A leader’s demeanor: Remaining positive with staff in spite of decisions passed down from management that the superintendent may disagree with is among the qualities GCSAA past president Dennis Lyon, CGCS (right), sees in a successful superintendent. Photo courtesy of Dennis Lyon
What are the 11 words a golf course superintendent dreads most? They’re often delivered after the superintendent has been called into the boss’s office for a meeting, only to find the entire green committee assembled in the room. The boss has suddenly become what I refer to as the “Greenkeeper Grim Reaper.” Out of the boss’s mouth then come those 11 awful words: “We have decided to take the course in a new direction.”
No one tells you what the new direction is or what was wrong with the old direction — all you know is that you’re now out of a job. You suddenly feel like you’ve been hit by a truck (I’ve actually been hit by a truck before — it doesn’t feel too good). Questions flood your mind. How do I pay my bills? What about my family? What happens to my career? And, if you’re over the age of 55, you fearfully ask yourself: How do I compete for a new job with the highly educated, tech-savvy assistant superintendent down the road who has been waiting 10 years for a chance at a head superintendent job?
As a past president and 43-year member of GCSAA, I have heard countless stories from peers about encounters with the Greenkeeper Grim Reaper. I was fortunate to have a career that encompassed 37 years as the superintendent/manager of golf for the city of Aurora, Colo., and during my time in the role, I had the opportunity to manage a park-style municipal course, an executive 18-hole course, a country club the city purchased, a military course the Army turned over to the city after the base closed, and a nine-hole par-3. I was also the project manager on the construction of two community-style championship courses. What follows are my suggestions to fellow superintendents for thriving in their careers, and they also double as strategies for steering clear of the Greenkeeper Grim Reaper.
1. Be fully committed to your job and employer
This may seem straightforward, but in addition to providing a stellar golf course, make setting an example as a team player a priority. The superintendent is an essential component of the facility management team, so being knowledgeable about all aspects of the facility is important and a sign of dedication. If you’re unhappy on the job, figure out why and what would need to change for you to feel content in your position. If these changes don’t seem plausible, it may be time to consider moving on.
2. Stay positive with staff
The superintendent is responsible for representing the interests of the golf operation to the maintenance team, and not all the decisions and expectations handed down will seem fair or appropriate. However, negative words spoken by you (the boss) to crew members about their employer will only dampen their morale and attitude toward their work. Negativism moves things in the wrong direction and only ends up making any situation worse. Take the high road and keep a positive, can-do attitude. A strong leader inspires staff by being optimistic and supportive, not by complaining.
During my decades in the golf business, I have found it best never to assume that negative comments made to anyone will remain confidential. Expect that negative remarks will make their way to others — even to those who sign your paychecks — and conduct yourself accordingly.
3. Increase your value to your employer
Take on additional responsibilities when the opportunity arises, and, when possible, be an even more active participant in the management of the facility. There was a time in my career when the city operated only three golf courses. My boss thought I had leadership abilities that could be extended further, so he added the management of the city’s forestry division and the maintenance of all city buildings (libraries, police stations, etc.) to my list of duties. I had these responsibilities for about 10 years in addition to managing Aurora’s golf courses. Eventually, the city started adding more courses, and I went back to overseeing golf exclusively, but during those 10 years, I upped my worth to my employer. I also learned a lot from my extra duties, which made me a better superintendent for the remainder of my career.
4. Be visible and engaged
For some superintendents, interacting with people comes naturally. For others, it may be a burden. I have found that many superintendents tend to be more the behind-the-scenes type. We undoubtedly prefer a beautiful golf course at sunrise to a board meeting at sunset, yet both scenarios are critical to our livelihood and success.
When it comes to on-course interaction, I believe most golfers think superintendents have an interesting, exciting job, so don’t shy away from chances to engage with them. Be approachable and friendly. Successful superintendents seize opportunities to listen to customers and members, even when the feedback may not be positive. Accept complaints as valuable information, take them to heart, and act on them appropriately. Usually, “Thank you for sharing your thoughts” is the only initial response required. Encourage your team to be approachable and friendly as well. A welcoming demeanor from staff members helps their fellow employees and 99 percent of golfers have a better experience out on the course.
5. Remember: No matter how much you love your golf course, unless you own it, it does not belong to you
For a superintendent to nurture and love his or her golf course is common and healthy. However, I have seen superintendents allow feelings of ownership to become a detriment to their careers. We are employees ourselves, and our job description is to maintain and manage the facility the way the owners want it maintained and managed, even if we may disagree. As professionals, it is proper to share our thoughts with our managers, particularly when we have a different opinion, but in the final analysis, remember: Ownership rules, and long-term employees follow the rules. Successful superintendents accept this reality.
6. Don’t focus solely on providing healthy, beautiful turf
Providing healthy, beautiful turf is inherently part of the superintendent’s charge, but keep in mind that your job is also to manage turf in a manner that furnishes excellent and appropriate playing conditions for the game of golf. Successful superintendents are not simply growers of beautiful grass — they are also providers of excellent playing conditions. To be satisfactory, course conditions must promote fairness, enjoyment and an overall positive experience for those participating in the game of golf. My suggestion is to view the golf course less through the eyes of a turfgrass expert and more through the eyes of a player.
7. Be respectful and kind to staff, always
Successful superintendents provide the training and tools their employees need to do their jobs exceptionally. As leaders, they are role models who set high performance standards. They are also professional and empathetic in dealing with staff-related issues.
I recall an incident years ago in which a superintendent was upset with his employees and decided to remind them all who was boss via a verbal tirade. This approach was, in my view, a sign of leadership weakness. Rest assured, your staff already knows who the boss is. The supervisor should have instead determined what had caused the circumstances that resulted in his frustration, and then taken a more appropriate and more specific action. Perhaps staff had a training issue. Perhaps there was a communication problem. Perhaps the employees didn’t feel they were being treated properly, and their performance reflected it. A good leader is able to remain levelheaded, address the situation in the manner it merits, and deal with employees fairly and professionally, not emotionally.
Over the years, situations would arise that upset me, and I’d find myself wondering, “How in the world did this happen?” A technique that always worked for me was to resist responding quickly. Assuming it wasn’t a safety issue, I took time — possibly a couple of days — to calm down, analyze the situation, and determine how to deal with it professionally and respectfully. I’ve found that time is my friend. With time, difficult situations become less so, and good solutions become evident.
8. Continue your education
We are in a complex and competitive career. An investment in education is an investment in personal and facility success. A successful superintendent remains committed to the profession by sharpening his or her technical, personal and professional skills. Attend conferences and local chapter meetings. Get to know fellow superintendents, and learn from them as you would any other educational resource. In this age of social media and electronic connections, I am worried human connections are being neglected. Tap GCSAA and your local chapter as personal and professional assets. We all learn from each other, and, in my view, we learn even more face to face.
Thanks largely to the camaraderie fostered by GCSAA, golf course superintendents care about and support each other, especially during difficult times. My hope is that you never hear those 11 devastating words from the Greenkeeper Grim Reaper. If he does come knocking, however, if you have forged connections with your fellow superintendents, you won’t face him alone.
Dennis Lyon, CGCS, is a 43-year member of GCSAA and was the superintendent/manager of golf for the city of Aurora, Colo., for 37 years before retiring in 2010. He served as GCSAA president in 1989, and was honored with the association’s Col. John Morley Distinguished Service Award in 2013. Lyon received the USGA Green Section award in 2011, and was recognized by the Colorado Golf Association in 2015 as the Golf Course Superintendent of the Century. He and his wife, Penny, live in Aurora and have four children and six grandchildren.