By John G. Fornaro
“On a weekend morning a few years ago as I sat in my office preparing for the day ahead, a young housekeeping employee stopped by to clean my office. I asked him about his plans for the future. He replied, “I want a job like yours!”
I asked him to elaborate. His response, “I want a job where I can wear nice suits, sit in a big chair and drink coffee all morning.”
Sometimes I wonder how many members have the same perspective.”
– Frank Cordeiro
“That’s a fun story but it might shed some light as to why some people within a club are less than knowledgeable about what a general manager/COO actually does on a daily basis,” expressed Frank Cordeiro, general manager of Diablo Country Club in Danville, CA.
And it might explain why private club general managers feel they need to be seen and heard to be relevant. Why they need to be around the club for that late night dinner party…around the club for the holiday season celebrations…for the summer golf tournament.
So the question is: Why must the general manager be seen and heard at the club to be relevant? And do general managers get their boards and members to realize and appreciate the work they do? And what works at one club might be different for another GM at another club.
“I believe that you need to be relevant in order to be seen and heard,” explained Mac Niven, general manager at La Rinconada Country Club in Los Gatos, CA.
“We should be seen because we are seeing what the membership is up to. We should be hearing what the membership is saying in order to understand their perspectives, which then allows us to have relevant discussions. It’s very hard to tell what is and is not relevant to members.
“Just the other day a member sent me a series of three emails and responses, copied to our president, about the Hole-in-One (HIO) program that has been a staple for decades. The member’s concern was that it had lost its intent because it was too successful!
“Who’d a thunk that a CEO of a billion-dollar business would not only take the time to write and answer three emails, but set up a call with me to discuss the philosophy of the HIO program, which costs him $2 each time a member gets a HIO. Not only that, he scheduled the call for some time between 1 and 2 p.m., and I picked up the phone at 1:04 – seriously!
“Some things are relevant to members, and we, as managers, should not presuppose what those things might be. A joke to one may be a serious matter to another.
“Visibility is a function of relevance, as is seeing what the members are doing. You can’t really understand the culture of the membership unless you are among them, at least from time – to – time, looking and listening, so if you’re looking, then they are seeing – you,” Niven added.
To Brett Morris, CEO at the Polo Club of Boca Raton, FL, “visibility is a crucial way of communicating to our membership that their GM is engaged, active, available for feedback, willing to listen, and concerned with the minute-to-minute operation of the club.
“As with most important leadership positions, it also allows me to observe how the staff is interacting with the members and to identify situations or individuals that might not be conforming to our service and quality standards.
“I’m not queried about ‘what’ so much, but often about the ‘how’ and ‘why.’ At Polo, we say that we work in a very ‘feedback rich’ environment, and our members are never at a loss for letting me know about their experiences – both good and bad.
“I gently remind our members that, despite what may be a difference of opinion, we can’t change the way we operate the club every time I receive an email or phone call from a member who wants things to be different.
“We work hard here to listen to our members and explain why we do things a certain way, under the theory that an educated member is our best customer and ambassador,” Morris explained.
“Professional visibility is crucial in any job,” suggests Chris Boettcher, GM/COO at Burlingame Country Club, near San Francisco, CA.
“There are many club managers that have been fired for being irrelevant. I have taken jobs at several clubs and been told they never saw the previous guy. How does one keep their job if the employers don’t know you or have any relationship with you?
“Private club managers have to be impactful. The staff needs to know they can trust you so you have to work along side them. The members have to be able to trust their club to you so they need to know how you work. This is not rocket science!” Boettcher stressed.
“I have always told my selection committees and those that interview me that I will be working regular hours – not necessarily regular banker hours and days but not a lot of overtime. I tell them I will be present at the club when you need me but when you don’t I won’t be around.
“For example, our biggest event at my club is a Christmas Eve dinner. More members show up for this event than anything else. I’m there to make sure it goes well and to meet and greet members. Sure, it’s a nice holiday and it would be great to be off.
“Could the team do it, or any other party without me?” Boettcher queried. “Of course. But would it be smart to be absent? I don’t think so.
“On the other hand, do I need to be at work every Monday or Tuesday morning at 9 a.m.? There are usually about three members here on Tuesdays at that time and we’re closed on Mondays, so that, in my opinion, is a waste of time,” Boettcher explained.
“Every general manager needs to be seen throughout his entire operation. He needs to ‘touch tables’, visit with members, and observe his staff. You need to see the functioning of the operation from both the members’ and the employees’ perspectives. I am rarely asked what I do because of my visibility and because of my regular communications,” says John Herring GM and COO of The Club at Admirals Cove in Jupiter, FL.
“I am regularly updating my board on significant challenges that may arise, and we have a weekly communication with our membership. This helps to keep everyone informed. I believe my board respects me and the management team.”
Terra Waldron, vice president and general manager of the Desert Highland Association in Scottsdale, AZ, feels “chief operating officers have gained more credibility in the past several years, as the ‘go to’ expert in the realm of operation.
“Members like to know that you, and for example, the superintendent, are accessible and their thoughts, comments and suggestions are heard. Being visible allows the opportunity in a less formal setting to communicate.
“In this leadership position, I advise on having your ‘elevator’ speech ready to convey your role at any given time. Ongoing education, information is critical for the membership to begin to understand the complex fluid professional you are in the club and home owners association,” Waldron stated.
Gregg Patterson, retiring general manager of the Beach Club of Santa Monica says general managers must be seen and heard at the club because they are the visible symbol of the club…a living, breathing, walking and talking ‘living embodiment’ of the club’s values.
“They are the keeper of the flame, the trumpet of the club, the Old Testament Prophet bringing the truth about this club down from Sinai.
“People point to the manager and say, ‘She is us,’” Patterson exclaimed. “Every time a member, a guest or staff person for that matter, sees the manager, they’re reminded of the club…how it looks, how it smells, the quality of the rinks, the fluff of the towels, the pile in the rugs and the sand in the traps.
“The GM is the tip of the iceberg, the top of the pyramid, the distillate of the entire ‘club experience,’” Patterson intoned.
Some boards of directors are more sophisticated than others for various reasons, including the fact that some directors live inside the gates of the club and visit the club’s facilities day in and day out. They’re in the ‘know.’
“It’s a daily experience, they’re more activist about their community and club experiences, which leads to a desire to understand the operations of the business,” added the Polo Club’s Morris.
“Our board has a good understanding of the GM’s role as an ‘orchestra leader’, but they may not fully understand how much time I spend meeting with individual managers, talking to our line associates, and listening to members who I encounter while making my rounds during the day.
“I’m not shy about expressing my views on the issues and challenges that we face at Polo, and I’m not afraid to push back and defend my decisions and the vision that I have for the future of Polo. If there was a single thing that I hope my board knows, it’s that a lot of thought, analysis, and consultation with my management team goes into the decisions that I make,” Morris explained.
For others, perhaps a seasonal club, or a club without an attached homeowners association, it might lead to less involvement as a board member, and perhaps fewer questions to the club’s general manager.
Still Frank Cordeiro reiterates the point the board must see the general manager as the club’s leader, in what he views as an ever-changing scenario.
“The GM is the club’s leader. The COO/GM is the keeper of the club’s strategy and culture. The days of ‘board’s lead and managers implement’ are over,” Cordeiro emphasized.
“With annual turnover at the board level, the continuity, leadership and culture lies with the COO/GM. In clubs that understand this, the value of COO/GM is very high. If the club views the COO/GM solely as an operator, the position becomes dispensable. We must elevate the value of the COO/GM in the board room!”
Then again, education is a major part of developing as a board member, and a general manager. And that’s a pet peeve for some GMs.
“There’s nothing that I wish the board knew about how we operate the club,” expressed La Rinconada’s Mac Niven. “Education, however, is an ongoing and tricky business.
“Most directors are still active; some are active with the club. Direct education tends to be off putting to most directors, so we need to be somewhat indirect about it. We try to educate when the window is open, sometimes we need to open the window, but timing, just like in the golf swing, is important.
“Our major area of education is to influence the directors to think generatively and strategically. We try to work the conversation away from the minutia and towards the big picture issues, and there are many.
“As staff, we need to help them focus on things that minor issues may cloud. A big deal is unearthing the real issue that is hidden beneath the immediate issue,” he added.
And education for general managers is also an issue for many.
“My pet peeve is with board members who don’t see the value in supporting the industry as a whole,” Cordeiro comments. “Some boards discourage involvement and resources outside of the club. This is unfortunate. In my view, all clubs share in the responsibility to grow the industry.”
Chris Boettcher shares the feeling.
“Boards should get a better understanding about education. Many of their managers take time on their only days off each week to go to CMAA seminars, roundtables and conferences. Long gone are the days of the boozy-boondoggles. Any managers that do behave that way do a disservice to the industry. They need to know that it’s a real job and not just a head-busboy position.
“There is a sentiment from many (boards) that we send the money and dues to our associations too regularly and that maybe we should only go to conference once every other year. How is one to stay on the cutting edge of the industry if you don’t stay informed? Ours is an industry ever changing. We can be pretty isolated from the rest of the hospitality industry if we don’t self-educate,” Boettcher expressed.
And this example from Boettcher explains the need for board members to better understand a general manager’s education quite well.
“At a former club a board member was making fun of the conference I planned on attending. When I turned in my 12-page post-conference report, having had the opportunity to go to 80 education programs, and networking with the top club managers in the industry, bringing back surveys, budget template ideas and new service offerings, it’s a long story short. That shut him up!”
Certainly there are times a general manager might feel ‘unappreciated’ by the club’s board…especially as general managers try to find ‘balance’ in their personal lives.
“Things we do as managers are a bit like a cell phone, it is (we are) just expected to ‘work,’” offered GM Niven. “There’s very little appreciation for a cell phone working, and like the cell phone when it doesn’t work (when we don’t work), well that’s when all kinds of things are called into question.
“Looking for appreciation as a measure of success might be a difficult gauge. We all hear “Hey, great party last night, you guys are great. Everything’s really great around here.” That’s a pretty superficial statement, but a bunch of those add up to letting you know that the work is getting done.
“When someone walks up to you, looks you in the eye and says, ‘You and your team did an excellent job with that project. You were under pressure, kept it within budget and gave us more than you told us you would,’ well, that’s appreciation. And those sentiments are few and far between, but when they do occur, can really last a long time.”
And perhaps this story from Mac Niven tells it well.
“A few years ago I was the new GM at a large, premier club. We had a superintendent who had, as was customary, club privileges. His daily routine was to go into the 19th Hole late in the afternoon, have a beer and talk with members.
“I went with him only once and observed what happened. He traversed the many members, shaking hands and smiling, collecting his acorns of appreciation, listening to “Greens were great today, course looks great” over and over.
“He thrived on that appreciation, he beamed, he glowed, he grew taller. And then he would get one “Man, those bunkers sucked…” He deflated immediately, emotionally crushed, eight great comments and it took only one negative comment to completely destroy his confidence, the whole sack of acorns spilled out.
“I thought that was very interesting until the next day when he allocated three quarters of the staff to hand raking the bunkers at the expense of the rest of the course. We bought him a membership at a club near his home and that solved the problem.
“Appreciation evokes interesting emotions, with the average club having 500 members it’s the law of large numbers that somebody won’t be happy. Members, including board members, are at the club to have fun, not bolster the GM’s confidence.
“If our personal worth is measured by others’ appreciation, it will be a tough club life. I believe appreciation is best served from one’s own perspective of the job well done,” Niven intoned.
Publisher’s Final Thoughts
I’ve heard similar stories. In fact, one GM relayed a story about a day when he was overseeing the lunch crowd. A new employee approached him and said, “I want your job one day.” The GM said, “Great, why?”
The new employee explained: “You’re always so well dressed, you have your own assistant, and a big office. It seems you are contented and it looks like the job is not all that demanding.”
At that point, the GM wondered if that’s what members might be thinking as well.
How visible general managers are around their clubs, how they relate to their members, how relevant they feel as the leader of the club certainly are important aspects of a general managers daily club life.
Unfortunately, many club members and even boards of directors are not clear about the GM/COO/CEO’s role, what they do every day or what they are responsible for, often because neither the board members nor the general manager have clearly articulated roles.
This has caused many fine general managers to be replaced.
To be clear: The board’s responsibility is to establish policies and guidelines and ensure that the club operates within those guidelines.
The general manager, chief operating officer, chief executive officer (call it what you wish) is the top executive responsible for the operations and management of the entire club.
Setting and communicating strategy, putting sound processes in place, selecting and mentoring key people will create the conditions that will help everyone make the right choices.
Also the general manager is often involved in intangible activities, to the benefit of the club, that go unrecognized or are unappreciated by members or boards.
The GM, as the club’s leader, must set the tone, define the organization’s culture and values, and ensure the culture and values are maintained and protected. They must also demonstrate how employees should behave.
However, I also believe the GM needs to be seen, because a general manager can easily lose their legitimacy…their relevancy, if they’re missing in action or unconvincing when they’re visible.
At least that’s the way I see it!
John G. Fornaro, publisher
If you have comments on this article or suggestions for other topics, please contact John Fornaro at (949) 376-8889 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org