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Taking the Next Step

Thursday 08, Aug 2019

The AGCSA spoke with Turfgrass specialist, John Neylan who has over 30 years experience in Turf Management and consulted to hundreds of Turf Professionals over his career.  We asked John to ponder over what qualities an aspiring Turf Manager or Course Superintendent may need to make it in the modern age.

"I was asked about what I thought were the necessary skills for an assistant to take the next step into the role of a senior turf manager. This is a daunting task and I can only speak from my own observations of over 30 plus years in the turf industry, but when you drill down there are a few key qualities that those who have successfully made the transition possess."

After attending recent Turfgrass Conferences, it reaffirms how the role of the Turf Manager continues to evolve. It has become less about greenkeeping and more about managing people and resources. 

This clearly conflicts with why many people came into the industry and why others may wish to take on the role of golf course superintendent. It also raises the question as to whether the definition of a superintendent needs to be updated! As an industry, the position of the modern superintendent is struggling to establish its standing in the golf hierarchy while the responsibilities and the demands are ever-increasing. 

So what do I think are the skill sets required by the next generation of superintendents and turf managers?

The greatest test for any turf manager and what they will ultimately be judged on is the quality of the playing surfaces. However, the challenge is how the expectation is managed within the constraints of the particular facility. Managing and training staff, communicating at all levels and setting standards are the key roles as I see them.

At many facilities you will no longer be directly managing the surfaces but managing and training staff to develop the surfaces to the standards you have established. 


Education and training

The discussion around education and training and what is appropriate for the modern turf manager is ongoing and there is little doubt that many questions are being asked as to whether the current turf courses fill today’s needs. Is the Certificate III of Sports Turf Management enough to do the job of the modern turf manager? 

After much thought it is clear to me that it lacks in many areas. It trains great greenkeepers but it does not prepare anyone for being a modern manager and all that it involves. Even the Diploma, while it has some management units, only partially prepares today’s manager. In fact the units on management are the hardest to teach and the most difficult in which to engage students. 

The current turf education system is somewhat formulaic and Gen Y wants everything on a platter. However, in my experience this does not develop thinkers or questioners which are important attributes for today’s manager. At the AGCSA conference, MCG arenas manager Tony Gordon highlighted the value of an education which provides a broader array of subjects that challenge the mind. This is very much in contrast to the skills-based training that has served the industry so well.

Does there need to be another level of education that will develop prospective managers in the early stages of their career? If you are thinking about your career and where you want to progress to, you need to ask yourself, what does the job require as a minimum versus what skills you require to be good at your job. 

At this time my thoughts are that the aspiring golf course superintendent or turf manager needs to undertake courses in;

  • Management
  • Communication
  • Human Resource Management
  • Budgeting

While you may never be directly judged on your skills in these areas, they will assist you to do your job more effectively and hopefully be reflected in the quality of surfaces that are presented.

Ongoing training and personal development needs to be life-long. This should be built into your career and job description. The first thing you need to do is to undertake some self-analysis. Ask yourself what are your strengths and, more importantly, what are your weaknesses. It is also useful to reflect upon the differences between your current job and the next level you are working toward.

By identifying the additional responsibilities, qualities and skills required to successfully perform at the next level you can target specific training in these areas. Reading through the job advertisements on the AGCSA website will provide you with a good understanding of what skills are in demand, what employers are looking for and therefore what is required.

Where you identify weaknesses or gaps, look for specialist educational programmes to improve these areas. When you have been trained in these areas look for opportunities in the work place to develop and hone these skills.

Other areas where assistants may lack experience include financial management and budgeting and interacting on a professional level with the club/organisation executive such as in committee meetings. To assist in filling the gaps ask your manager to help you learn more about these areas so you will have examples to reference when you conduct your job search. 

Communication skills

Good communication skills and how you deal with staff, boards, members, customers, suppliers and peers is possibly the number one skill required. There hasn’t been an AGCSA conference where this topic hasn’t been discussed. 

One area that has stayed with me for some time, was the Hunter Valley conference and David Bancroft-Turners excellent workshops on political intelligence, changing behaviour and change management in the workplace. However, the majority of attendees still preferred to attend the agronomic sessions. Why is that? Was it boring? Makes you uncomfortable? Too confronting? Well, get out of your comfort zone! 

As a turf manager you will be regularly out of your comfort zone as you communicate your messages. A good communicator needs to be able to read the audience and convey the message through a variety of means including the spoken and written word and visual representation.  

Communicating at any level can be daunting if there is a key message to be conveyed. Training a staff member in a job, explaining to a member why some activity is being undertaken, delivering a report to a Board or committee or presenting to a members evening are just a few of the circumstances that you may find yourself in.

How do you or would you handle it?

Understanding your audience and treating them with respect is very important.  Understanding your audience will determine how you tailor the message. 

Practice being a good communicator. Put yourself out there and take the opportunity to stand in front of an audience and make a presentation. This could be in a number of ways; a new practice in the work place, a presentation at an association seminar or presenting your findings in a class discussion (I can hear the butterflies churning from here!). Remember that bullshit doesn’t baffle brains and a barrage of technical terms is not going to win the day.

Concepts have to be clearly and precisely delivered, even when the concept is complex. 

It is also very important to remember that practice makes perfect. Set yourself a practice exercise such as “The Committee wants to know why the greens are soft and slow in winter”. See how you go putting together a discussion paper with clear headings and making sure that you outline the problem, the solution (absolutely essential), costings, timeframe for any works and potential disruption. The next part is to get one of your peers or mentors to review it and to provide some feedback. Maybe give it to someone that has little knowledge of the industry.


Other qualities

Mentors are very important to everyone. We all need confidantes outside of the workplace that can help guide us throughout our working life. In the turf industry, quite often an individual’s mentor is the first senior manager that has influenced that person’s career. It is also important to have mentors outside of the turf industry as well as within the industry. The outsider can often have a more pragmatic view of the challenges you may be facing rather than a sympathetic but possibly unhelpful ‘I know what you are going through’. 

Where a person has worked and who they have worked with can have an influence on whether you will be considered a suitable candidate for a new job. At the high end facilities employers are often looking for experience or an understanding of the requirements of such a facility. Gaining the necessary experience may involve moving to another facility so that you can obtain as much knowledge as possible, particularly if you have ambitions to work at the elite end of the industry.

Where you have a job in a secondary role at the best facility, sometimes it is better for your self-development to move elsewhere where you can gain experience under more demanding or different circumstances. In years gone by many budding golf course superintendents took the opportunity to move to a country facility so that they could be the boss and hone their skills in budgeting and dealing directly with management and members. 

Honesty and empathy are key qualities of the best senior turf managers. Turf management provides many opportunities for things to go wrong including those that you can’t control. When circumstances go awry it is important to be honest with your employers. As important is honestly analysing the how, why and where things went wrong and how you can implement strategies to avoid future reoccurrences. 

Having empathy with staff, members and boards is an important quality in a good manager. In particular understanding the concerns of the customer and how you deal with it in a respectful manner. For golf course superintendents there has often been the debate about whether they need to be a golfer. From my observations, having some interest in the game does provide greater empathy for golfers’ concerns.

The next step will be a big step. You just need to be as well prepared as possible to tackle the responsibilities that lay ahead.