Leadership is both technical (the management side) and visionary (the strategic side). No one follows a leader for long who is not caring and visionary. In the end, excellence in leadership is a moral endeavor. The only way morality makes sense is when it’s based on love of people and love of the organization. That combination of love creates a self-sustaining culture that is attractive and compelling for prospective members, current members and staff. Love requires action.
Words have meaning and when carefully chosen as values or standards, they should prompt action. Values should be able to withstand the rigor of honest measurement for alignment with behavior. Values are where the technical and the moral converge.
Here is a short list of values or traits that are proven to serve a leader and their organizations well. Each is worth careful study. A good exercise for understanding their true meaning is to think of the antonym of each and then consciously make a choice.
INTEGRITY It is derived from the root word “integer,” meaning one and undivided.
COURAGE – Willing to be vulnerable and take a risk.
DISCIPLINE To do the deep work that makes a difference.
LOYALTY To our clubs and the people we serve.
DILIGENCE To stay the course, even when it is uncomfortable and draining.
HUMILITY Perhaps the most attractive trait of all. OPTIMISM That the other listed traits will prove their worth. CONVICTION We are blessed with brains that when deeply engaged in creative thought produce right action.
Two aspects promise to gain momentum for the year ahead in the management of agronomy and golf course maintenance departments:
Dual Assistant Superintendent tracks. Traditionally, golf course maintenance operations have been intensely focused on hiring or developing assistant superintendents to become future superintendents. But situations often occur when a club’s assistants get new jobs elsewhere in the same timeframe and the club is left with a challenging situation until new talent can be hired or developed. Providing two tracks for assistant roles can be a better approach. The first track is for individuals who want to become superintendents and the second for those who want to become permanent assistants and stay at the club. Under a two-track system, the permanent assistant can always be the backstop should other assistants leave at the same time or the golf course superintendent and an assistant leave at the same time. This creates a level of stability during the transition period. Additionally, the learning curve for new hires can be greatly enhanced by the permanent assistant’s knowledge and experience. This approach is proving to be in the club’s best interest, by adding a level of security in the golf course maintenance operation.
Hiring from within versus open recruitment. Golf course superintendents often hire from within, and when an assistant leaves, there is a tendency to look to promote an assistant in training or a foreman, spray tech or irrigation tech. It’s understandable to favor employees who are knowledgeable about a club’s property and its personalities and culture. But if the training and exposure that has been given to these team members has prepared them properly for the job, they should be able to compete in the open market against applicants from outside the organization for the role. By putting a current employee up with outside candidates for a position, many things can be learned. While these in-house candidates may seem to have an advantage, what if they don’t compare well with an out-of-organization candidate? Does that mean the training they’ve received wasn’t adequate? Or that when initially recruiting them as team members, the club didn’t get the best and the brightest? At the same time, does someone coming from the outside offer more varied experience than the in-house candidates that would be beneficial to the organization? Ensuring that a broader search is conducted will lead to the golf course superintendent being able to identify training and recruiting areas to improve upon, which in turn will lead to higher-performing teams and better golfing conditions for club members.
In 2024, the racquets industry will continue with massive growth in a changing environment. Now more than ever, it is critical that clubs and their racquets professionals continue to stay relevant by thinking and acting creatively in these areas:
Continued evolution of racquet sports facilities. Clubs will look to enhance their pickleball facilities by not only building permanent pickleball courts, but by adding partially covered courts as well. The Chicken N’Pickle concept, with indoor and outdoor pickleball courts and readily available food and beverage service, will continue to make its way into the mainstream at clubs across the country. The rapid rise of padel will also continue, especially in major metropolitan areas, across the country. The relatively low cost to build an outdoor padel court ($75,000-$85,000), mixed with the low operational cost to maintain it, has made it a great option for clubs looking to expand their racquet sport offerings.
Creative, collaborative and innovative programming. The huge increase in racquet sports participation that was prompted by the pandemic cannot be expected to continue without constant innovative programming. A club will need to continue to focus on entry-level events and programs for all of its racquet-sports offerings to maintain their momentum and upward progression. Collaborating with other club departments to create unforgettable moments for members will be a necessity.
Utilizing talent. Every year, a racquets department’s organizational chart should be cultivated to best utilize the full talents of the team. Staff members should continue to be challenged with more responsibilities, and titles should be adjusted to reward those who best set the team up for success. To keep up properly with pickleball explosion, clubs that don’t already have a head pickleball professional or pickleball coordinator should invest in that position immediately.
Compensation, structure and funding. The current trend is to structure racquet professionals’ compensation packages to incentivize gross revenue and the member experience within the department. Throughout the racquets department, compensation plans should reflect what each employee is responsible for, while also enabling them to share in the growth of the overall program. Assistant professionals’ compensation should include a salary, not only to help them grow as leaders but also to increase the member experience. Finally, this is the time to budget for growth. Support from the Board, management and committees is needed to adequately fund the entire racquets program for a comprehensive experience, including operational and cap ex budgets.
Certification. Because a club’s racquets program can now include four to five sports, it will be increasingly necessary to have professionals who are certified in tennis, pickleball, paddle and padel, as well as squash in some parts of the country.
Leadership, culture and mentorship. More than ever before, creating a kind, creative, positive, and growth mindset within a racquets department is imperative. Regular weekly or bi-weekly individual meetings should be held with staff members, occasionally changing things up to include lunch meetings in a more relaxed setting. Goal setting and checking in on staff members periodically should be a priority, as part of learning about each person and what makes them tick. All staff meetings should be held weekly, along with weekly growth opportunity sessions that share what’s being worked on in other areas. The staff should understand that it is OK to make mistakes, and leaders should take public accountability for things that need to be better. At the same time, staff accomplishments should be praised publicly as much as possible.
For the industry overall in 2023, the National Golf Foundation (NGF) anticipated rounds finishing 2% to 4% ahead of 2022. That took the pace for overall increased rounds in the post-pandemic surge to roughly 20% since 2019. Considering that in the previous 15 to 20 years, the industry lost close to 1,500 golf facilities, this amounts to strong growth in golf participation that doesn’t show any indication of slowing. A large part of this growth has been from weekday play, which is attributed to the working-from-home phenomenon created by the pandemic.
Another interesting statistic comes from non-green grass participation, better known as the Topgolf phenomenon. The NGF put the total number of golfers at the end of 2022 at 25.6 million. And when you include non-green grass golfers, some predict as many as 44 million Americans are now playing some kind of golf, which is a 7% increase since 2022. While many questioned whether these non-green grass golfers would also transition to playing golf on actual green grass, there is ample evidence that they have.
Women also represent 60% of net golfer growth since 2019, with junior golf and people of color also making up large parts of the overall growth since 2020. This all makes for a very healthy future, at least in the short term, for golf. The trend of more non-green grass golfers eventually becoming players at golf facilities and country clubs is expected to continue to proliferate in 2024 and beyond.
PGA Professionals and the Business of Golf
In 2017, the PGA of America announced three career tracks for PGA Professionals to follow: Executive Management, Golf Operations, and Teaching and Coaching. As education has been upgraded in each of these areas, it has paid dividends, as more clubs are recognizing the value that golf expertise can have on their overall operation.
Since 2010, the number of PGA Professionals moving into an executive space, made up mostly of those transitioning to general manager or COO roles at their clubs or facilities, is up six- to seven-fold. Specialization in one of these three path options will become even more prominent in the year ahead.
Retention is one of the biggest ways PGA professionals can make a difference at their clubs in 2024. More clubs will be building teaching facilities and dedicating directors of instruction to ensure that golfers (especially those new to the game) keep playing and enjoying it. Constantly engaging members/customers to make sure they’re enjoying the game and finding ways to improve golfers’ ability will be critical moving forward. Look for clubs to incentivize their PGA professionals based on member/customer retention.
Responses to questions in the Outlook 2024 Pulse Survey indicated there is plenty of opportunity for more clubs to add facilities to support these efforts. Fewer than a quarter of respondents to the survey (24.9%) said their clubs currently have a dedicated golf performance center for year-round teaching and training, and 36.6% said their clubs have golf/game simulators. Interestingly, of the clubs with simulators, over half (51.2%) said their amenities includes a social gathering space with lounge seating and drink service, attesting to the broader appeal they can have beyond golf training and recreation.
One final point to be made when looking at the year ahead concerns the turmoil in the professional game, which has definitely led to concerns from those who love it. The battles between the PGA Tour, DP World and LIV tour have created divisions not seen in golf in some time, and raised concerns about the negative effect they could have on the growth it is enjoying. Experts still anticipate that when all is said is done, there will be one major professional tour worldwide, but time will tell. On the positive side, junior golf is at an all-time high in participation and college golf and the amateur game have also never been healthier.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents to the Outlook 2024 Pulse Survey chose workforce issues as their greatest area of concern when choosing from a list of factors that could affect their clubs in 2024 and the remainder of the decade. A separate open-ended question about the greatest challenge currently facing the club industry yielded many other responses related to staffing and the workplace, including:
“Securing appropriate staff to fulfill the demands of the new generation of members.”
“The generational shift in work attitudes.”
“Losing key staff to larger clubs with higher pay scales.”
These challenges and more will be top of mind for club leaders throughout 2024. The labor market will continue to be tight and for any club to successfully compete for top talent and retain its high performers, all these issues will need management’s full attention:
Employee well-being. Club leaders need to go beyond the traditional approach of providing basic employee needs such as a livable wage, affordable healthcare and retirement/ pension support. They must also start to take action on work/life integration (as opposed to work/life balance) by addressing management burnout with flexible work schedules, urging people to take paid time off and redefining reasonable workloads.
AI Integration. Artificial intelligence is coming, whether it’s wanted or not. So how are clubs proactively integrating AI into their hiring processes, operational efficiencies and employment policies? AI is redefining roles within club organizations along with the skills that are necessary in any position. Updating job descriptions, job postings and performance criteria to reflect this change will be important.
Human skills development. This is not a new focus, but one that is more critical than ever. Managers need to be trained on effectively leading their teams. Continuing to promote from within is great, but failing to arm new leaders with the skills they need to effectively lead their people is not so great. Shortcomings in this area not only affect a club’s ability to retain top talent, it also negatively impacts the member experience.
Securing a dedicated HR leader. Talent makes a club successful. Having a dedicated, strategic HR leader who serves as a talent strategy quarterback will provide a leadership team with a strategic partner who can create recruitment, retention, engagement and leadership development strategies that will take the member experience to the next level. Clubs that do not have a dedicated HR leader need to add one.
Digitizing the employee experience. HR technology is a critical component not only for operational efficiencies, but recruitment and retention. Members of Gen Z expect a digital experience with their employer. Paper applications, file cabinets for employee files, table tents in the employee breakroom and flyers attached to paychecks are all now a thing of the past. Integrating technology into the employee experience through enhancements such as an employee app, electronic application and onboarding processes, self-service access to time-off requests and shift changes, and online performance feedback are just a few examples of how clubs now need to evolve.
Pay transparency. States are quickly adopting laws requiring organizations to be transparent about pay rates. What does that mean? Job postings will require clubs to disclose pay rates for their positions. How people are paid matters, and if a club’s compensation rates are inconsistent with no justification, this will create not only liability from a potential discrimination standpoint, but also employee morale and retention issues. To get ahead of this issue, clubs need to document their compensation philosophy, pay ranges and performance/merit increase policies.
Blowing up the performance-review process. Traditional annual performance reviews no longer work. Top-performing organizations are moving away from the sterile, ineffective annual performance-review process to a more agile, frequent and informal feedback process. Younger generations want more regular feedback and interactions with their managers.
For the Outlook 2024 Pulse Survey question, “What do you think are the major issues affecting private clubs today?” one reply read:
“Lack of volunteerism within the club, from committee involvement to sitting on the board of directors. Our newer members are not as engaged in governance and would rather someone else do it.”
To address this very common lament of club managers and help to strengthen overall club governance in the year ahead, there will be a stronger focus on these best practices:
Continued emphasis on clubs operating more like a business where data, financials and the strategic plan/capital reserve study are used to make decisions.
Using a third-party portal of governance-related items. This will be one of the biggest opportunities for clubs in 2024. Portals can be accessed by desktop or on a mobile device and give board members easy access to all governance documents. Portals allow governance to be more efficient by dealing with minutia outside of the boardroom and focusing on strategic issues during meeting time.
Boards will become more strategically involved in how the club is recruiting, onboarding and retaining staff. There will be a plan for how the club can become an employer of choice, and boards will become strategic partners with paid staff in attracting and retaining talent.
Additionally, we will see more frequent and transparent communication between all constituencies, club management, the board and the membership base as a whole.
Key components of improved communication will be:
Sharing master goals for the board, committees, and GMs/department heads annually with the membership.
Surveying members (not anonymously) through day-to-day satisfaction and feedback surveys, while moving away from using committees as sounding boards.
Transitioning from a nominating committee to a leadership development committee that works year-round to actively nurture volunteer leadership and make it easier to find good people to fill volunteer positions.
Tom Wallace, is a partner with KOPPLIN KUEBLER & WALLACE, a consulting firm providing executive search, strategic planning and data analysis services to the private club and hospitality industries. Tom can be contacted at email@example.com.