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The CEO Of SoulCycle Shares Her Best Career Advice

Why Melanie Whelan wants you to focus on the “coulds,” not the “shoulds.”

Joe Scarnici / Stringer / Getty Images
Joe Scarnici / Stringer / Getty Images

Melanie Whelan rode in her first SoulCycle class in 2008 at the fitness company’s very first studio on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. “I was instantly hooked, despite not having enjoyed indoor cycling in the past. It felt like a real mind-body-soul experience, from the heart-pounding music and ride, to the signature smell in the lobby to the amazing community of riders breathlessly hanging out after the ride,” she says.

When Whelan joined SoulCycle as chief operating officer in 2012, she says the then 22-person team sat behind a laundry room in Tribeca. There were just six studios, and now there are 90 locations in 17 markets. Since Whelan ascended to CEO in 2015, SoulCycle has expanded to include a new media division, a talent agency for fitness influencers, live concert classes and two new class offerings, SoulAnnex and SoulActivate.

Whelan has also led SoulCycle through internal changes. The three co-founders stepped down—Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice left to focus on “new projects” in 2016 and Ruth Zukerman left to start FlyWheel in 2010, according to Fortune reporting. SoulCycle also filed for an initial public offering in 2015 at a proposed $100 million maximum aggregate offering price, according to their SEC Form S-1, then withdrew registration this year because of “marketing conditions.” I spoke to Whelan about her career path and advice.

Elana Lyn Gross: What advice do you have for other CEOs who take over after founders leave or get a new position?

Melanie Whelan: Take the time to listen, learn and really absorb what’s going on in the organization, what your customers love and what they don’t. Hold onto the magic that’s working for you, but don’t be afraid to refresh what should evolve as time marches on and your organization grows.

Gross: What are your responsibilities as CEO of SoulCycle?

Whelan: Working closely with our talented team, I’m responsible for the growth and operation of the brand. My role is to align the company around the vision of where SoulCycle is going next and making sure we have the strategies in place and the right resources to accomplish that vision.

Gross: SoulCycle seems to be constantly creating new offerings like SoulActivate and SoulAnnex and new initiatives like the new media division. How do you encourage your team to constantly innovate?

Whelan: SoulCycle transformed boutique fitness when we opened our first studio in 2006. People couldn’t believe that fitness could be fun or welcoming. It rooted us in being a purpose-driven business. And over time, that purpose has evolved into our mission that we are responsible for moving people daily, so that they, in turn, can move the world. That true north is what keeps us motivated and inspired to innovate to find new and meaningful ways of bringing the world into the SoulCycle community.

Gross: What can we expect from the new media division? 

Whelan: Over the years, SoulCycle riders have consistently asked for more ways to engage with the brand and instructors outside the four walls of our studios. Our media division is charged with bringing this beloved experience to a global audience.

Music has always been at the core of the SoulCycle experience and on October 1, SoulCycle expanded into music in an even bigger way – we launched a transformative music and digital program that brings the rest of the world in our experience.

This is the first initiative to come out of our newly-launched media division and includes exclusive tracks and playlists on Apple Music including instructor curated playlists and motivational pieces from favorite instructors, a live concert series called Sound by SoulCycle and video programming to give our audiences a boost off the bike, so whatever they’re moving through, they can find positivity.

Gross: What’s the biggest lesson you learned at work and how did you learn it?

Whelan: One of the biggest things I’ve learned is to trust my gut. It’s always proven to be right — from the simplest of decisions to the toughest — I now trust my instincts more than ever before. And when in doubt, I go for a ride. I believe if I leave it on the handlebars, the answers will come!

Gross: What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?

Whelan: One of the lessons I’ve learned is that it’s okay to ask for help. You don’t have to be able to do everything yourself and, in fact, it’s best to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.

Gross: What are the best pieces of advice you’ve ever received?

Whelan: No matter how busy your schedule or the demands on your time, it’s critical to make time for yourself. Give yourself the space to disconnect when you can, process information and think about things that aren’t so tactical. This time is when you’ll come up with your best ideas.

Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. There is tremendous power in loving ourselves exactly how we are and showing vulnerability. At SoulCycle, we give our team members the space to do their jobs and learn from mistakes. Together, we lean into our potential, aren’t afraid to ask for help and collaborate as we continue to evolve our experience.

Gross: What is your career advice for other young professional women?

Whelan: My advice to anyone who is early in their career is to focus on the ‘coulds’ not the ‘shoulds.’ Don’t worry about what you think you should be doing, but rather what you want to be doing, what you’re passionate about and how you can make the most impact to your teams. People tend to set their sights on an end goal with a very specific route to get there and don’t take chances or risks because they’re afraid of deviating from the path. But those deviations are usually the game-changing moments.

Elana Lyn Gross is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Columbia University. Find her at elanalyn.com.

Originally published on Forbes.

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