Private Club Leadership and Culture

Our hobbies often provide us with a mindset for making sense of conundrums that we face as leaders in the club world.

Mine are the lessons learned while riding motorcycles through mountains across North America. From the Rockies of the lower 48 and Canada on to Alaska, across to Nova Scotia, from the east coast to the west coast, and down to the hills of Texas and Alabama. As diverse as that vast terrain is, simple truths guide motorcyclists to stay upright while riding the “twisties.”

The attraction of beautiful and awesome mountain roads is that at every turn the physics of the terrain threaten to put to ground the motorcyclist. It is counter intuitive to foil the impulse of nagging fear and look beyond the moment. We carve a mountain road successfully while enjoying the flow of focus, discipline, and physical exertion. Where we choose to look and focus our attention is where we go. Looking to the far end of the curve ensures the rider makes the right moves in the moment as the road comes too fast and furious to mentally process. Gaze at an object and your tires will hit it; look down a second too long at the road in front of you and you will meet it personally.

Vision and strategy are like that. We lead best when we have our gaze fixed on the future to make the right moves in the present. I believe General Managers are hired to operate in the present and to think in the future. The confusion comes when trying to figure out how to do that successfully when we as leaders are pulled in all kinds of directions. How we make sense of the road of leadership coming fast and furious is dependent on where we put our attention.

Analogies eventually run out of road, so setting aside the idea of sitting atop a machine let’s make the transition to that of a General Manager. That is, to make sense of the complexity of leadership to enable us to lead with confidence.

The data set I reference comes from my work as an executive coach for managers across the country as well as the results of KK&W Culture Surveys we administer prior to searches. Viewed together, a picture of what clubs require in leadership becomes clear. Regardless of the type of club a General Manager is leading, the concerns are common. They know they must be an inspirational leader for operations as well as a strategic partner with the board. Similarly, there is a commonality amongst club boards as they identify the attributes they value most in a General Manager. It is satisfying to note that there is harmony between board expectations and the aspirations of the executive.

While recently speaking to the Greater Michigan Chapter of CMAA, I proposed that General Managers and their leadership teams adopt a mindset that intentionally embraces problems and challenges to create a culture of excellence. I have found that there is a misunderstanding of the nature of culture, thinking it is just about feelings and atmosphere. Although there is truth in that line of thinking, the reality is that culture is knitted together and becomes resilient through systems and processes. Embracing problems and challenges as the gateway to new and better ways of operating requires leadership to make corrections systematically. This is where the value lies for the General Manager and their team.

Leadership in a nutshell is about operations, governance, and the culture that binds the two together. We do best as General Managers when we put our focus on the future by nurturing and protecting the culture of our clubs in the present. Culture affects everything we and the board try to accomplish, so it is worth our while to give it our utmost attention. Culture comes before strategy. An important truism is that a healthy club culture is necessary to enable the execution of brilliant strategies.

The best academic minds writing about culture stress that as vast and as complex as an organization’s culture is, leadership can only engage the culture for its improvement through the curious inquiry about why a problem is present and persists. As the Executive Manager of the Detroit Athletic Club, I was committed to protecting and nurturing the culture of the club.

I viewed it as my and my team’s most important job. Just as a club president sets the agenda for the board, a General Manager sets the agenda for the staff of the operation. This is where the flow of good leadership produces something new and better.

As we carve a road through the “twisties” of club leadership, it is critical for the General Manager, the management team, and the Board to embrace problems and challenges. Embrace means to put your arms around something and give it your best. If we don’t, the future will come fast and furious and we may unintentionally meet the hard unforgiving reality of problems undetected.

Contributed by J.G. Ted Gillary, CCM, CCE, ECM, CMAA Fellow. Ted is a search and consulting executive with KOPPLIN KUEBLER & WALLACE.

BoardRoom Magazine – November/December 2023