Assisting your assistants

Columns - Outside the Ropes

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September 4, 2019

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Just as I was sitting down to write this column, I heard a quote from former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer about where he worked: “This is a performance business,” he said. “If you don’t perform, you are out of business.”

That certainly rings true for the golf industry, as well. How well we perform is the ultimate yardstick, a fact of particular importance right now as the annual shuffle of senior and assistant superintendent positions opens up and the interviewing season begins.

I’ve been on both sides of the interview table, most recently on the asking side, helping many clubs hire the best person to be responsible for their golf course. And I have to be very honest here: many aspiring candidates simply aren’t prepared to take the next steps up the professional ladder. They’re making too many mistakes during the recruitment and interview process — mistakes that show weaknesses in their training.

What I’m saying is, we’re all to blame, and no one more than you. It’s become very obvious that head superintendents (or VPs of agronomy, directors of course and grounds, whatever the top title is) aren’t doing nearly enough to teach those who work for them and, crucially, preparing them to move up.

Not training the next generation is short-sighted and selfish. Just as someone trained you—admit it, it’s true! — you have a responsibility to pass on knowledge, expertise and resourcefulness to those who work for you. Our industry will thrive and grow only if we pass on what we know and a love of what we do to those who will take the industry forward after we’ve hung up our stimpmeters. Much as you might hate to lose someone, it is part of your job to help them take those next steps.

In trying to help others move up in the ranks, remember that as long as they’re working for you or someone else, they are not truly in charge. They might manage the course, run a crew, come in on holidays and stay late. They might be incredibly responsible and hard working. But they’re not the boss. And in most cases I see, it is those very “boss” skills that are lacking.

Knowing how to manage — not just the course but the people — is key, and where you can offer the most help. Let’s assume these assistants and others know the science and have the on-the-ground working skills. It’s what they do off the course, in the office, and especially around people that matters.

From recent searches and interviews, here’s where I see the most significant shortcomings with young candidates:

Budgeting. Who is preparing the operating budget for your course? Before you say it’s your assistant’s job, think how much he or she is really doing and how much you’re contributing. Are you letting them truly run the budgeting process?

I can’t tell you how often during an interview a committee member will ask the candidate if they’ve ever prepared a budget. Pulling the numbers together for a single line item — chemicals and fertilizer, say — doesn’t count.

Get your assistants most involved in preparing the budget. Make sure they understand the financial implications of everything that’s going on and how it affects a club’s overall economic situation. Make sure they are involved in every aspect of the financial organization of your department and how whatever money goes out is used to improve the condition of the course. So, when asked the simple question — do you prepare the budget? — the answer is a resounding yes.

Personnel. Are your assistants involved in hiring, training and firing? Have they sat in on meetings and become familiar with the legal issues, what can and cannot be said? If not, start right now. Not only will they be better prepared for the next job, they’ll be more help to you now in this era of litigation. It also always helps to have someone else in the room when you’re talking with employees, both to reinforce what’s been said but also to act as witness.

Club operations. Do your assistants interact with the rest of the club’s management team? Do they understand how the other operational areas work? From golf pro to food and beverage, tennis director to general management, even the security staff, make sure they know as many of the club’s other employees as possible and have a good working relationship with them. This is another area that often comes up in interviews, having a wider view of the club than simply irrigation and infestation. Hiding your staff doesn’t reflect well on you, either.

Have your assistants present to a committee or to the board. Make sure they speak effectively, clearly and concisely, and can handle sitting in the proverbial hot seat, answering questions from the people who ultimately have control over your jobs. Facing criticism and tough questions, and learning how to handle them, is key to becoming a professional and a leader.

Those are the minimal assets you should be cultivating in assistants. I’m sure you can think of more now that you’re dedicated to helping your people grow and prosper.

Now listen up assistant course superintendents. I’m not letting you off the hook. Are you really as prepared as you think you are? Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t wait for your boss to bring you in. It’s up to you to ask for more responsibility off the golf course. These aren’t skills you can get from a regional seminar or a GCSAA workshop. It is experience that only comes with boots on the ground. You must take the initiative.
  • Follow up on what I told the superintendents about going beyond the course. Become a team player by going into the clubhouse, interacting with the other staff and asking questions (but don’t go so far as to start annoying people — they have jobs to do, too).
  • Listen. Recently, I rode around a course with a superintendent candidate. He was pretty good, but he continually answered my questions before I finished asking them and it really annoyed me. This guy blew his opportunity, because if he did this with me, he’ll do it in the boardroom or with the general manager and that’s not going to work well for anybody. Even if he was right in his answers, it was impolite and disrespectful. Listen, whether it’s to a question or the conversation going on around you. Listen all the way through, then formulate your answer or opinion, wait your turn and, as appropriate, offer concise, relevant thoughts. There’s a reason you have one mouth and two ears.
  • Do you know how to communicate? It’s key in all successful enterprises and to all successful people. You need to develop the tools to speak and communicate effectively whether to your crew, a member (or board member), an outside vendor or anyone on the club staff. Expand your vocabulary and read more — and not just more turf industry publications. The more you read, the more your conversational vocabulary expands, and the better a communicator you will be.
  • If you’re not comfortable speaking in front of others, work at it. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. That’s what spouses, buddies, and mirrors are for. Practice in front of them so when the time comes to speak in front of boards, committees, members or management, you will feel more at ease.
  • Plan. With jobs few and far between these days, you need to think about your career path as well as a life plan. It’s a cliché, but you will be asked where you want to be in three, five, 10 years, and it’s important not only that you have an answer but that it’s something you’ve thought about and believe in. Having a plan tells you what steps to take and helps guide your decisions. But something else about a plan: Be willing to change it, because you never know what options are going to come along.

Superintendents and assistants. It’s a two-way street. Work together, help each other, be able to look at both the future and the present. Now and later, it’s all about performance, because if you don’t perform, you will be out of this business.

Tim Moraghan, principal, ASPIRE Golf (tmoraghan@aspire-golf.com). Follow Tim’s blog, Golf Course Confidential at www.aspire-golf.com/buzz.html or on Twitter @TimMoraghan