“I don’t think I naturally lead. I think that I have an ability to look at things and identify the holes and gaps in things that need to be improved. I am drawn to those things.”
– Alex Thomas
Alex Thomas is an accredited sports nutritionist who founded the Sports Nutrition Association in 2017 which now operates in Aus, NZ, US, Asia and Europe.
Sports Nutrition Association started back in 2011 as a private passion project entity before incorporating legitimately in 2017. It exists to regulate the space of coaches and trainers providing nutritional advice. They provide accreditation, education and regulation of the sports nutrition space to ensure clients are safe and trainers remain up-to-date with their education.
We’re grateful for your time today, thank you for joining us! Share your story with us.
Alex Thomas: Prior to founding the Sports Nutrition Association, I owned and operated a Training and Allied Health Centre in Brisbane, Australia. It was basically a gym with Allied Health specialists working out of offices within the space.
Shortly after I opened it, I found out through my insurance broker that myself and my coaches (10), of which there were 8 with qualifications ranging from personal trainers and strength & conditioning coaches to exercise physiologists and exercise scientists, were not insured/ covered to provide nutritional advice to our clients. The only one covered was a dietitian on my team. The rest of us couldn’t get insured for giving that type of advice even though trainers and coaches are frequently asked for that type of advice.
This was news to us because 80% of our staff at the time had done courses & subjects on nutrition. Some of my staff even had a dual degree where they did exercise and nutrition science so we were surprised that they couldn’t be covered. We were like “that’s pretty crazy”.
I wasn’t comfortable with the exposure I had in terms of if things went wrong, I wouldn’t be insured, so I identified a gap in the market and for the next 12-months I worked with my broker on how we could get an insurance product to exist that would cover those activities.
We also discovered a gap in regards to the education side of things too and that’s how the education program came about.
After 12-months, we were able to put a plan together after working out what we wanted to be covered and we presented that to an insurer that accepted it. The first people who became insured were my team, some of my friends who run businesses in similar spaces as me, and I. From there it became a word of mouth thing and I was running several intakes per year through WOM alone, and it just snowballed from there.
From that point it grew pretty quickly and within a number of years I had put just over 100 people through the program who were then taking up those insurance policies. It got to the point that we incorporated an entity specifically for the regulation. A non-profit professional body was suggested and I jumped at it.
At around the same time I had an opportunity to sell the training and Allied Health centre as the SNA business was growing so fast. So I sold the centre to a bigger chain and I have been doing SNA full time ever since 2017. And its gone from strength to strength and has now opened in many different countries and regions which is pretty cool.
Some say leadership is innate, others would argue against it. Would you say you were born a leader or did you have to become a leader? Explain your experience and viewpoint.
Alex Thomas: I don’t think for what I do that I’m a leader. I think I have identified a gap in the market where I felt that someone should be doing something about that and because no one was doing it I decided to jump into providing a solution.
You hear all the time that imitation is a form of flattery, and since we launched SNA, there has been a bunch of imitators that have popped up, especially on the education side, but they are not being transparent about the limitations of their courses, namely the lack of being able to get access to a legitimate insurance product.
I have said from Day 1, if someone else was doing this, then I would be working with them to help them serve the industry, serve the market and serve the vision.
The only reason I am doing this is because it didn’t exist at the time. There is a big gap in the market that needs to be filled for a few reasons. One, for looking after the general public and their best interests in being more aware and discerning with the professionals they put their health in the hands of. And two, so the professionals can be covered and insured, which allows them to sustain themselves in a safe and professional manner, providing them with a pathway to a legitimate and prosperous career.
I don’t think I naturally lead. I think that I have an ability to look at things and identify the holes and gaps in things that need to be improved. I am drawn to those things.
I have been self-employed since I was 18. I am now 33. Through my years in business, I have been able to develop my own leadership style which has been refined through these years of experience. And there is a degree of wisdom and patience that comes with those 15+years.As a result my leadership style is unique to me and is something that is in alignment with the organisation’s values as well as my personal values and standards.
For most people I don’t think it is something we are born with, but for people like myself the self employed exposure, repetition and experience it is something that we can refine and sharpen that can be quite effective from there.
We are the only professional organisation that provides easy access to undergraduate education in sports nutrition at the moment. When I started, 10+ years ago, sports nutrition education was not easily available to people in an undergraduate capacity. There were courses, but it wasn’t something that was stand alone, it was more thrown into other degrees and wasn’t a complete course. We are the only ones providing an undergraduate as a complete course. So those core activites are pretty eciting for me.
Outside of that the other exciting things we do are:
That we have revamped the education and experiential model to allow people to come in and get a food hold of the foundational education, which is a 5-7 month program and from there they can spend time developing the experiential side of things which will take 12 months – 3 years.
Similar to when you get your drivers licence, with our undergrad, you are on your P plates, so you are a provisional sports nutritionist and from there we require them to go on and complete further study, but by then they know if the course is for them because they have been able to get a foot hold in the original foundational course before spending more time and money learning more. They also will already know if it is a career path that they want to take.
So from there, we have pathways into a number of different affiliate colleges and universities for our members depending if they want to do a post grad, diploma, masters etc.
Whereas if we compare to the traditional education model, someone may spend 3-4 years and $50K before they even get the chance to work in that field, while our members get to test it out a bit to see if it is for them before they carry on . The provisional level will only cost around $4, 000 so it is a good way for people to be exposed to the industry and career in a manner that is far less expensive both financially and time wise.
The other thing we do that is unique, especially for a professional body, is that there are not many professional bodies in the allied health and performance industries where there is a global standard of professional education that is recognised internationally. We would tend to see different standards from country to country which can make it hard for someone who is a dietitian, physiothatrpist or sports nutritionist in one country as their credentials don’t translate to the next country. Or they may have a PHD in dietetics for example from Europe, but they can’t practise here in Australia. One cool thing is that if you were registered with us, you can operate anywhere that we operate.
Other exciting projects that we have happening include that we are opening our accredited specialist program, so for the members who have completed their post grad or bachelor as a minimum, we have some additional and practical speciality programs to help them in speciality areas. They generally are 12-18 months. We have one specifically for physique athlete programs, which are very popular right now to help clients get up and on the stage and compete in body building and bikini shows. We have a program to safely help their clients do that if they want to.
We are also doing a similar thing with weight cutting, but before we compile the program, we are forming a council to discuss and identify how to set up the program and boundaries for those who want to help their clients with rapid weight loss and weight cutting practises for sports such as combat sports, jockeys for horse riding and any sport where someone needs to cut weight quite quickly for their weight restricted category before competing.
We will identify the safe practise within the sport as it has not always been safe in the past and that way we can start seeing a reduction in some of the crazy stories we hear ie in the past 12 months we heard of someone getting crazy burns and in the last 36 months a young girl died from wright cutting as well.
Hopefully with the council we can reduce the instances of these stories and dangers things happening, through increased education and awareness within the sporting populations and communities as well as in the general community as well
Throughout your career, have you been a team player or a lone wolf? How did that benefit or handicap you throughout the years?
Alex Thomas: I grew up playing sports, both individual and team so I wouldn’t say it is one or the other for me. One thing I have noticed is that I have a tendency to shoulder the load when people start to fizzle out. It tends to lead to burnout for me so that is something that I need to be aware of. I just have extremely high standards which has probably hindered me in the short term in terms of the speed of rolling things out, but in the long term, I think it will really benefit us. By taking the time now and creating processes where the standards are high, the rest of the organisation can be clear on the values, standards and principles that are expected.
As a result of that, my staff genuinely like doing their jobs, to a high standard and they align with the vision of the company as well.
What leadership qualities do you possess that, in your opinion, inspire your employees to work harder and be more productive?
Alex Thomas: I don’t think I have any amazing qualities that I would write about in that sense. If anything, the main thing is that I am true to my word. If I tell someone I will do something I do it, and if for any reason I don’t, I respond conscientiously and take responsibility for that both within my team and outside of it.
I don’t think my employees require inspiration so to speak. We have a solid recruiting process that vets out anyone who isn’t an inspired worker. For us, when people hear about our vision, mission, what we want to achieve and what our organisational milestone is – which is have 10,000- 20,000 professional members with a low turnover rate in the industry being 20-30% every 3-5 years. When you compare to fitness which is 60% every 6-9 months and dietetics with has a turnover of 70% every 8-18 months – and that we are making a bigger impact on how we can help the general public by helping them due to continuity within our membership group potential candidates for us get caught up in the fact that’s it’s a cool thing we are doing.
Which can sometimes be somewhat of a double-edged sword as sometimes they can not easily disseminate whether the role is a good fit for them or they are caught up in the excitement of what we are doing. As a result we now have a strict 5-week onboarding process to ensure they are the right person for the role and we do this for every staff member that we take on.
Though this process, we are able to sift through and make sure we find staff who are a good fit and it is accurate for 90-95% of the staff we have.
The team doesn’t struggle with a lack of inspiration. If anything some people get swept up in what we are doing a bit too soon without being able to critically think about if this is the best fit for them . We want the people who we truly align with both what we do and the role specific role they have on our team.
A national survey from the University of Phoenix has found that 95 percent of employees who have functioned as part of a team think that teams are an important workplace function but less than 25 percent prefer working in teams. Individual and teamwork both have their advantages and disadvantages. What work model have you adopted and how has it benefited your organization?
Alex Thomas: Like everything I have done, with the organisation and how the team works, we just fell into it more or less. We went primarily online with our model back in 2018 to help us reach more people more conveniently, and since then, we obviously had the pandemic but fortunately our systems were already in place already and as a result it was just business as usual for us.
We have a combined 14 employees and contractors and we have an office based in Brisbane, however only 6 of our team are Brisbane based. The rest work remotely nationally and internationally. We also have an advisory board of 8 people who all live overseas. So I would say we have a hybrid model of 60% remote, and 40% in person.
The operational group is predominately in Brisbane and now we usually work in the office, but many of us are remote as I mentioned and everyone is vetted to make sure they can be efficient no matter where they work. Our whole team are highly accomplished people who are high performers and they all meet any task they do to high standards, generate great ideas and meet deadlines.
So it works well for us, especially considering we were doing it to a similar extent for quite someitme before covid in 2020. Since things have easometime staff are back in the office more than during the lockdowns but it all works as everyone is trustworthy.
People often procrastinate when they are unsure of how to do certain tasks. Is there an element of your business process that employees shy away from? How do you counter this problem?
Alex Thomas: As a result of our onboarding process, we don’t really have this problem. If we see that people are struggling or procrastinators, we have a conversation early in this process and we can usually see if they are not a good fit from there.
With our onboarding process, it is very involved and there are three main levels that are covered within 5 x weeks.
In the first week, it is also about the organisation’s vision, mission, values, standards and operational processes. We access a candidate on their comprehension and aptitude with those. They are given videos, quizzes and trial scenarios and then we test them on that at the end of the week.
Weeks two and three focus on their specific role comprehension and the basics of their role. Again, they are given videos, quizzes, case studies and short answer question which we review.
After that it is all about proficiency and aptitude in the role and department. Once we can see they are competent, we test them on how well they deal with things when things go wrong and if they maintain our standards, values and processes while handling the situations.
So to be honest, anyone who gets through that typically doesn’t shy away from work, it sounds arrogant but that’s how we deal with it. If we run into issues moving forward it’s generally about how agile they are and how well they comprehend their role’s scope.
Many businesses today are being overwhelmed with all kinds of data which impacts productivity. How do you ensure that you and your employees are focusing on the right metrics?
Alex Thomas: We have this really cool thing, there is a company that we work with that has really helped us that is called Nxt Lvl. They have a process that manages KPIS both short, mid and long term while not losing sight of the big picture of what we are trying to achieve.
The document is called a WEC which stands for “Workplace Effects Chart”, and it combines the KPIs with the big picture that we are trying to achieve. We look at this weekly with the employees to check in with them. For someone who is new though, we will check in a few times a week and provide them with the support they need until they are fluid.
Nxt Level are a culture and HR company. You pay them monthly and with them, and you are paying for a culture and HR person who is working for you but they do it within their company. It’s awesome because they do a great job for a fraction of the price as you would pay if you had a HR person on your staff. You basically pay 1/4 what you would pay and it is phenomenal.
According to PwC, nearly 60% of survey respondents reported that they would like feedback on a daily or weekly basis. Which employee feedback system does your business use to boost productivity?
Alex Thomas: When we are onboarding or if a particular staff member requires highly frequent feedback we will provide that as needed, but ideally with WECS, once they are proficient and self-sufficient in their roles we will provide them feedback weekly according to where they are with the WEC system.
Other than that we do it as needed. One important thing to note for the organisation is that feedback is a two-way street so we have a specific troubleshooting framework we get the staff to follow that helps us help people to the best of our ability and the best of their ability.
It is like when you are doing a question in grade 11 or 12 maths and you can get up to 10 points for the right answer. Getting just the right answer might get you 3 points, but if you show your working and that you went through the right processes to get that answer, you may be eligible 10/10.
That troubleshooting process for us shows us how they got to where they are, and it allows us to see what they were thinking, what they were doing and provide personalised feedback from there.
So we encourage feedback as a standard and in the format mentioned, which allows us to personalise it and empower them to learn through the processes as well.
What financial or non-financial incentives do you offer employees for motivation? What role has that played in increasing productivity?
Alex Thomas: If you are familiar with Jordan Peterson’s work, a lot of it is on financial satisfaction in the job, and I’m badly paraphrasing here, but basically, if you are paying someone about 80K a year then the money is no longer an or motivating factor issue for them.
We pay above the award wage, like 20-40% above it depending on the award, role and person. We have a young office manager who is in her early 20s who is on 60K+ a year as a starting point on her contract and that scales annually due to her performance, bonuses that she is eligible for.
We do have quarterly financial incentives too, but anyone who is familiar with Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” will know that financial incentives in the means of a carrot tend to stifle people’s drive and passion to achieve on the journey, so we tend to not focus on those things too much. So while we offer them, we don’t expect them to be hit, they’re a nice inclusion, not a necessity.
For us the biggest thing is to hire people who care about their job and want to be with us. Then we aim to make it a fun and enjoyable work environment. We want to work with people who want to be on the organisation’s journey and achieve the mission and vision we are striving for.
If you had an unlimited budget and resources to spend on increasing productivity, what is the first thing that you would change?
Alex Thomas: Nothing, I would spend more on what I’m already doing
According to Gusto, 54% of employees say a strong sense of community (great coworkers, celebrating milestones, a common mission) kept them at a company longer than was in their best interest. How do you improve the way teams work together? How do you build a sense of community?
Alex Thomas: I think our onboarding process makes this a lot easier. Outside of that, we do 6-monthly catch-ups to get people together. As a lot of our team is remote and we respect that people have lives outside of work too, catching up every 6-months is enough.
We respect their time, when they come in we want them to contribute and from there enjoy their life outside of what we do.
This has been very insightful and I’m sure other entrepreneurs can learn from the knowledge you have provided. As for your company’s future, what big changes are coming down the pipe in the next 6 months that might increase productivity?
Alex Thomas: Another shout out to Daniel Pink’s book “Drive”. Every month we have a free day which is something he noted that Google does with their employees. On that day, our team can come up with ideas to innovate their role, the company and its systems or come up with ideas that can improve us.
We set a whole day aside to knock those things out. We want to be an impactful company and to do that we always need to be innovating.
Within the WEC system, every single staff member needs to come up with an innovation every quarter. So we do small ones every month and then every quarter they can show a big idea to improve things and help us play at a bigger level
Productivity is important but as is an employee’s wellbeing. What are you currently doing to prevent employees from burning out?
Alex Thomas: One of our organisation’s standards is to respect life outside of work. From our end, our employees burning out is something we don’t want to see.
However in contrast to this (and it may seem somewhat paradoxical at times), in order to develop skill, you need repetition, which is true to an extent as to become more efficient you must practise. So when someone is onboarding, a little overtime may be required to make up for mistakes and offset the learning curve. But once they finish onboarding and once they are proficient in what they are doing, we don’t require overtime from our staff, and heavily discourage it.
Thank you so much for your time but before we finish things off, we do have one more question. We will select these answers for our Valiant CEO Award 2021 edition. The best answers will be selected to challenge the award.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make, this past year 2021, for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts?
Alex Thomas: I wouldn’t call this a difficult decision. It is more a lateral move and a perspective shift that has been beneficial for me.
I am fortunate enough that I got into property 4.5 years ago. I built a portfolio with a few properties, some of which I have done up which increased their value and I have built up some equity over the years. I made the decision to sell one of them and I will make a good profit from it.
As a result of my property portfolio being in the position that it is, I made the decision to stop taking my primary wage from the organisation and instead use the money that would come from paying me a large director’s wage to use those funds inside the company. Instead of taking my primary wage from the organisation, I will draw it from my property portfolio as I can earn more there than in the organisation in far less time, and at the same time, it won’t stifle or stall the organisation’s growth as a result.
Once that property sells, I will also reduce my hours to no more than 30-40 hours a week, which is a different move to other CEOs who may work 50-60hours and never change this. This move has also enabled me to redirect my focus, where I operate from and where my true north is in the organisation because now I spend those hours focusing on the vision mission and journey because I believe in it and not because it is my primary income. It has really helped me redirect and reframe a lot of relationships i have with the staff within the organisation, and how i relate to the organisation on the whole.
It is now all about the vision and mission and here I am (the founder) walking the talk in this capacity. And that has been very empowering for me.