In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic was just starting to shutter every show, game and event that filled our everyday lives, Bert Schmidt reached out to Mike Hirvela and the rest of the folks who had helped produce Green Start Academy — the annual program designed for the professional development of assistant superintendents and sponsored jointly by Bayer and John Deere — for the last decade and a half.
Schmidt is the global manager for market development and strategy for John Deere Golf. Hirvela is the Bayer CropScience Turf & Ornamental customer marketing manager. Along with other dedicated folks, they are responsible for turning Green Start Academy from idea to event. And like so many people in charge of events this year, the pandemic tossed so many knots in their plans.
“If we can’t hold Green Start Academy in person,” Schmidt recalls saying, “we might as well cancel it.”
Thank goodness, Schmidt says, not everybody listened to his suggestion.
“This program is too important,” Schmidt remembers Carlos Arraya, the assistant general manager at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis and a Green Start Academy mentor, replying. “I don’t think we should cancel it. We should think creatively and try to do it virtually.”
After a couple more rounds of emails and calls — along with more than seven months of planning — that is exactly what happened.
Bayer and John Deere welcomed about 50 assistant superintendents — and about 100 program alums — to a unique Green Start Academy, conducted not over a couple days in North Carolina but over a month of Wednesday afternoons on Zoom. The sessions featured professional keynoter Jeff Havens, human resources professional Carol Rau, and Arraya dishing out advice that should help assistants transition from grass growers to real leaders.
The event also included a series of virtual breakout sessions with industry leaders — Arraya, Bob Farren of Pinehurst Resort, Lukus Harvey of Atlanta Athletic Club, Dan Meersman of Philadelphia Cricket Club, Grant Murphy of Barrie Country Club and PJ Salter of Riviera Country Club — that provided another opportunity for assistants to develop leadership tendencies, build professional networks and think about what they need to do to land where they want to be.
The virtual setting “stretched a lot of people to do things differently,” Schmidt says, “and that’s always good for growth.”
Will Laine, for instance, “had never been on a Zoom call until my first Green Start Academy session.” Laine is assistant superintendent at Daniel Island Club in Charleston, South Carolina. How he steered clear of video conference calls for eight months remains a mystery and a wonder.
“I was skeptical that I wasn’t going to take as much away, that I wouldn’t be as engaged,” he says. “I was skeptical I wouldn’t have the same experience others have before. But I couldn’t imagine going to an in-person event now, I got so much out of the virtual event.
“I almost wanted to back out at the last second, but I’m glad I didn’t. The little time it took out of my afternoons was worth it. Being able to set time aside one day a week, it was something I looked forward to. I prepped for it almost like I would prep for an exam.”
Laine attended breakout sessions with Salter, a rookie Green Start Academy mentor who followed up with recap emails he referred to as a “Saturday Morning Cup of Coffee” and packed his Tuesday breakouts with even more guest presenters. (Salter scheduled time with longtime USGA Green Section officials Steve Kammerer and Todd Lowe, who moved to Bayer in 2018; his own mentor, Eric von Hofen of The Club at Weston Hills; Ralph Dain of the GCSAA; and resume wizard Erin Wolfram of Career Advantage.)
“Who could I bring in from my network who’s helped me along the way and could help drive home each week’s points?” Salter says. “This stuff that they’ve taught the guys is golden. It’s right at the top of the list of things I wish I had learned in college.”
Salter never would have been able to call upon friends and colleagues for a traditional in-person Green Start Academy. His “labor of love” breakout sessions only happened because of Zoom.
Marty Paget also attended those breakout sessions with Salter. He worked as a superintendent at four smaller clubs in Kansas and Missouri during his 20s and 30s. Now 44, he’s an assistant superintendent at The National Golf Club of Kansas City in Parkville, Missouri. Spurred on by what he learned during the program, he says he plans to apply for first assistant positions at clubs with a national profile or a superintendent position at an 18-hole course larger than where he worked when he was younger — while still becoming more of a leader at The National.
“Sometimes you have to be a boss, not just a friend,” Paget says. “But it’s nice to interact with your team beyond just work.”
Like the rest of the 2020 attendees, Paget and Laine will have the option to attend a future Green Start Academy in person — and both expressed interest in cashing in on that opportunity.
The virtual event was fantastic, after all, but, as Laine says, “I would like to meet all these people in person eventually.”
And yes, Schmidt and Hirvela say, Green Start Academy will return to an in-person format when it’s safe to do so. But the program will also include an expanded slate of complementary virtual events open to all alums.
“We have lost touch with many of the alumni,” Hirvela says. “Green Start Academy has never been meant to be a one-and-done event, but part of your professional career development. I think there’s a great opportunity to engage the alumni in some kind of virtual event as long as they want to attend.”
“One of the main positives was we connected with the alumni,” Schmidt says. “We realized we had sort of lost touch and we hadn’t kept alumni connected. This gave us an opportunity to reconnect. I think we had something like 100 alumni attend, and that was positive. … It gave our internal staff” an opportunity to attend, too. “It opened their eyes to what we’re trying to do to grow the industry.”
Will these additional Zoom calls be monthly? Bi-monthly? Quarterly? Could Green Start Academy expand to a two- or three-year format that mixes virtual and in-person meetings? Nothing is set yet, but the foundation is there to reach more people more frequently as soon as next year.
And that’s the real goal.
“Green Start Academy has showed me some of the areas I need to work on to become a better leader, to become a better manager,” says Laine, who says he wants to be a superintendent by the time he turns 30. “Somebody once told me this industry is 90 percent managing people, 10 percent growing grass, and when I came out of school, I thought the complete opposite. That’s not it. The grass-growing’s the easy part. The hard part is hiring good, quality employees and leading them.
“You teach them what you expect and you give them respect, they’ll give it right back to you.”
Matt LaWell is Golf Course Industry’s managing editor.