Six rules for labor management

Columns - golf therapy

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February 1, 2021

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I remember the moment I became attuned to issues of labor management. It was late on a Saturday afternoon on the North Side of Chicago and I was visiting a distinguished private club to speak at a dinner. We were touring the course after a rain shower and my host was telling me about how hard their veteran superintendent worked. Then we spotted him, alone and ankle deep in a water-filled bunker, shovel in hand with a drain hose nearby. “You see, there he is,” my host said. “He’s totally devoted to this place, never stops working.”

I politely acknowledged the comment while thinking to myself, “Here’s a superintendent who is completely disorganized and doesn’t know how to delegate.”

Labor management is all about organizing talent and allocating work efficiently and with respect. A person who takes on everything shows a disregard for themself and is set for failure through exhaustion. It’s also not best for the golf facility, because different people have different talents and one cannot be equally skilled at everything.

Superintendents owe it to themselves, their families, their employees and the club to allocate responsibility, organize tasks, mentor their crew and hire smart people who can learn. Among the telltale traits of a bad superintendent is hiring folks who are less than ideal so they can look good and excel only by comparison.

It’s complicated given the dearth of talent out there, declining turf school enrollments, and the general lack of experience and work ethic that many teens and twentiesomethings have to laboring in a business hierarchy. There’s a strong temptation to want to do everything oneself, but I recommend some alternative steps for success.

1. Know your own strengths

You can’t manage others unless you know yourself well. Every superintendent must have one core competence. It doesn’t matter if it’s turfgrass pathology, water chemistry, operating construction equipment or digital graphic skills. Always have a go-to skill you can build from and share with others. That sets a great example for others while providing a skill set you can fall back on in difficult times.

2. Hire smart people

The most successful executives surround themselves with folks who are smarter than they are and are not afraid to learn from them. By contrast, insecure leaders are afraid to be outshone and surround themselves with incompetents so they’ll look stronger by comparison but build nothing of value in the process.

3. Mentor

Set an example so that you instill in your subordinates the skill and confidence they will need to move up and out. Hire assistants you feel will be able to move into a head position after five to six years rather than keeping them for 20 years to cover for your deficiencies. This entails what’s known as “defeasible authority,” meaning you provide a model so that onetime subordinates can ultimately gain necessary ability and skills. Turf school might provide technical expertise but it never teaches the tact and diplomacy required in a business where you answer to people who think that because they are wealthy and powerful they are also knowledgeable — when they are completely ignorant.

4. Delegate

Let others learn, which also entails the risk that they might fail. There’s no other way to acquire the specific skills they will need — including cultivating their core competence. Take time to learn your employees’ hopes and aspirations and encourage them to acquire what it takes to achieve that while making it clear to them the golf course must be prepped on a daily basis.

5. Hire women

Recruit women, which automatically increases the potential employee pool. Forget the old canards about women not being physically up to the challenge or being distracted by other things. Given the competition for qualified help, expanding the applicant pool will provide you with a new coterie of folks eager to learn and prove themselves.

6. Convey respect

It is hard to pay people what they are really worth. Wages count, but there are other methods that go a long way to building loyalty and longevity. Keep in mind your crew’s cultural backgrounds, their various holidays and family traditions. If they need time off, be considerate. And when you need to defend against harassment — racial, sexual, religious — be scrupulous. That includes coming to employees’ defense against any discrimination by members and golfers. A zero-tolerance will go a long way toward conveying the respect employees deserve.

Bradley S. Klein, Ph.D. (political science), former PGA Tour caddie, is a veteran golf journalist, book author (“Discovering Donald Ross,” among others) and golf course consultant. Follow him on Twitter (@BradleySKlein).