Clubs Need to Plan and Prepare for Transition

At a club, the general manager/chief operating officer position is the most vital for achieving and sustaining a healthy and successful club.

The role responsibilities require a centralized, consistent professional with experience, training and knowledge of the private club model.

Transitioning between club managers can be challenging and stressful for boards, employees and even members because of the delicate balance necessary as the new leader becomes acquainted with all things club yet eases into making changes or improvements. Therefore, it’s essential that clubs prepare and plan for this transition.

Based on our wide range of experience working with boards and professionals during this sensitive time, we have put together the following best practices to help ensure successful departures and acclimations.

Before the new general manager/chief operating officer’s first day, several things should happen. First, club documents should be shared so that the new general manager/chief operating officer can review and study them in the weeks before starting at the club.

Items such as the board policy manual, employee handbook, financials and other documents advising on process and procedure should be provided well in advance to give the new general manager/chief operating officer a greater understanding of club operations and culture.

Sample checklist for advance review:

  • History of the club and map of the property
  • Club policies/procedures/bylaws
  • Talent strategy materials (new employee orientation, employee handbook, employee benefits, organizational charts, training manuals, job descriptions, human capital plan, monthly reports, team bios, etc.)
  • Calendars (club events, board/committee meetings, team meetings, etc.)
  • Collateral, member marketing materials, new member orientation correspondences
  • Recent club newsletters/communications
  • List of board/committee members, board bios, board policy manual, board and committee orientation manuals, committee charters and annual priorities for board and committees, along with the last 12 months of meeting minutes
  • Recent risk management assessment, club business analytics, capital reserve study
  • List of vendors and service providers
  • Strategic plan and property master plan
  • Most recent audited financial statements or financial summary/overview
  • Guest username and password to the website
  • Recent membership/staff satisfaction surveys that include all club operations
  • Union contracts (if applicable)

Second, orchestrate and schedule opportunities for the new general manager/chief operating officer to meet with key club constituencies at a comfortable time and place. Setting these meetings in advance allows the general manager/chief operating officer to meet and connect with key groups, such as the Thursday Tennis Group or the Ladies’ Golf Association, in the new general manager/chief operating officer’s first 30 days.

This ensures that these groups feel seen, heard and valued. It also gives the new leader a feel for the groups, their spokespeople, their priorities and their needs, which helps the general manager/chief operating officer start off on the right foot with these constituencies.

Third, the board of directors should determine ahead of time what the new general manager/chief operating officer’s top three or four priorities will be in the first year. The board should discuss and decide on the areas of focus with the new leader and then communicate the priorities to everyone, including the staff and the membership.

The general manager/chief operating officer then has direction and knows what the board wants in the first year. Having this focus helps ensure the new general manager/chief operating officer doesn’t get different directives from members and is not confused about where to start.

With board-approved priorities presented, the new general manager/chief operating officer can listen to the rest of the members but not necessarily act on their recommendations. Identifying priorities in advance and communicating them effectively keeps everyone on the same page and ensures expectations are in line.

While the above recommendations are important, the key to ensuring a smooth and successful transition for a new general manager/chief operating officer is a transition committee. This ad-hoc committee of three or four members serves as a sounding board, a source of club history and a foundation for support, questions and knowledge.

Committee members should be past or current board members who understand the club business model, are highly regarded by their peers and offer a fair and balanced representation of the membership. In addition, they should be demographically diverse, and their families should participate in club programs/amenities.

When looking at how to organize this group of members, start with one or two members of the search committee, a strong past president and one or two representatives from important constituencies at the club.

This committee acts as a filter beyond the board with the ability to highlight topics members are talking loudly about that are different from what the board or president directed. Made up of no more than four people, the transition committee can also help identify any blind spots the board may not know about.

Kopplin Kuebler & Wallace believes the transition committee can shorten the learning curve and ease the discomfort of being new for the general manager/chief operating officer.

“It’s the board’s job to work with the new leader to agree on three or four areas of focus and then communicate those priorities to everyone. Then, the transition committee can help filter through what everyone else feels is important,” said Tom Wallace, a partner with KK&W.

“This way if an issue arises, the group can help the GM/COO identify whether it’s just one person’s complaint or if the board has blind spots because they aren’t in the know or not well in tune.”

The transition committee can also clarify why things are done the way they are and talk candidly about the state of the club, curmudgeon members and successes or failures. Meeting with the new general manager/chief operating officer weekly for the first six months and then monthly for the next six months, this group provides consistent, confidential support for the first year. After one year, the general manager/chief operating officer may call the group together whenever a need arises.

“We’ve found this committee to be tremendously helpful for GM/COOs to ask questions and gain insight beyond just the board,” Kurt Kuebler, a partner with KK&W, explained.

“Instead of the new leader constantly going to the club president, it spreads the workload between several people and provides deeper insight and understanding. In addition, this committee smooths the transition, especially in situations where a long-tenured predecessor retired or there was a difficult set of circumstances with the person previously in the role.”

The transition committee can also help the general manager/chief operating officer determine how to best disagree with the board or club president, and they can work through that process together. This eases some of the stress and frustration for the new general manager/chief operating officer and creates a better onboarding experience.

First 100 Days - QR CodeKK&W suggests the transition committee initiate an employee survey of at least the key leadership team shortly before the new general manager/chief operating officer begins so both the employees and the new leader understand the expectations and culture of key team members. This survey
could be conducted with all employees to provide a deeper understanding.

“This whole process is intended to create a more positive onboarding experience for the new GM/COO and make it much more effective,” Wallace explained.

“Few clubs have transition plans or written orientation/onboarding programs for this position. All too often, new leaders spend weeks looking for information themselves, being overwhelmed with questions and feeling frustrated as they learn the details of the club and their role. If we can provide new GM/COOs with the information, resources and the continuous support they need right from the beginning, it creates a better situation for everyone involved.” 

The first 100 days lay a foundation for the long-term success of a new private club chief executive. Recognizing the care that should be taken during this time of great opportunity, we have compiled a list of action items to proactively support onboarding and acclimation. 

BoardRoom – May/June 2023