The New Superintendent’s Survival Guide

Features - Management

Starting an unfamiliar job can be daunting and fulfilling. Here are proven ways to make a strong impression with your new employer and crew.


Congratulations! You have earned the superintendent position at ABC Golf and Country Club and today is your first day on the job. You are parked in front of the maintenance facility sitting in your truck gathering your thoughts before you walk into the promised land. What is going through your mind? What is your plan? What happens if your plan goes up in smoke, do you have a plan B or plan C even? There are many factors at work here on Day 1 of your tenure as golf course superintendent. General things like expectations of members, staff and management, and let’s not forget those specific things like budgets and spray schedules. The years of education and experience have brought you here, and now the quality of your decisions and performance from this moment forward will have a direct impact on the level of your success. It is show time.

There are three common roads that lead to a new superintendent job. The first scenario is that you have been promoted after years of service at the facility and now you are assuming the golf course superintendent position. The second scenario is that you were chosen after a lengthy interview process and entering the operation from outside the property/company. The third scenario is a hybrid: you are coming into a distressed property that is either financially or agronomically challenged (sometimes both) and facing specific problems that must be solved for the operation to survive. You are “the solution.” We are going to break down these areas of opportunity for a new superintendent and share strategies and career tools that will help you find success in your new superintendent position whether you are a true rookie or seasoned veteran with a new address.

Scenario 1

You have been promoted to golf course superintendent within your current property

You have worked hard, started at the bottom, paid your dues and as of today moved from assistant golf course superintendent to superintendent. You know the crew and are familiar with the property and its systems and politics. These are all positives and will work in your favor. Then why is it so hard to thrive in your first year as superintendent? Mostly the job is inherently tough and the dangers are sometimes hidden. Dangers to watch for in this situation are common, but not obvious. Here are three common dangers for the promoted from within superintendent to be aware of:

No changes please. Stakeholders may expect you to manage exactly like your predecessor and are seeking a more of the same with a no drama style of operation. You may feel that it is time to make some changes, and that now is your time. But now we have a problem.

The best solution to this problem is an equal dose of patience and communication. Start by setting up meetings that will allow you to actively listen to stakeholder expectations and gradually move your ideas into the discussion and eventually into the operation as you earn credibility as the head superintendent. Remember this is an emotional time for everyone, so slow things down and make sure you do not overreact and keep in mind they chose you for the job for a reason, find the reason and build on that foundation.

Staff resentment syndrome. This one is as old as soil. These issues sometimes are public but usually are subversive. They somehow always find their way back to the superintendent.

Curing this situation requires a large dose of transparency and some thick skin (do not react to the words or rumors of words rashly spoken). Words are powerful and negative comments that are left unchecked can create bigger problems later. Meet with the primary perpetrators and discover why they are so unhappy. Be in control, be empathetic and ultimately create a new relationship that requires buy-in and accountability both ways up and down the organization chart. Your role as superintendent will require leadership and nothing shows leadership better than converting a naysayer back into a valued team member.

Not quite ready for the big chair. After your promotion, you find yourself ignoring new superintendent job responsibilities and prefer to spend your time doing more menial and comfortable tasks that could easily be delegated and performed by staff. You are not the first superintendent who dreamed of getting out of the budget review meeting and mowing some grass, checking on the crew or starting a project. Try not to bump your assistant out of the way if this happens. There are times this is not an issue. You know if you have everything under control or not. If not, the first step is a mentoring session with your new boss to review your new duties with deadlines and expectations. Handle the new higher-priority tasks first and only when the new boxes have checks in them should you return to lesser tasks that are now the responsibility of your subordinates. Lead by thought (planning) and appropriate action (delegation and personal action). Mastering this will be the difference between an average career and a stellar career because you will always be ready for your next position.

Scenario 2

You were chosen after a lengthy interview process and are coming into the operation from outside the property/company

The person who gets the position is indeed fortunate, but it’s the person who excels and exceeds the new expectations that truly succeeds. This situation requires quick results, like Clark Kent jumping out of a phone booth as Superman quick. (Dear millennials, faster than your latest iPhone app, that kind of quick). So rather than talk about negatives or dangers, let’s focus on the positive. The top three skills that an outsider/new hire superintendent needs in their first year are:

Watch, listen and learn. In the first 30 days, try to be a sponge and gather as much information about procedures, policies and people (past and present) as you possibly can. Unless there is something illegal going on, try to limit major changes during the “welcome period.” Build trust by becoming the student and let the existing staff show you their ways and means. Maximize any formal orientation process and participate in each session with enthusiasm and demonstrate the ability to communicate in a 360-degree manner with all operational stakeholders. Remember you are only as good as the information you use to make decisions.

Serve somebody. During the first 90 days of your employment or the traditional probationary period, one way to gain a quick following throughout the operation is to simply serve somebody and do the right thing no matter how small it may seem. Volunteer to help with the company charity drive, offer to do the tough stuff like clean the bathroom, empty trash or cut down the storm damaged tree. Buy those Girl Scout cookies, buy someone’s lunch, send hand-written thank you notes and be on the lookout for a chance to invest yourself in your new team. The smallest action trumps the grandest intention, and people notice the difference.

Become part of the property’s culture. The legacy of your first year as superintendent begins even before you arrive on property. Be aware of the potential impact of your first email, phone conversation, green committee meeting and procedure adjustment. Your physical arrival on property should enhance any business and personal protocols that exist and produce a visible change that will become your trademark. Your ability to genuinely understand and value the property’s culture and your role in it is critical to success. Craft yourself into the perfect fit for your property’s unique puzzle and you will be rewarded every day, thus eventually becoming a major contributor to the protocols that govern the property.

In closing this section, I did not forget about the importance of agronomics in the success of any superintendent. I would point out that agronomic and cultural practices with preferences should completely integrate the day-to-day and strategic planning of the superintendent and would be intricately woven into the three areas covered.

Scenario 3

You are the new superintendent brought in to solve a specific problem or problems

You have just accepted your next challenge, you are the golf course superintendent at a club in trouble, but a club with a lot of potential if things turn around. All you must do now is solve the problems and turn this job into a gem. This is serious business because the National Golf Foundation tells us that we lost another 150 or so golf courses last year so success is certainly not a guarantee. However, sometimes a superintendent committed to the cause with the right skills can give even the most critical patient a new life. Here are five unwavering skills needed to find success as a superintendent even when the odds are against you:

Accurately identify the problem or problems to be solved. Why are revenues down? Is it a conditioning problem or an infrastructure problem? Is it marketing, competition, weather, rate or volume driven? Find the real problem and then real solution, and your role in it becomes clearer.

Skills trump titles when the chips are down. There are two powerful skills that a great superintendent possesses: the skills that he personally brings to work each day and skills he can replicate by teaching others to do them. When times are tough, creating a well-trained staff from whatever human resources are available is borderline miraculous whether you have a staff of two or 200.

First things first. Create a goal driven “to-do” system that is simple to record, track and refer to for planning. Firefighters have a plan before they rush into a burning building and so should a problem-solving superintendent. These plans are created from great data collected in similar circumstances and properly evaluated after the fire has been put out and strategic thinking can show critical options for future decisions.

Persevere, you will be tested. Whether the problems are financial, environmental, cultural, political or even at times personal, you will be tested as you take on superintendent duties in a distressed property. It will at times be unforgiving and unfair, and you must rise higher than the situation to make things better. You will certainly grow from the experiences, but managing the stress and focusing on the brighter future will keep your perseverance meter on high. Talk to other superintendent mentors frequently for advice and encouragement. You are not alone.

A line in the sand. In difficult situations, we can all be tempted to cross the line of behavior and ethics. It is important to give 100 percent effort to be successful for the property and yourself, but you must always know where to draw the line. It is perhaps the most important skill we have as superintendents working in difficult situations because it is our anchor in rough seas and our lighthouse in the dark times reminding us what is most noble about our profession.

It takes a special person to take a tough assignment as a superintendent and make the most of it. It is long hours and certainly days full of peaks and valleys, but if you have the skills and are given the opportunity, you can find success where most fear to look. Press on.

The road for the new superintendent is seldom wide or straight. It is in the small details that we often find our greatest truths. In 2017, I stand as a new superintendent for the fourth time in my 30-plus year career, and I have embraced the full spectrum of the life of a superintendent. I hope that you found something helpful in this article and you will in turn share it with another superintendent because we are after all a brotherhood that is only as strong as our weakest link.

Anthony Williams, CGCS, started his current position as the director of golf course maintenance and landscaping at the Four Seasons Resort Club Dallas at Las Colinas in Irving, Texas, earlier this year. He’s a frequent GCI contributor.