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Your Team is Speaking to You. Are You Listening?

Adam Garr


What’s the pulse of your team when they walk into the break room in the morning? Are they bright-eyed and still buzzing about last night’s big game? Or do they shuffle in like zombies and sit mostly in silence, staring down at their phones?


If your morning meetings are preceded by awkward silence, or if your staff stiffens up the moment you appear, then it might be a warning sign that you’re coming up short on building a winning team culture. People who want to be there engage in conversation, they ask questions, offer suggestions, and point out the little details they noticed the day before. A winning team culture is interactive and it has a pulse. Otherwise, all you have is a bunch of people doing a bunch of jobs with nothing much holding them together.

...if your staff stiffens up the moment you appear, then it might be a warning sign that you’re coming up short on building a winning team culture.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have visited hundreds of operations over the years. The most successful operations have nailed the concept of building a winning culture. A winning culture consists of establishing a core group of high performers who buy into the values and the goals of the organization. High performers are invested in the operation and will help you keep some of the other staff in line behind the scenes. They will make you better. In return, you need to pay them what they’re worth, listen to them, and fight to get them the items they need for the operation to be successful.

Building a winning culture begins by listening to your staff and being approachable at all times. Have you ever taken a moment to ask them individually what tasks they like to do on the golf course? Don’t be afraid to solicit feedback. It’s only going to help you put people in positions to succeed. A staff member is going to be a lot more productive if they’re doing a job they enjoy and take pride in. Listening and asking for input from your staff builds a lot of trust, and this should be a high priority when building your operation. Furthermore, your assistants—who are a reflection of your team culture—should be equally approachable and good listeners.

Be open with your plan. Team members are genuinely interested in the what and the why. Don’t wait for them to ask. Supply this information in the morning meeting when working through the job assignments. Educating your staff about the what and the why may benefit you also, such as when a golfer asks one of your staff why a certain agronomic practice is taking place that day. An educated team is an invested team.

Nothing is more important to a team functioning properly than clear communication. No one—and I mean NO ONE—likes having three supervisors give them three different sets of instructions for completing a job assignment. It creates confusion, resentment, and frustration, and it makes management look inept. Make sure everyone is on the same page with projects before the shovel hits the ground. “Begin with the end in mind,” as they say. Learn to be a great communicator. It takes time and practice, but every successful superintendent before you has taken the time to master the fine art of communication. 

Nothing is more important to a team functioning properly than clear communication...

When asked, most golfers will tell you they value consistency more than anything when they’re playing the course. We work so hard to give them consistent green speeds and bunkers. A superintendent must also be consistent with managing people. Treating everyone equally goes a long way with the team. If you’re going to reign holy hell on an operator for smashing a reel into the side of a bridge, then you better have the same reaction when your assistant does it. Nothing loses the respect of your staff quicker than allowing one person to get a “pass” on mistakes.

The superintendent and assistants should strive to set the example for the rest of the team. For instance, if you want your team to respect the equipment, then be prepared to practice what you preach. Set the example by keeping a clean cart, a clean office, and washing off equipment when you’re finished with it. Otherwise, you run the risk of becoming a “do as I say, not as I do” type. Organization always begins with the superintendent.

Remember that time your sibling spilled juice all over the dining room carpet and then blamed it on you? How did it make you feel when your parents made you clean up someone else’s mess? I’ll bet you weren’t too happy about it. Now think about how your crew feels when someone trashes a piece of equipment or ruts up a fairway and they’re asked to clean up something they didn’t do. If you want to create a winning team culture, then you must hold people accountable for cleaning up their own mess.

Don’t sell tickets to your own hero party. Your team doesn’t need to know how “hard you fought” to get them something, whether it be it a raise, new rain gear, or lunch from the kitchen once a month. Actions always speak louder than words. You are being judged by results, not on the effort. The sheer act of handing out new rain gear says a lot more about your commitment to the team than words ever will. Don’t expect a pat on the back. If you can deliver results, then you will gain appreciation and respect.

Do you recall that telephone game we played in grade school, when the teacher whispered into one person’s ear and the message got totally distorted by the time it made its way to the last classmate? Unless you want ten people raking bunkers ten different ways, it’s best to leave all that training to an assistant or a high performer of the staff. If you are going to task an hourly employee to train a new staff member, then consider rewarding them with a $25 gift card or pay them time and a half for their effort. You’ll create a situation where an employee is more motivated and invested in doing a good job training someone. Training should be a coveted task amongst the crew and not viewed as a chore.

Working on a golf course isn’t an easy way to make a living. Your team has bills, debts, and all the headaches outside of work that you do, except they’re trying to do it making $17 an hour. Don’t tell a high performer that they aren’t worth $20 an hour or they’re maxed out for their skill set. Be empathetic. Sit down with that employee and create a pathway to $20 an hour. Maybe it involves getting a spray license, attending a few winter education classes, or taking on more responsibilities around the course. Creating a realistic pathway creates a win-win for both parties. And for the record, $20 an hour in an urban area is grossly underpaying a high performer who adds a lot of value to your operation.

Your team has bills, debts, and all the headaches outside of work that you do, except they’re trying to do it making $17 an hour...

It’s okay to admit when you’re wrong. We’re human and we make mistakes. It’s part of the learning process. If you make a mistake as a superintendent—and you will—then you need to own it. Don’t shift the blame or cover it up with excuses, or worse yet, make an employee think they’re in the wrong instead of you. You’d be surprised to find out how much respect a slice of humble pie every once in a while will get you.

The summer months can be a grind, but a little bit of positivity goes a long way. Make an effort to catch people doing good work out there. Drive over and let Carlos know how crisp those lines looked on the fairway he mowed. Compliment the bunker team on the extra detailing they did on the edges. Thank Jake for coming in on his day off to mow greens. Regular injections of positivity make your team feel valued and appreciated.

Deal with the drama! Don’t hope and wish your problems away. An employee with a bad attitude can do a lot of damage while you turn and choose to look the other way. Never let a poor performer frustrate or chase away your staff because you didn’t want to deal with it, or you will be the one paying the price for it at the end of the season.

Work smarter, not harder. No one likes repeating a project because it wasn’t done the right way or you picked the wrong weather or tool to accomplish the task. Being able to allocate people and resources efficiently is a skill that highly effective superintendents need. Working smarter requires you to combine a lot of skills we previously discussed to accomplish the goal—listen to your experienced staff and ask for input, communicate the goals and expectations of the project, and provide your staff with the tools they need to succeed. Why run through a brick wall when you can just walk around it? Work smarter. Never harder.


    •    Listen to your staff
    •    Be approachable and show empathy
    •    Reward high performers
    •    Become an excellent communicator
    •    Share the goals and the plan with the team
    •    Clean up after yourself
    •    Treat all staff and assistants equally
    •    Admit when you make a mistake
    •    Show your dedication to your staff through actions, not words
    •    Deal with the drama
    •    Catch people doing good
    •    Work smarter, not harder

There are a lot of fantastic grass growers out there. But if you can’t grow a winning team culture, then you will never reach your full career potential. Take these insights to heart, look yourself in the mirror, and you too can create a winning culture with enough effort and commitment. You might be the best grass grower in the world, but you are nothing without a team standing beside you.


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