The Superintendent’s Guide to Developing Assistants

Features - Management

Having trained 164 young men and women during his career, GCI’s Bruce Williams, CGCS, offers insight into the bumps in the road assistants face on their career path.

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November 10, 2017
Bruce Williams

A decade ago, the future was dim for up and coming assistants.

With the economic downturn and the reduction of golfers, we saw the market shrink. Things have changed, and we are back to the situation of demand outpacing supply of qualified applicants. Many factors contribute to this. For example, many superintendents employ multiple assistant superintendents. And while superintendents are working later into life, the industry is trending toward hiring younger assistants and superintendents who are attractive at a more affordable price.

Now it is imperative superintendents develop their assistants and have a plan to attract the right people, train them properly and retain them or have a plan for secession. This will not happen without a concentrated effort to nurture people along.

Having trained 164 young men and women during my career, I can offer insight into the challenge areas assistants face in pursuit of their career.

Listen and Observe

In the first few days and weeks on the job, assistants should observe the inner workings of the staff. See how people work together and what skills they possess. There are reasons the superintendent has systems in place and don’t try to change anything in your early weeks. Once you know how things operate and are managed, it may be time to ask more questions but take those first weeks to observe.

It’s Not Your Golf Course

Remember that it is not your golf course and we are there just to manage it properly with the resources we have. When someone starts to think that they own the property, it is usually the end of their run at that facility. Know what the members want and what the budget can afford. Setting priorities is important and make sure that the assistant and superintendent are in sync with parallel goals and priorities.

No Whining

All too often young assistants want to talk about things like not having enough resources. Welcome to the world of being a golf course superintendent. Golf courses want people who are problem solvers and those assistants who can make do with what they have. High-budget clubs are much easier to manage than those with minimal manpower and equipment. Learning how to manage golf courses with minimal and optimal resources will serve an assistant well throughout his or her career.

Patience

So, you are the new assistant at a golf course and you want to clean house with the staff. There are many factors that make a good employee. Think of things like loyalty, dependability and trustworthiness. As unemployment goes down, there are less people who are willing to take on a golf course maintenance position. Instead of thinking about chopping heads, I tend to encourage assistants to develop their staff the best they can. Inspired leadership along with training will do wonders for morale and productivity.

Goal Setting

Assistant superintendents should set and review their goals on an annual basis. Some questions to contemplate during that self-reflection include:

  • What skills have you learned in the past year?
  • What skills do you need to learn in the upcoming year?
  • Have you sat down with the superintendent to agree on these goals?
  • What are the goals for the golf course in any given year?
  • What can you do to take the golf course to the next level?
  • How do you become the indispensable employee?
  • How do you make your team better?

Let The Learning Begin

You may have the degree, but you surely don’t know it all.

The position of assistant superintendent is just the beginning of a career odyssey that will take your book science and put it into practical, real-world application. Your first years as an assistant will probably tell you more about what you didn’t know rather than all you believed you knew.

Growing Grass Is The Easy Part

Without a doubt, grass growing is the number one thing that we do. As an assistant, that part has been learned in turf school and on the job at previous places of employment. Here are areas most assistants lack formal training in:

  • Hiring
  • Interviewing
  • Training
  • Problem solving
  • Recordkeeping
  • Purchasing
  • Scheduling
  • Green committee meetings
  • Board meetings
  • Budgeting

To advance in your career, you will need to learn these skills. Speak with your superintendent so you can learn from him or her. I am sure most superintendents would love to have an assistant offer to help with bookkeeping and budgeting. If you are not learning those things, then it might be time to look for other opportunities. It may take several years to hone all those skills, but make sure you are progressing so you will be ready when the time comes to interview for a golf course superintendent position.

Leadership

Be smart on your career path and pick your jobs and mentors wisely. There is a reason great superintendents tend to develop programs for interns and assistants. Those superintendents are the people who feed the industry with new talent. Lastly, when you become a superintendent, be sure to develop and train your assistants properly. As we all improve, it only makes the industry stronger.

We all must learn how to lead. From our mentors we learn valuable leadership skills, but we can also learn ineffective leadership skills. I may have learned more about how not to manage and lead people from poor examples, as it made me promise to not be a poor leader.

Leadership by intimidation is a good example of that. If you intimidate your people so they are afraid of losing their job, it will have short-lived results and end up in high turnover rates.

The best quote I could ever share with assistants was that “leadership is best defined by managing people with optimal results with a high level of enthusiasm and acceptance.” When assistants grasp this concept, they can build a strong, effective team.

Respect

A title of assistant superintendent does not equivocate to having the respect of your co-workers. Respect is earned. Meet and get to know your entire staff. Work alongside them and don’t be afraid to help them with their tasks. Simply put, shoveling alongside someone earns a lot more respect than watching somebody do that job. No job is too small and when your co-workers see you pitching in, you will soon know that there is mutual respect. This may be the most important factor to doing your job well.

Set The Example

During the hiring process, I always outlined my expectations for my assistants. If the staff started at 6 a.m., then I expected my assistants to be there 15 to 30 minutes early to open the buildings, stage the equipment and go over the plan for the day. At 6 a.m. instructions for the day were given by the assistant and the turf team rolled out by 6:05 to 6:10 a.m. The assistants needed to lead the team and get out on the golf course to get the job done. Be a part of a management team that sets the example rather than showing up five minutes after the crew is out on the course.

Be a helping hand and assist the team with any of its needs that will best allow for being ready for a quick start in the morning. Are machines fueled? Are tools put away? Is the building organized? Again, set the example and don’t be the first person out the exit gate.

Network

Getting to know your team well is important. However, one must look outward as an assistant and develop an appropriate network of friends, associates and influential people. If you want to make it to the top of your field, then work on getting to know people who will influence your career?

  • Do you belong to your local chapter?
  • Are you an active member of your local chapter?
  • Do you attend meetings?
  • Do you exchange business cards?
  • Have you utilized LinkedIn?
  • Have you made a list of everyone who can help you with your career?
  • Interact with commercial reps
  • Know your USGA agronomist
  • Stay in touch with fellow alumni
  • Communicate with university professors and researchers

Networking doesn’t just happen. You need to have a plan. The most qualified person does not always get the job, but the best networked person will surely find more opportunities.

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Decisions

An often-asked question from assistants is, “When will I know if it is time to move on?” The answer to that question is simple. Both the assistant and the superintendent will know when it is time to move on to another golf course or onto a golf course superintendent job. The signs are simple:

  • You think you know more than the superintendent
  • You want to do things your way
  • You are not advancing and learning
  • Your list of goals has been achieved
  • You are watching other peers advance while your career is stagnant

These comments are for your typical assistant wanting to advance to a superintendent. They may not fit for those who are “career assistants,” a category of industry professionals becoming more common today than ever before.

Bruce R. Williams, CGCS, is GCI’s senior contributing editor.