Training employees for success

Superintendents who hold their employees back are doing their workers — and themselves — a disservice.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
The veteran crew at Carey Park Golf Course in Hutchinson, Kan., from left: author Matt Miller (21 years at Carey Park), assistant Keith Cooley (22 years), irrigation tech Korey Wondra (22 years) and mechanic Bob Blake (31 years). Photos courtesy of Matt Miller

In 1996, I had been in my first assistant superintendent position at Willowbend Golf Club for almost a year when Tom Rogers, the superintendent, called me into his office and told me some interesting news. He told me that the assistant superintendent at a country club back in the town where my girlfriend (now wife) was attending college had just accepted a superintendent position elsewhere and that the club needed a new assistant. He thought I might like to know about it.

I respected and got along very well with my boss and was not looking for a different job. But Rogers knew my situation and wanted what was best for me. I contacted the other superintendent, got an interview and was selected for the position. I remember thinking that Rogers must be a hell of a boss to tell his assistant about a different position. We have remained friends to this day, and even though “Old Tom” has moved out of the state, we still communicate.

My next boss, Cliff Dipman, treated me the same way. After a couple of years as his assistant, I was on the lookout for superintendent jobs. Cliff was active in the local GCSAA chapter and knew everybody. He was always sharing information with me regarding open positions and which ones he thought might be the right fit for me. Once again, after I moved on, we remained great friends until his passing.

Both guys were not only my bosses: They were mentors, and, more importantly, they were my friends. They cared about me and my future more than about having me as an assistant. Granted, it was much easier to replace assistants back then and relatively easy to fill seasonal positions. Both individuals were very involved with the Kansas GCSA chapter and encouraged me to be as well. Their involvement and encouragement are what led me to choose to run for the board for the KGCSA and the Kansas Turfgrass Foundation. I think I have followed in their footsteps and have been on both boards for several years. Both of my mentors taught me a lot about growing grass, but, more importantly to me, they taught me how to treat people. I feel I manage my staff much the same ways those guys did. Although they both had different styles, I have incorporated the qualities I saw to be the best of both.

Late Sunflower State great Cliff Dipman (center) flanked by two of his mentees, Jaron Gerber (left) and Miller.

CCIV fertilizer granules

Returning the favor

I recently had a lead seasonal staff member who wanted to train to become an assistant. He was reading textbooks, studying online and learning on-the-job things like reading labels and spraying plant-health products. He had a sizable commute daily, and I knew that was a strain on him financially. I saw a posting for an assistant superintendent that I thought could be a good fit for him and was closer to where he lived. I knew the superintendent and reached out to him explaining that my employee was still in the training phase but might be worth checking out. He was interested, and I encouraged the individual to apply. Ultimately, he got the job. I did not want to lose him because he was a great worker with lots of experience, and we were not done with the training. But I felt it was my duty as his supervisor to do what was best for him and his family and not be selfish. I hope we stay friends throughout his career and remain connected for many years to come.

I’m not sure that happens much these days. I know several superintendents who have been looking for assistants or crew members recently. I have heard stories that superintendents around the country might not be telling their staff members about open positions for fear of losing them. I have heard that when superintendents ask other superintendents about their staff members, they are getting responses indicating they don’t tell their staff about openings because they don’t want to lose them.

It also sounds like they may not want superintendents talking to their staff members directly, as they feel they are “poaching” people from them. There are superintendents who have hired staff members from other courses and found out that those staff members were not told about open positions that had been advertised through the local chapters by their superintendents. Sometimes a quick pay raise helps encourage those staff members not to pursue other interests. If they are only looking for more pay, that may be a great solution for both parties, but, if they are looking for more in their career, I would hope for different results.

I was saddened to hear these comments, but I’m afraid that may be becoming the norm. I’m not sure if it is the difficulty in finding staff members, especially assistants, the decline in students coming out of formal turf programs or the age difference of superintendents that is fueling this type of mentality. I understand the dilemma, but I have a hard time grasping why someone would want to hold their employees back and prevent them from advancing their careers.

I’m aware of the struggle to find quality individuals to do skilled physical labor for wages comparable to fast food chains, but I think compassion and understanding a person’s situation and desires can go a long way with hiring and retaining staff members. My training taught me I should not be afraid to train my replacement constantly. We all hope that happens on our terms or that we are training them for that position elsewhere, but I still believe that is part of my responsibility as a manager.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Influential mentor Tom Rogers (back row, second from right) surrounded by some of his proteges: back row, from left, Ron Reese, now at MacDonald Golf Course in Wichita, Kan.; Roby Robertson, now at TPC San Antonio; Bill Townsend; and Brian Peterson (far right); and, front row from left, Miller and David Hogan.

A team effort

I realize that, with much of the world centered around social media and that being the way for many people to promote themselves, people tend to take care of “me first.” I understand if we don’t toot our own horns that, chances are, nobody else will do that for us. I just don’t want us to get so caught up in our images or number of followers that we neglect to take care of those who help make us look good to our employers.

It is almost always a team effort to make our facilities succeed, and I appreciate seeing posts that praise the team more than the superintendent. Think about when you were starting out in this industry and what assistance you would have wanted from your boss.

I am currently looking for an assistant and will hopefully have that spot filled before this article is published. I will soon have another opening, as the mechanic at my course plans to retire, and I will likely need assistance from my peers to replace that position as well.

Matt Miller is the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Carey Park Golf Course in Hutchinson, Kan., and a 29-year member of the association. He is a past president of both the Kansas GCSA and the Kansas Turfgrass Foundation.