CEO of Total Fitness, Sophie Lawler, shares her top advice for students as she reflects on her time at Keele and her career journey
After graduating with a degree in Politics and Sociology in 2000, Sophie Lawler went on to pursue a career in the fitness industry while studying an MA at Manchester University, and never looked back. Now, as the CEO of health club group Total Fitness, she reflects on her time at Keele and gives her advice for current students.
Studying my Bachelor’s degree at Keele ignited my love of learning which has become a key driver throughout my career. I always say that; learning drives me, and I am driven to learn. It’s my belief that an openness and passion for learning makes you unstoppable. When I finished my degree, I didn’t feel like I was finished with learning just yet, and also didn’t feel quite ready to go into the world of work so I went on to study a Master’s in Politics at Manchester University. Little did I realise that you never really stop learning, and I continue to learn something new every day to this day.
While studying my MA, I decided to pursue my interest in fitness, having done gymnastics when I was younger and having an interest in the anatomy, as a job to support my study and completed a distance learning course in fitness coaching.
I considered continuing my study to do a PhD, but in the end took a sales job in a health club. From there, I moved to Edinburgh and became a General Manager of a fitness club. Then I was promoted to Multi-site Manager and eventually I took a secondment into the marketing team, where I was able to broaden my business perspective. I ended up taking a permanent role in the team and being promoted to Head of Marketing and subsequently Head of Central Operations. From there, I was eventually appointed to the Board of Directors in 2011 by the new owners, where – alongside the remaining board members – we were tasked to turn the business around. From there, and after a 2 year stint on the International Board of Directors too, I took the job as CEO of Total Fitness, and that’s where I am today.
My time at Keele was formative for me. My course gave me the transferable skills of critical and lateral thinking, communication and problem solving that I have been able to apply to every area of any business that I have worked in throughout my career.
Of course, my time at Keele was also filled with cider, cheese toasties and a tonne of fond memories. But it wasn’t always easy. The step from college to university is huge. It requires so much growth in a short time, and brought many challenges to the forefront for me, which meant I struggled with my mental health and required support for a time at Keele. Keele provided me with a safe environment and the support I needed to confront those challenges, from my tutors and the support staff, but also through the teaching in my sociology course where I learnt a lot about behaviours and how to understand and recognise them.
I truly believe that a university like Keele is one where you can stretch out and find your ‘edges’, who you really are. And when you find those ‘edges’ you can choose to step over them and find out even more about who you are, but also what you’re capable of. It takes great vulnerability and therefore great courage, but it’s a great journey if you’re willing. Exams are not the scariest thing about university, discovering yourself and finding your tribe are, but I couldn’t have asked for a more comfortable environment and quality learning for this than Keele.
My greatest achievement was having the courage to make the phone call that resulted in my appointment to my current role. After I stepped down from my previous role as International Strategy Director, I was taking the time to find the right next step in my career. I met with the shareholders for Total Fitness and spoke about how I might be able to assist them, and when they spoke about looking for a new CEO, I never thought they meant me - I was more looking for a second-in-command role. After going away and speaking about the meeting to a friend, I realised that there was a CEO role open, and why shouldn’t it be me? So, I made the most nerve-wracking call of my life, and pushed myself totally out of my comfort zone, but I'm so proud of myself for doing it and it’s led me to where I am today.
My one piece of advice to students would be to not be too proud and make sure you’re always humble. When I graduated, I thought the perfect job in sociology or politics would find me, I was so full of pride. But my journey has taught me that the best things can come from unexpected paths, and so you should always be humble and listen, as being too proud will only stop you from listening and being open to what’s there.