Become the ultimate superintendent

Become the ultimate superintendent

Like various turf species, superintendents can change and develop their own skills to become the ultimate cultivar. As an aspiring superintendent, GCI's Nick Klinkhammer reflects on 10 keys necessary to become the best superintendent he can be.

August 22, 2011

Like the varous turf species, superintendents can change and develop their own skills to become the ultimate cultivar.  As an aspiring superintendent myself, I ask myself what can I work on to become the best superintendent that I can be. I started my research by asking experienced and well-known superintendents in the golf industry what characteristics or skills they've developed in their careers that they desire in their employees.

When processing the information I received, I found many superintendents expressed similar keys to success that we as professionals need to develop throughout our careers. Many gave examples of day-to-day situations. Just like how grass needs water, food, air and most of all sunlight, the following 10 tips will give you what you need for success in your career.

Be involved
Students, assistants and superintendents should be involved with the community. This could be the local community in which your course resides, or your local chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association or with GCSAA. Each of these communities and organizations needs interested volunteers. “Go to every industry function that you can and shake hands,” says Scott Verdun, superintendent at Kenosha Country Club of Kenosha, Wisconsin. “Don’t be afraid to go and introduce yourself to someone.”
Many use excuses like, “I’m too young,” “I’m not a superintendent” or “I’m too busy with school to get involved.” It is never too early to be a part of your community or to give time to volunteer. In doing so, you will connect and develop friendships by simply being involved in each of these organizations. One day you may need to call upon these contacts or friends for help in a difficult situation.

Foreign languages
With the growing population of many different cultures in the United States and the golf boom in Asia, our ability to communicate and converse with employees is essential. "No matter what language your employees speak, it's the superintendent’s responsibility to be able to effectively communicate with them," says Sam Bauer, former Equestrian Course Superintendent at The Hong Kong Golf Club, in Beijing, China, home of the 2008 Summer Olympics. “Golf course language is highly specialized and relaying a handful of words is usually all it takes for your employees to understand the message." The ability to use conversational Spanish and other foreign languages to convey information about turf care is of utmost importance in this industry.

Balance work and life
Many members of this industry have trouble balancing the commitment of work and personal life. During the golfing season, superintendents are thinking about the irrigation system, disease outbreaks, equipment up-keep and employee performance.  These thoughts can get in the way of family life and convey the impression that you are not engaged.

You must be able to leave stressful and confrontational work issues at work. This sounds simple, but leaving work at work will reduce the stress between your family and friends and will also allow you to confront issues in a more productive, controlled and logical way.

Develop your human resource management skills
Human resource management is the ability to recruit, manage, and provide direction to the people within your organization. As a developing leader, your ability to be skillful in each of these areas directly influences the success of your golf course each year. Robert Yeo, superintendent of Spyglass Hill Golf Course, a Pebble Beach Company, suggests, “Human resource skills are quite important, as you need to guide others to attain your vision of the course.” 

A group of people is only as good as its leader. Being able to manage and maintain a healthy working environment as the superintendent and leader is a must. Provide employees with the best equipment and materials possible for them to do their job at the best of their abilities. Most of all, have fun working at the course.  Coaching and teaching your employees about everyday activities will allow your maintenance crew to reach and surpass the goals and expectations of the members and community of your golf club. 

Planning and organizational skills
Each and every day superintendents evaluate and develop tasks to be completed on the golf course. They take into account elements such as weather, personnel, equipment and events to organize and plan these tasks. Planning and organizing these jobs requires follow-up to ascertain the quality of the golf course and to revaluate future needs.
A disorganized crew will become clustered and disrespectful of the tasks at hand which will be easily shown by the quality of the golf course. For example, having a small crew go out and build a rock wall with no formal knowledge about what is expected of the completed product is a waste of time and money. It’s best to demonstrate exactly what to build and how you want the final product to look. If your workers are still having problems seeing your vision, work with them throughout the project. Always be one step ahead of your staff, and have things planned out. The planning and organization of staff is vital to produce the best product available.

Written and communication skills
In this industry not one person can go a day without talking or communicating with employees and coworkers. Superintendents need to be familiar with the use of email, blogs and other social media, in addition to the need for traditional letters to your golf course members, colleagues and staff.  Great examples of blogs that you can use for your maintenance facility are Tom Vlach, CGCS at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.  and Chris Tritabaugh, superintendent at Northland Country Club in Duluth, Minn.

Professionalism is the key with all forms of communication. “Golf course superintendents are a professional career just like physicians and architects and need formal education to be a professional member of this community” says David L. Wienecke, CGCS of Chambers Bay Golf Course. Superintendents, just like doctors or lawyers, are the experts in the care of turf. Expressing and communicating your ideas, concerns and knowledge to members of the golf course and community will demonstrate professionalism. 

Good things come to those who wait.  Patience is one of those skills that every future and current superintendent can work on. “Don’t expect to be at the top of your career right out of school” says Fred Larned of Sycamore Creek Golf Course in Fort Worth Texas. I understand that most of you may already be superintendents but just remember to use patience at any level of your career for we are all students throughout our whole life.

Patience at work should transcend into your everyday activities outside of you career. Many superintendents get stressed about past or future events or worry about things they have no control over, like weather. However, if you allow yourself to be patient and let things work themselves out, good things will come. Remember, focus on the big picture.

Be creative, innovative and a problem solver
In addition to planning each day’s operations, a superintendent must be able to roll with the punches and be creative in solving any problems that may arise. “Cognitive thinking is a must; you need to be able to think on the fly, and outside the box,” says Blake Scott of Cherry Creek Country Club in Denver, Colorado. 

Problem-solving is a skill that you need to develop outside of the classroom. Scott goes on to say: “Figure out your style. There are a hundred ways to skin a cat. Maybe technology is your thing, maybe you’re old-fashioned. But one thing that is important to keep in mind is that these are people working for you, not mindless robots.” Whether it is moving employees to different jobs on short notice or developing new techniques on difficult and time-consuming objectives, creative thinking is important. This skill will enable your employees to be more productive in many daily activities.

Be humble
After working and volunteering at many different golf courses, I have experienced various management philosophies at work. The more successful superintendents are always humble and willing to work right beside their staff. They roll up their khakis, pull up their sleeves and fix an irrigation break right beside their assistants. They know what it takes to get the job done and are more than willing to do whatever it takes to complete it.
These superintendents also know when to listen to what other people are saying and are always teaching. Even though, as a superintendent, you are the expert at your club on turf issues, if you’re confused or unsure about a particular problem, reach out to your friends and colleagues to find a solution to the problem. 

Finance skills
Today’s economic challenges affect all types of courses and your ability to manage your course’s maintenance budget is the most important skill to develop.  Taking a few business classes may help you plan and work within a budget.

“Know where your money comes from, and how you allocate it for the best use is imperative,” says Phil Bailey, CGCS of Cypress Creek Golf Club of Smithfield, Virginia. Superintendents must be able to budget for salaries, fertilizer and pesticide costs, capital purchases, equipment and irrigation supplies and unexpected events that happen throughout the season. Your ability to manage the funds of your department will directly influence the quality of the golf course.
When all 10 of these skills are working together, you will develop respect from your employees. This respect is your ultimate goal as the leader of your crew. If your employees don’t respect your views or abilities to lead the group, then the work ethic and quality of their work will directly influence the quality of the course.  Take for example some of the best coaches in sports throughout history; coaches such as Herb Brooks, Don Shula, Joe Torre and Vince Lombardi; they all had the respect from their players who were willing to follow their plan. You, as the coach of your crew, must do the same and lead them to the goals set forth by your organization.

Each member of this industry must always remember that the course in which they work is never “your course,” but instead always think that it is the “members’ course” or “customers’ course” and manage it accordingly. Never take credit personally for your crews’ work but instead give credit where credit is due.

For all the students or assistants trying to work their way up the ladder, use these skills for personal growth to get an edge in the industry. The economy and job market will get better and the cream of the crop will rise to the top. If you’re passionate enough for this career and the work ethic shows, then you will have no problems finding a job.

We are all human and not one single person is perfect. Just like the many different species and cultivars, we are all different in our styles and characteristics. We are always students in the game of life. So take these skills and build on your strengths and weaknesses.

About the author
Nick Klinkhammer is completing his studies at the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities and will be graduating in the Fall of 2011 with a degree in horticulture with a focus in turfgrass science and hopefully a minor in business management. He's interned at Whistling Straits (Straits Course) in Kohler, Wis., and at Pinehurst Resort (Course No. 2) in Pinehurst, N.C. Nick, who is a frequent GCI contributor, also earned third place in the Environmental Institute of Golf and Golf Course Superintendents Association of America Essay Contest.