Everyone knows there is no “I” in team and that in order to succeed you have to put the goals of the team before personal goals.
Sometimes the hackneyed phrases hit home with athletes. In the working world of golf course maintenance, getting everyone on the same page, pulling for a common goal – in short, becoming a team – is much more difficult. Game day is seven days a week and there’s no trophy ceremony at the end of the year. Adding to the problem is the fact that many of the “starters” are part-time or seasonal.
Putting together a maintenance staff, or building a team, is no easy task with myriad obstacles to overcome, including the fact that success can lead to the departure of a valued teammate.
Finding and keeping quality “players” is, for many, an ongoing saga.
“It has become our biggest challenge,” says Chris Dew, the superintendent at National Golf Club of Canada in Woodbridge, Ontario, just north of Toronto. His staff, including himself, is six full-time and 28 seasonal employees.
In his 18-year tenure at National Golf Club, Dew has honed and refined a system for identifying the correct hires, especially seasonal workers, and then getting them to return year after year. Each new employee is given a booklet that outlines aspects of daily life from “Team Thoughtfulness” to “Member Interactions.” The book includes a map of every hole that shows parking locations for maintenance vehicles and the direction bunker rakes must face.
Like most superintendents, his employee pool is spread across wide demographics, except that he does not hire college students. With the short season, they arrive too late and leave too early, Dew says.
Hiring qualified seasonal help isn’t the problem.
“Keeping them is the biggest part to success,” he says.
An important strategy for Dew is having employees look ahead and see what the future at the club might hold for them.
“We want them to know they can succeed here,” Dew says.
That means informing seasonal staff what it means to be a junior greenkeeper and junior greenkeepers what it means to be a senior greenkeeper, and so on.
“We want them to know they can move from layer to layer and there is value in succession,” Dew says. “At the end of the day we want them to feel they are part of something bigger, part of our culture. We want to make sure they feel some pride.”
Six years ago Mike Manthey took over as superintendent of Midland Hills Country Club in Roseville, Minnesota, northeast of Minneapolis. He has a staff of 22 seasonal workers and six full-timers, including himself.
“Coming in, I tried to create a sense of unity,” Manthey says. “That was a priority.”
To do that, he talked with employees individually to get their thoughts on how the maintenance department was run before he arrived.
“I wondered what they thought we could do to improve,” he says, with the goal being “to create a sense of ownership.”
According to Manthey, one tact he takes with his employees is different from those superintendents who would scream at a worker who shows up late.
“I’m more even-keeled and give a lot of respect,” he says.
Growing through attrition
To forge a successful and cohesive unit, superintendents say employees who are unwilling or unable to live up to expectations need to move on.
“Some of them took themselves out in the first week,” Michael Wolpoff says. He’s been superintendent at Friendly Hill Country Club in Whittier, California, southeast of Los Angeles since May, where there are 22 year-round employees. Wolpoff had been superintendent at SeaCliff Country Club for nine years.
According to him, if he graded the staff he inherited into As, Bs and Cs, most of the Cs and some Bs were the people who left of their own volition.
“They’re not the kind of guys (who) like change,” Wolpoff says. “They were gone just by me showing up and asking more of them.”
His assistant had been there for five years when Wolpoff arrived and is not looking to go anywhere else. Wolpoff values his knowledge and doesn’t want him to.
“I’d be a fool not to keep him,” Wolpoff says.
Northwest of Boston, at Nashawtuc Country Club in Concord, Massachusetts, Greg Cormier had much the same experience as Wolpoff when he became superintendent six years ago. His and Wolpoff’s predecessors held long tenures.
“Some guys left in the first few weeks,” Cormier says. “I didn’t go in saying I’m going to clean house.”
Cormier also had issues with a full-time employee who he thought – correctly, as it turns out – would be productive in a new setting. Rather than firing him, Cormier helped the worker find a position at another course.
“If you’ve got a guy (who) doesn’t fit, you just sit down with him and say, ‘It’s probably best that you move on,’ ” Cormier says.
His aim early on was to keep one particular full-timer on board. Dan “Doc” O’Connell was in his 37th year when Cormier took over, and he is still on the staff.
O’Connell’s role has changed from that of first assistant. That means, as Cormier points out, O’Connell, who is in his mid-60s, isn’t at the course in the summer hand watering greens until 6 p.m.
O’Connell, says Cormier, is a “jack of all trades” and can do everything from run heavy equipment to install and maintain the landscape lighting. It’s O’Connell who puts out the wooden poles in the winter used as guides for the snowplows, since he’s the one who remembers where the dozens of stakes go.
O’Connell’s most vital position, however, has to do with irrigation. Since there was no as-built when Cormier arrived, just a plan of what was originally installed, O’Connell is the guy who recounts all the subsequent alterations.
Building the team
The process of finding potential good teammates in itself is a skill with some luck required.
Craig’s List, newspaper ads and recommendations are the common avenues. From there it’s on to a short interview, and maybe a call to a reference, with the hope of finding more teammates.
Wolpoff says he notices the etiquette and dress of potential employees and if they show up to the interview on time.
“That’s about all you have to hang your hat on,” he says.
Selecting the right people is a learned talent, according to Wolpoff. He estimates that 80 to 85 percent of his employees stayed longer than 18 months over the last five years at SeaCliff.
“Prior to that it was close to 40 percent,” he says.
At Nashawtuc, Cormier has much the same experience.
“It has taken me all of the six years (I’ve been at Nashawtuc) to find a good core of seasonal guys who return,” he says.
In some instances, finding quality labor is made more difficult by a growing economy. For example, in the Minneapolis area, where there’s a construction boom, including the building of the new Minnesota Vikings stadium, some 3,000 people are working on that project, sapping the seasonal labor pool.
“The trickle effect is messing with the local economy,” Manthey says.
One resource Manthey uses to fill openings is asking existing maintenance members for recommendations.
“I have quality employees bring in quality employees,” he says.
Keeping the good ones
There are many paths to keeping employees once they are on board. Pay rate plays an important role, but there are others.
At Friendly Hills, all full-time employees are eligible for health insurance, and maintenance workers receive one free pair of high-quality work boots annually.
For Manthey, one of the draws of working for him is golf at an exclusive private course.
“I set it up so guys can play three or four times a week,” he says.
For an avid player who would have to pay for golf at a local daily-fee facility, that could be a savings of over $100 a week.
For some superintendents, it means providing employees with fringe benefits that other seasonal or part-time jobs don’t offer.
Dew says he puts emphasis finding out what his employees want from a job. Sometimes that means hiring a dedicated and responsible worker who is only available four days a week.
“If we want to keep good people, we want to do what we can to fulfill their requests,” Dew says. “That comes through conversation.”
Wishing them well
In the end, the culmination of finding, training and encouraging employees is that they often move on to better-paying or full-time jobs.
Manthey says he can’t fault seasonal employees for improving their lot in life.
“It’s always a goal to get a year-round job,” he says.
At National Golf Club of Canada, helping seasonal employees advance is almost an objective.
“We look at it as maybe we’re going to help them with their next job,” Dew says.