with a clearly articulated Vision: Vision is the north-star of our company. It is probably unachievable but it is what guides us. Our Vision is to empower people to move fearlessly and think critically and we filter everything through this lens — does this project, opportunity or activity align with our Vision? If not, we don’t do it.
  2. Agree on a 2–3 year Mission: This is a tangible, specific and measurable company-wide goal. 2–3 years in the future, that aligns with the Vision. Our current goal is to create and dominate a market for online Pilates education in Australia and the US by the end of 2022. We have a bunch of metrics that will tell us when we’ve achieved this. Things like number of enrolments, graduations, weekly podcast downloads, annual revenue, and profit.

Based on these mission metrics, we have key milestones identified that we need to hit each month, that tell us if we are on track or not. Things like number of enrolments, graduations, revenue, and other key performance indicators.

3. Be clear on each team member’s most crucial contribution to the mission: Each team member has their own, what we call ‘Big 3 KPIs’. These are the 3 things that if you achieve them, and nothing else, you win.

In my opinion, having more than 3 KPIs essentially means you’ve got no KPIs. If you focus on everything, you focus on nothing. Each team member’s ‘Big 3’ ties directly to the overarching business mission. If we need to hit a certain target for enrolments, graduations etc. each month, we link the Big 3 to the leading indicators of those targets. For example one of our mission metrics is >90% retention of our students. The leading indicator for retention is early engagement. Students who engage with the course content, and with their classmates within the first 4 weeks are 5x less likely to withdraw from the course.

Hence, one of the Big 3 for our product team is that students have access to their course content within 5 minutes of enrolling. And another one of the Big 3 for our Student Success team is that every student joins a live welcome webinar within 7 days of enrolling.

4. Meeting rhythm: We are fanatical about maintaining our meeting rhythm. It gives structure and accountability to everyone, maintains clear inter-department communication and prevents siloing. In other words, it promotes alignment around our shared mission, and everyone has clear visibility over their own, and others’ contributions to our business mission.

The meeting rhythm is really simple. Every week, each team member meets for a half hour with their leader. This is a 1-on-1 meeting where we check in on our direct reports’ personal lives for a few minutes, then we ‘traffic light’ their Big 3. Green is for on target, yellow is for below target, but with a plan to get back on track and Red signifies that they are below target, and help is required.

Each department also has a daily huddle and a weekly meeting, where we share what everyone is working on, and collectively solve any yellow or red metrics that have appeared that week.

Our leadership team meets weekly for department level traffic lights. This is where we publicly share our progress against targets in every department, and problem-solve any yellow or red metrics. The leadership team also meets monthly to review strategy and to make any adjustments to the mission goals if dictated by unexpected circumstances such as changes in market conditions, or higher or lower than expected performance.

Finally, we have quarterly strategy days where the entire team takes a whole day to review our progress towards the mission, and set goals for the coming quarter.

5. Positive focus: Another of our core values is to face challenges with optimism. In service of this value, we start every meeting with positive focus, and we also have a dedicated positive focus meeting once per week for the whole team. Positive focus is super-simple. We each share something we are feeling positive about. It could be anything — coffee and puppies are recurring themes — but people share personal stuff too, including work-related wins and positive outcomes for our students, anything goes. This is a really quick way of setting off a positive tone in a meeting, and a positive springboard for the rest of the day.

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

At Breathe Education, everyone is provided with a phone and a laptop upon joining the company. As an Australian-based company, this simple offering worked really well for us. However as the business grew and we began to employ teams in the US and the Philippines, we started to have issues with communication.

Calling internationally on a mobile phone plan gets expensive quickly, and when you have 27 people doing this all day, those numbers soon add up. In addition to this, our Australian sales team are now talking with US-based prospects, so we have had to establish a more sustainable and efficient form of communications.

We have resolved this by moving to a phone system called JustCall. This allows us to call and text from our mobile phones to anywhere in the world, and as a result, each of us has both an Australian and a US telephone number.

These quick and smart digital solutions are transforming businesses on a daily basis. Not only has service given us the freedom to expand our business and lines of communication internationally, simple add-ons such as cascading the main sales line to whichever salesperson is available, and recording calls for coaching and feedback is now available at the touch of a button.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

In addition to JustCall, we use Slack all day every day. It is our ‘virtual water cooler’. Slack is a fantastic tool because you can interact (by text or via desktop) with any individual or group. There is a channel for each team in the business — sales, marketing, training, student success, finance, product — but also an allocated channel for our leadership team. We also translate our positive vibes from our positivity meetings onto our own positive focus channel, so the positivity doesn’t just quit at that initial meet, it runs all the way through.

We also use Slack to stay in touch with our students. There is a channel for each course group and a common channel for all students for input, questions and ongoing support.

Like the rest of the world, we also use Zoom. All of these technical channels and services have resulted in more of a reliance on our phones, but we don’t seem to be having any problems with that just yet.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

In all honesty, I am delighted with the tools that we have. I feel that the technology available to us today is really helping to pivot our business, and the industry as a whole, especially during COVID-19 where staff and customers alike have witnessed isolation like never before. Technology is transforming the ways and the speeds at which we communicate with one another, and ultimately the pace that we develop.

The Technologies that we utilise are mature enough to allow truly excellent communication and engagement between distributed team members. Once you have key platforms like Zoom, Slack and JustCall in place, the real enablers to effective communication are setting a clear vision and mission, tying each person’s KPIs to the mission, and maintaining a meeting rhythm to report and troubleshoot KPIs. In other words, leadership and culture.

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

We use pretty much all the components of Unified Communications — messaging, video, audio, voice over and of course the internet. They’re not integrated in a single system for us, but they are quite well integrated in our business process. For example, you can start a Zoom meeting directly from Slack, and send automated SMS from our CRM, that comes from our voice over the internet number… put simply, a prospect or student can SMS us right back and liaise with a human, regardless of the avenue they have chosen to reach us on.

We have also spent a bit of time integrating these systems using API. For example when we call or text a prospect through JustCall, a note is created in that prospect’s profile in the CRM (we use Keap Max Pro), with a link to the text or voice recording.

We can also tag prospects and students based on calls or texts we send or receive from them, to trigger further automation or send notifications to our student success team.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

I am excited about the possibility of VR for our video tutorials on exercise technique. Being able to film from multiple angles simultaneously, and having the students virtually walk around the instructor to get a view from each side, will be incredible.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

Not at all. I have personally seen my business grow in the hands of technology, at a much greater rate than when tech played a smaller role at Breathe Education. Given that I work in a very ‘hands-on’ industry, teaching a sport that relies heavily on physical movement and being present, I guess tech plays quite an unexpected role. The many other fitness institutions I have liaised with have been desperate to get back into the studio, but I have had a very different journey. I am very optimistic about advancements in technology, bring it on!

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

We don’t use chat bots. When you call or text us you interact with a human. I think technology is most powerful as an enabler of human interaction, but never a replacement for it.

Our training is 100% online, so all our interactions with our students are digital. The switch to 100% online has enabled us to redesign our curriculum and course structure to take advantage of the unique benefits of the online space.

In in-person training, people have to travel to participate in the event, so it makes sense to schedule a block of training, for example 2 days over a weekend, then repeat that once per month for the duration of the program. Although this is convenient for travel and childcare, it is very far from ideal from a learning standpoint. Learning is much more effective when it is spread over time in small, regular blocks. In jargon this is called distributed practice.

Moving online has enabled us to switch from a 1-weekend-per-month model, to a weekly schedule where students interact with their trainers, and classmates every single day for an hour or so. This is not only way easier and more flexible for students, but it promotes a whole new level of learning and engagement. As a result, we are seeing student results improve dramatically, and time taken to complete the course is down from 9 months to 7, student self-rated skill and confidence survey results are well over 90% and our company feedback is off the charts.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

Another of our core values is that we are ‘really candid’. This is a method adopted from the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott. The first element of radical candor is to assume good intent. People are always trying to do the right thing, they are simply unaware of the consequences of their behaviors.

The second thing is to highlight specific behaviors, and the consequences of these behaviours and then a call to action to the ‘desired’ behaviour. For example:

“Mary, I know this is not your intention, but when you don’t leave notes on your conversation with a student, it creates a lot of work for other members of the team. Because there is no record of the call, other team members follow up with you, and with the student, and potentially have an awkward conversation when the student tells them you’ve already spoken with them. This causes a lot of frustration and wastes people’s time. Moving forward I need you to leave a note in the student profile for every call.”

In our experience, radical candor works just as well over the phone as it does in person. No particular nuance is required, it is a very straightforward and direct conversation.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

Having a clear vision and mission, and defining each person’s highest contribution to the mission, are the bedrock of team cohesion.

Our weekly whole-team positive focus meeting is awesome for building camaraderie and social support between the team. We also have a positive focus channel in Slack, where we share a lot of puppy photos, positive student feedback, photos of our kids, and other nice things.

The vibes are light and very much in the moment, which helps the team to focus on the job in hand, rather than worrying about mis-understandings that can often happen as a result of not being in the same room together.

[key question, and final one] You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger…

If I could put something on a virtual billboard that would be seen by everyone in the world, and would inspire action, it would be ‘Use science.”

The amazing thing about science is that physical things that are built with science, work. Planes built with science fly, bridges built with science stay up and computers built with science power the internet.

Dare I say it, vaccines built with science prevent disease. Use science!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thanks to the internet, Breathe Education is now accessible from most platforms. We have a dedicated Facebook group, instagram account, website and even a podcast — Pilates Elephants — which aims to debunk wellness myths and focuses on (you guessed it) the science behind real pilates. There are multiple, digital avenues that you can take to join our now 10,000k+ strong community, and we look forward to meeting you.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.


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