Establishing order

Features - Management

Industry leaders share their experiences — and a horror story or two — about what does and does not make for a strong chain of command.

September 6, 2019

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A wisely established and working chain of command doesn’t just make running a military operation go as smoothly as possible. It is also crucial to the success of any business, and that includes golf clubs and courses.

Without a clear chain of command, rules can be set and adjusted by anyone, says Mark Nance, president of MAN Golf Management LLC. “Only the person at the top of the food chain should have the authority to make rules and guidelines,” he says. “Manuals should be made for employees that explain their job duties and expectations.” Written guidelines ensure that employees should have consistency in handling situations and customers. Superintendents usually have a different agenda than the golf professional. Therefore, someone has to make a call on what’s best for the facility.

Bryan Barrington, the co-founder of Alliance Management, believes chain of command is “very important” to the operations of a golf facility. “Tasks are disseminated to various staffing levels as to their importance and sensitivity in relationship to the business,” he says. Without the chain of command, staff has no guidance as to their responsibilities and job descriptions. “The lack of a leadership hierarchy will result in chaos and the perception of incompetence,” Barrington says.

Michael Kahn is the president of Golfmak, Inc. and a golf business consultant. He offered up a worst-case scenario when a chain of command is not in place: “I was working with an upper New York State golf course where the owner could not refrain from going past his managers to ‘boss’ rank and file employees.” The result? Chaos. There’s that word again. “With continued interference from the owner, the business never properly operated and never came close to its potential,” Kahn adds.

“A functional chain of command improves overall efficiency and workflow, while also setting a clear path to achieve the company objectives and operational targets,” Troon Golf COO Mike Ryan says. “Establishing a well-defined company structure clarifies the chain of command and provides a clear path related to the overall decisions that an associate is allowed to make. And a precise and well-established chain of command creates an environment void of uncertainty and chaos.” Yep. Chaos. Again.

Dave Wasenda, president of appliedgolf Management, believes that the downturn in the golf business during the Great Recession forced some changes at clubs and courses, and not for the better. “A lot of clubs eliminated staff and the layers of management were not what they should have been,” he says. “Some places went overboard in an effort to save money and made a flat organizational chart.” The result was erratic decision making and the business of running clubs and courses “went off in different directions.”

According to Ryan, it is “absolutely critical” for the health of a club to have the general manager delegate various responsibilities to his or her staff. “Proper delegation leads to improved efficiency, important development opportunities for team leaders, and overall improved empowerment,” he says. A frequently overlooked component of delegation is the fact that it typically improves the decision-making process within an organization. “Direct supervisors and managers often have a better understanding of potential challenges within the organization, and pushing some of this decision making “down the line” often results in a better outcome for the club. In addition, this opportunity to be involved in key decisions leads to improved morale and overall ownership of the company objectives.”

Because each club has different economic considerations and operational needs because of size, membership, etc., those considerations and needs dictate what a viable chain of command should look like. “The person with the most golf education/experience is usually the right person to be in charge,” Nance says. Municipal golf courses can be run by the golf professional because their main focus is golf and simple food service. Resort courses might need a golf director to handle events, travel and banquets. High-end clubs might need a general manager to have all departments running smoothly. The general manager should oversee the superintendent, golf director and food/beverage manager.

Wasenda agrees that the chain of command chart should depend on the size of the club and its financial needs. “If it is a small club or course doing $1 million of annual revenue you might have a manager running the cash register, doing the bank deposits, greeting the customers, marketing and pretty much everything in between,” he says. “At a $3 million club, a manager does a lot less of that. He or she should be more into managing the staff. At a $5 million-and-up club, the general manager has a deep staff and shouldn’t be hands on so much with the staff under him or her, but running the overall business.”

Josh Lesnik, president of KemperSports, explains that his company developed a proprietary training program called “True Service” that instructs staffers on how to deliver “exceptional” customer service. The training and development program helps instill “a sense of ownership and accountability” in staff, and gives them tools and best practices to deliver “genuine, helpful and friendly” service to guests.

Kahn’s chain of command “starts at the top with ownership,” which generally implements plans, instructions and approvals through the general manager. The general manager is, or should be, the only employee answering directly to ownership — or if under a management company, to the head office. “However, at the golf course itself, there are usually three division managers,” he says. “A pro shop manager (the golf pro), a superintendent, and the kitchen or banquet manager. The three are equal, as they are the experts in their respective divisions. However, I would settle a secondary pecking order clearly among the three division managers in the absence of the general manager. In most cases, the PGA pro would be at the top of that order.”

KemperSports’ most successful managers “know when and who to delegate certain responsibilities to on their team,” Lesnik says. This is important in both the short and long term to accomplish a facility’s goals. “We want to create upward mobility for our ambitious staffers to advance their careers and to help grow the business,” Lesnik adds. “Their bosses need to learn about their strengths and weaknesses and how they handle various responsibilities, which in turn will help them rise up the ranks quickly in their careers.”

KemperSports likes its general managers to hold weekly meetings with all department heads. Regional operations executives attend many of these meetings to ensure coordination, leadership and problem-solving. All staff members also receive formal performance appraisals on at least an annual basis.

Performance reviews serve many purposes, including building good relationships with staff members, establishing a formal means of communication between staff members and management, improving staff morale, correcting performance problems, determining staffer training and development needs, and serving as a means of validating merit increases, promotions, or disciplinary actions and terminations. Regular reviews, Lesnik adds, provide platforms for praise of a staff member’s strengths and reinforcement of positive behavior. Likewise, they help to identify a staffer’s weaknesses and correct performance deficiencies.

“The timing of staff meetings can vary depending on the audience and the structure of the club,” Ryan says. Weekly leadership team meetings are recommended, while “all associate meetings” are likely to take place on a monthly basis. “It’s not uncommon for specific departments to have daily ‘pre-shift’ meetings in order to clearly communicate the goals and objectives for the day,” he says.

Barrington likes to hold weekly staff meetings with department heads to discuss “the financial position” of the facility and to walk through any and all events coming up over the next two weeks. “Then I will have a staff meeting with my department to make sure my staff is aware of what is happening at the course level so they can prepare for upcoming events,” he adds.

“Ultimately, we have some hurdles we have to overcome as course operators. We have a coaching program (corrective action versus discipline) set up where we can walk a staff member through the steps of how to address a certain issue, whether that be customer service issues, logistics or disseminating information.”

But if the chain of command begins to snap, Kahn says, “sometimes a remedy is almost impossible to administer” — as it was at the New York State golf course referenced above, where the owner “could not stop himself from meddling in day-to-day business. It was impossible to manage the golf course properly under those circumstances.”

The most disruptive behavior is when a division manager is bypassed by a superior to “boss” the latter’s subordinates. “My mentor over 50 years ago promised me when he hired me that he would never boss my subordinates,” Kahn says. “He told me that he would instruct a subordinate through me, not around me. He also told me that if an employee screwed up, it was me that screwed up.”

Wasenda says the first sign that the chain of command is in trouble is when workers begin quitting. “It’s not just one person quitting but a wave of people,” he adds. “Where there is smoke there is fire. It’s a sign something is wrong. Another indicator is when the club is not performing well financially, service is not what it should be or the course’s conditioning begins to suffer. A manager or owner has to ask, ‘Why is this happening?’ When something is wrong, you can see it, feel it.” Hopefully, it is not too late to make adjustments to the chain of command, change staff and get the ship righted before it founders on the rocks.

It can become very clear when there is a weak link in the chain, Lesnik says. “Miscommunication is typically the first sign that the chain of command is not working as it should. If this is the case, it’s very important that general managers and department heads take swift and clear action before miscommunication leads to more costly and time intensive problems.”

The chain of command at a club or course should be made of strong links that bind a staff together for the common good of the facility. And it should also be constantly checked for any weak links that might damage the end product, the golf club and course, and start members and customers mumbling to themselves — or worse, taking their business elsewhere.