Taking the leap: From superintendent to general manager

Superintendents who have made the transition to jobs as general managers say the move comes with plenty of challenges, but lots of rewards as well.


Taking the leap
The jump from superintendent to general manager entails dedication and hard work — qualities that most turf managers already possess. Image by Ollyy/Shutterstock.com

Most golf course superintendents are natural leaders. Keepers of the green are also comfortable managing risky and weighty workloads. That’s why, for many, shifting from working on the golf course to working in the boardroom — from superintendent to general manager — makes a great deal of sense. “I’m not growing grass anymore, I’m growing people,” says Pat Finlen, CGCS, general manager at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, describing the key difference in his role as a general manager versus his former job as the facility’s superintendent.

“Superintendents have to overcome the hurdle of the image of the guy outside in a baseball cap, up to his ankles in mud,” says Saeed Assadzandi, CGCS, who is the general manager and chief operating officer at the Country Club of North Carolina in Pinehurst. “We don’t look like a businessman. But while I might be up to my ankles in mud in the morning, I can put on a suit and tie in the afternoon and hold my own in a board meeting.”

Just like Finlen and Assadzandi, more and more superintendents aren’t just contemplating such a career change, but are making the move successfully. Finlen is a perfect example of the most conventional way superintendents rise to general manager roles — through one’s current club. It’s best positioned to recognize your experience and skill set, which can help make you a leading candidate if and when the opportunity presents itself. “One thing I look at and point out all the time to people is that when you are at a full-service country club, the person with the broadest skill set and the widest variety of experience are golf course maintenance leaders,” says Armen Suny, a search and consulting executive with the recruitment company Kopplin Kuebler & Wallace, and a former superintendent who mowed his first green 44 years ago.

Early riser

Finlen was quick to explore diverse careers in the golf industry, including general manager positions. He’d played the game as a teen, and by chance was recruited to help on an irrigation project at his local club. This led to a job mowing greens on the weekends. After high school, Finlen earned a degree in business administration. “I thought I would go into sales or something like that, but ended up running a landscape company with my brother,” he recalls.

In part because of economic conditions and skyrocketing interest rates in the early 1980s, the business did not succeed, and Finlen was back looking for work. He took a job on a golf course working on the maintenance crew for $5.50 an hour, but within a month, the assistant superintendent at the club had left, and Finlen was promoted to second in command. Then, in June 1984, the head superintendent moved on, and Finlen was promoted again. His swift ascension from crew member to superintendent meant Finlen had little choice but to learn on the job, and he still carries many of those early lessons on budgeting and people management with him today.

In 2001, Finlen’s track record impressed a corporate search firm, which ultimately connected him with The Olympic Club, where he was eventually offered the head superintendent job. While in that position, he led preparations for the 2012 U.S. Open. A year after the successful hosting of that event, Finlen was looking for a new challenge, in addition to the one awaiting him at GCSAA, where he was poised to become the association’s 2013 president. To help fulfill that wish, The Olympic Club created a new post for him: director of golf.

He wasn’t in that new role long. In May 2013, The Olympic Club’s general manager announced he would be departing, and Finlen assumed interim GM duties. By the end of the year, following a national search by the club, Finlen had taken the reins as general manager on a full-time basis.

Words of wisdom

Finlen’s best advice for other superintendents looking to make this transition? Network. “Get to know other GMs and network with them,” the 32-year GCSAA member says. “My belief is that the superintendent, the director of golf and the club manager are all a team that needs to work together. The more you know and understand about their job and what is involved, the more prepared you are when the day comes that you might want to become a general manager.”

Aspiring general managers don’t just need to network externally, but also internally, Finlen says. Often, superintendents are not expected to be as visible to their membership as employees in other positions of leadership within a club. The opposite is true for a general manager — the best GMs spend more time inspecting their facilities than they do in their offices.

Often, what comes along with this added visibility is more “feedback” from members, so superintendents turned GMs need to cultivate the type of personality that can deal with any and all criticism. “You need to have thick skin,” advises Glenn Smickley, the general manager at California Golf Club of San Francisco and another superintendent who has changed hats and thrived. “You can’t listen to every complaint. As a GM, you are more on the front lines. What I tell most of the guys who call and ask me about being GM is that it’s a great thing to do if you don’t mind being on the front line and you have the personality to do it.”

Keep in mind, then, that this transition is not for everybody. “When I was a superintendent, the grass never complained,” says Assadzandi, a 24-year GCSAA member. “I managed it; it was really quiet and never talked back. Think of the quote, ‘You can’t please all of the people all of the time.’ That’s what it can be like in the GM’s seat.”

Next-level qualifications

For superintendents considering this career switch, a few other factors can assist in deciding whether the step is the right one. For example, the hours that general managers work can be extensive. “Your total working hours may not be much different from what you are used to as a superintendent, but it’s more how these hours are allocated,” says Assadzandi.

Another potential hurdle for superintendents is a lack of experience in food and beverage operations, although this perception is beginning to change as more search firms and club boards begin to recognize the full scope of skills and experience superintendents possess. “If you have any aspirations of doing something more than growing grass and taking your career to the next level, now is the time, as clubs and course owners are waking up a bit,” Assadzandi says. “Superintendents are educated, trained, dedicated and, by default, hard workers. Why not give them the chance?”

Regarding food and beverage know-how, Finlen says, “I don’t need to know about how to cook or how to wait tables, but I need to know how to hire the right people, lead and direct them for these jobs.” Finlen still recalls his first interview for a general manager position, conducted by a search firm in 2010. The head of the committee asked him what he knew about food and beverage, and he admitted he knew very little. “What I told him, though, was that I knew about leadership and about hiring people. Supers get everything thrown at them — whatever job others don’t want to do. The job is not just growing grass, but it’s also maintaining a facility and buildings. Supers are so well prepared. Their toolbox of skills is great.”

Finally, Assadzandi advises that while his turf and maintenance colleagues still need to prove themselves as good general manager candidates, they also shouldn’t be shy when an opening arises. “Take the bull by the horns,” Assadzandi says. “All that can happen is they say no. Follow the age-old adage: ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get.’”

David McPherson is a freelance writer based in Waterloo, Ontario, and a regular GCM contributor.