Wade Okinaka Does Company Culture Right, Semco Style

Below is a guest post from my friend and Semco Style USA colleague, Hawaii’s Wade Okinaka, about how he transformed the company culture in his unit at a large global gym company using the principles and practices of Ricardo Semler:

I worked as an operations manager for a couple of large global gym companies for almost 20 years.  They were very strong command and control, pyramid type organizations.

For most of my career, I was trained in ‘traditional’ management type methods (accountability through discipline, manager roles and hierarchy, etc.), and I gained a reputation for being very good at these practices, particularly with my knowledge and execution of policies and procedures.  My teams were very organized, disciplined, and knowledgeable, and consistently met or exceeded company revenue goals.  However with all of this “success,” I found that my teams were never considered fun or happy. 

I came across Ricardo Semler’s Ted Talk and connected immediately with it. Asking 3 whys in a row became my new method of approaching how I looked at things, and I began to reevaluate the way I was managing and leading.  Inspired to find better ways of doing things, I knew it started with me, and I needed to change.

One of the first steps was forming a 10-12 person lead team, or ‘change team.’  I wanted to explain my vision of how things could be, changes in the way we operated, and really try to ensure I could get us all aligned on the same goals.  We were going to be built on a culture of ‘how can I help’ and that started with building trust amongst my team.

I started to treat adults as adults, and the first question I posed to my team was ‘Why do you do your job?’  The most common response was ‘So I don’t get in trouble.’  That prompted me to ask myself these questions: ‘Why do they feel that way?  And why do I need to discipline with write-ups?’  I decided then to no longer do disciplinary write-ups with my team, and instead approached situations with coaching and reinforcement that I trusted them to do the right thing. 

I also looked at our hiring process, and how we selected our employees.  Like most standard processes, we looked at resumes, references, prior work experience, and had all of those common interview questions printed out to ask the candidate.  In the end, I had one hiring guideline for my lead team, ‘Hire for Attitude, train for skill.’  I believed that it was most important for the team to find people that fit our culture.

Operations consisted of 4 areas, Front desk, Juice bar, kid’s area, and facilities/janitorial.  With all of our new hires as well as all of our existing employees, we adopted a sort of ‘lost in space’ concept.  Employees were allowed to work in multiple areas and not restricted to just working in the one area they were hired for.  This was extremely successful for us, as employees enjoyed the different atmospheres and activity, and it helped reinforce our ‘how can I help’ culture, and employees now would help in other areas as needed.

Operations positions were all minimum wage positions with the potential to earn a commission equal to 10% of their retail sales each month once they sold a minimum of $1000.  The company would recognize the top employees each month based on their total sales. Because our culture of helping each other was so strong, instead of seeking personal glory of being the top employee in the company each month, my team would set their own goal of trying to get as many teammates above the $1000 minimum so that more people could qualify and get commissions.   On black Friday, my team, on their own mind you, would keep a post it up at the register of all of their team members working that day, and rotate sales between everyone so that they could all get credited.  This teamwork resulted in our location consistently having the highest operations revenue each month, and the most employees qualifying for commissions.

Each year, gym locations in the company would celebrate their anniversary by shutting down on a Friday night for a team dinner, having a cleaning service come in to clean the facility, and reopening the next morning to and anniversary event.  When it was time for our location’s anniversary, we were given a budget to hire an outside cleaning service.  My team decided that we could save money by doing the work ourselves and so we communicated out to our team and asked for volunteers who would want to help that night. 

After the shut down and team dinner, I had about 75% of my operations team (about 40+ people) show up to help out with the cleaning.  I was asked if I had forced them to come in, and explained that everyone there had volunteered.  It was an amazing and inspiring experience, which prompted employees from our sales and fitness departments to stay and help out as well, and everyone was smiling and enjoying themselves.  No complaining by anyone, and in fact I had to force people out at the end of the night, as they wanted to keep on working (Incidentally, we ended up saving about 30% of what was budgeted originally had we gone with an outside cleaning service).

Some of the notable outcomes and results:

  • Strong culture resulted in an overall 70 NPS score (company average 45-50)
  • Top Operations team 3 out of 4 years
  • Top revenue $$ in company
  • Rated as cleanest gym and best team in company
  • Lowest employee turnover


  1. Way to go Wade! Once again you demonstrated that when you treat people with respect and expect them to act like responsible adults, they meed your expectations. You showed that Semco Style principles and concepts work with people no matter what work they are doing.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story, Wade.
    Results don’t lie. So much more can be achieved when you’re a more human-centric company with great leadership – everyone wins.

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