Certified Golf Course Superintendent Tommy Witt, Director of Golf Course Operations at Northmoor Country Club in Highland Park, Ill., is all business when it comes to his profession.
With all of the skills required to run a successful golf course operation, a superintendent might sometimes feel it takes a super-human effort to keep the course and grounds department running smoothly. Certainly, it takes much more today than a firm grasp of agronomy to stay on top of the game. Because a superintendent often oversees the largest budget at a golf course facility, financial skills are vital. Relating to people from all walks of life is another essential skill. However, many superintendents enter the field with little experience in these areas.
Certified Golf Course Superintendent Tommy Witt, Director of Golf Course Operations at Northmoor Country Club in Highland Park, Ill., felt that he had a limited background outside of agronomics when he started his career, so he took matters into his own hands. He started giving presentations on topics beyond agronomics 25 years ago and teaching seminars on similar subjects 15 years ago.
Witt, who earned a B.S. degree in Turfgrass Science from Texas A&M University, says any number of qualified scientists, researchers and fellow superintendents can educate golf course managers about agronomic topics.
“What I found lacking for my own continuing education were subjects on negotiating, evaluating career opportunities, communicating with employers, building relationships, etc.,” he says. “Local, state and the national GCSAA conferences just didn’t offer the type of education that I felt I needed to be successful in my career.”
With the help of Certified Golf Course Superintendent Bruce Williams, he developed materials and seminars on a variety of non-agronomic topics for fellow superintendents and other industry stakeholders. The presentations include “Negotiating Strategies for Today’s Golf Course Manager,” “Blueprint for Career Success,” a workshop for assistant superintendents and students, and “How to Hire a Golf Course Superintendent.” (For a full list of presentation topics, click here.)
Northmoor Country Club
Club Website: www.northmoor.org
“I wanted to offer ideas and share information with superintendents on how to become more valuable to their employers. I have always felt the superintendent is a key individual in generating revenue and managing and protecting the most valuable asset of a facility – the golf course,” Witt explains. “My intent is to help non-superintendents better understand the challenges, responsibilities and factors involved in managing a golf course.”
He recently spoke to Club & Resort Business about the importance of developing business and other non-agronomic skill sets so that golf course superintendents can increase their value to their employers, enhance their career opportunities and achieve personal satisfaction with their jobs.
Q: What kind of business skills do superintendents need?
A: Let me ask you, what skill sets does any department head or executive staff member need in most any other business? The golf course superintendent is not much different. In most cases, today’s golf course superintendent needs a full complement of personal and business skills in addition to his or her agronomic skill set. A better question might be, “What skills does the superintendent not need to be successful?” Valuable skills include, but are not limited to: dealing with conflict, dealing with difficult people, leading change, managing reducing budgets, communicating with numerous audiences, managing major projects, public speaking, building positive relationships, mastering computers, formulating long-range capital budgets, etc.
There are also a number of personal skills that can enhance our chance for success in the workplace. Learning the ability to practice restraint, developing a broad professional network, implementing patience and acquiring the ability to read people and personalities bode well to becoming an overall success. There will be situations throughout our careers where we must be able to compromise and exhibit restraint. Remaining removed from workplace politics is a must. As a friend of mine has said, “Hold your tongue and keep your job.” Meeting schedules and timelines demonstrates responsibility and exhibits credibility.
Q: What kind of management skills do they need?
A: What price and value can a facility or business place on the person who can lead and manage at a high level? I am not sure the majority of golf course employers place a high priority or recognition on this area of the daily performance of their golf course superintendent. The better skilled a manager and a leader is, the better the performance of the operation. There are too many management skills to mention. Recruiting and hiring the right people – and giving them the responsibility and resources to feel good about their work and to be able to succeed at it – is paramount. Getting the staff to buy in to the manager’s or leader’s philosophy will get more and better results.
The superintendent has to have the personality and skills to successfully manage up and down the organizational structure of the facility. We deal with a broad spectrum of individuals, from the most affluent and successful people in the world to a staff member that might barely have a high school education. It takes a degree of wisdom and training for us to meet, encourage, lead, and communicate with people on their individual level. Leading by example is always a positive. Character and integrity are essential. Great leaders always give others credit and let others shine.
Q: How does the development of these skills help superintendents better relate to their staffs?
A: While it does not take a master’s degree in management to know how to treat people right and fairly, it is not a simple task to lead a golf course management operation. Learning from successful people that have gone before us only makes common sense. Whether it is via seminars, books, magazine articles, or a mentoring program, there are beneficial things we can learn to make ourselves better leaders of our operations. I place a priority on getting ideas on how to be a better manager and leader.
Q: How does it help them improve their interaction with management, board and committee members, and owners?
A: I was promoted to my first golf course superintendent position at age 24. I was from a small town in south Texas. The owners of the private club were two of the wealthiest men in Texas. What did we have in common? They owned a golf course, and they hired me to manage it. That is all. Then, a sudden change of general managers after my first year brought a four-star Air Force general to that position.
What did I know about boardrooms, finances, making presentations to a Board, or knowing how to deal with someone who gave orders all their life? How could I possibly meet the expectation of these high-powered individuals? What skill sets, other than common sense, did I have to survive in this position? I didn’t have those skills, and many superintendents do not enter the profession armed with these necessary skills. That is why exploring continuing education in non-agronomic courses is vital for us. How can we be viewed as valuable if we aren’t competent or proficient in a multitude of business and professional skills?
Q: How does this skill set help superintendents develop better relationships with vendors?
A: Building positive relationships is a key to doing productive business. Who wants to do business with someone they do not like? The better the superintendent understands the business philosophies and the responsibilities of the vendor, the better both can work together for a common goal as seller and buyer. Every business, turf vendors included, must make some degree of profit or they cannot service an account and stay in business. Understanding business concepts and people are just two of the skill sets that help to achieve a win-win transaction benefiting both parties.
Q: How has the need for these skills changed during your career?
A: They have escalated significantly as they have for all superintendents. The stakes are higher now. Any job-referral notice or search committee is stipulating numerous professional skills for new hires. Our salaries have increased; operating budgets are higher, and golfer expectations are through the roof. Golf course managers cannot just grow grass and get by any more.
Q: Do you feel like turf schools do enough to teach these skills, or are they better addressed in continuing education classes?
A: I think most turf schools naturally concentrate on agronomic and turf studies. In truth and fairness, I am not sure the advisors, instructors and scientists can have a full understanding of the full scope of work that challenges golf course superintendents on a daily basis. Managing declining operating budgets, meeting aggressive tournament schedules, leading committee meetings, and attracting and retaining a quality staff are but a few of the nuances that individuals must learn on their own, by trial and error.
Q: How does the development of these skills enhance your career as a whole?
A: The more highly skilled anyone is in his or her profession can only be a good thing. There are some very talented professionals in the golf course superintendent ranks. Acquiring additional professional skills not only improves our chances of success in our current positions. But the more complete your total skill set is, the more attractive a candidate you become in the interview process for a new position.
Q: How does the demonstration of these skills help superintendents earn better compensation and advance their careers, if they choose, into other club or course management positions or other areas?
A: The vast majority of golf course superintendent job referrals today stipulate the need for a candidate to possess a matrix of skills beyond grass-growing. The more complete skill set a candidate has, the better the chance of getting the job. The same goes for receiving increased compensation at one’s current place of employment. The more skills you possess, the more valuable you are to your employer.
The statement below is taken from several different superintendent job referrals. It gives an idea of what skills employers are looking for:
Qualifications, Experience and Skill Requirements: Substantial on-the-course experience, minimum of 3 – 5 years turfgrass experience. Must possess excellent interpersonal and communication skills. Must be highly organized, efficient and detail oriented. Must possess basic computer skills – Word and Excel. Must have supervisory, coaching and staff development experience. Must have a strong business aptitude and passion for the golf business. Must have a basic knowledge of budgeting and expense management. Experience with formulating and executing operating and capital budgets. Coordinate projects and long-range planning with the Greens and Grounds Committee. Capable of prioritizing and problem solving quickly and efficiently. Ability to multi-task.
Q: How does the demonstration of these skills affect the image of superintendents as professionals?
A: The movie Caddy Shack was hilarious. We all got a few laughs from Carl Spackler. But that is the movies, and that may have been the image of superintendents decades ago. There is a newer image that is associated with the new breed of golf course manager. While growing and providing premier playing surfaces will always be tops on our priorities, our jobs and responsibilities have far exceeded simply mowing and watering grass.
We only have to look at the visibility of Atlanta Athletic Club’s Director of Agronomy, Ken Mangum. Think of the skill set he has, to have been able to successfully handle the organization of the PGA Championship and all the media interviews and scheduling of events. We now see many of our peers who have obtained a wide range of skills. These superintendents are at the top of our field in compensation, reputation, and image.
Q: How much do you depend on your staff to take care of agronomic issues so you can focus more attention on the business aspects of your job?
A: The staff that I work with is invaluable. I could not make it without them. I try to put the most qualified managers in place that I can possibly find. Then I give them the resources and responsibility to do what they came to do. Golfers and employers have a huge “need to know.” I spend so much of my time preparing and delivering numerous communication mediums to my members and employers.
Q: What kind of advice would you give new superintendents about the importance of these skills?
A: Today, providing quality golfing conditions is a given. Developing as many business skills – handling people, managerial tasks, leadership – as you can will never hurt you. When you have prepared yourself as a leader, a quality manager, a relationship builder, a team player who is competent at playing the game of golf and growing great turf, then you have placed yourself in a position for success. When there are 100 to 300 applicants for many jobs, what is going to make you stand out? The competition is fierce. Position yourself for success.
Q: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started your career?
A: My university advisor and major professor stressed the turf science classes. I wish I had taken more classes that dealt with business and psychology. Financial issues and discussions are always an issue at every facility. Understanding personalities and knowing how to work with different people is valuable to the golf course manager.