If you attended this year’s GCSAA conference, it’s likely you learned as much in the hallways between sessions as you did in the programs themselves. That’s because you would have heard—as I did, over and over—superintendents engaged in a very public form of therapy: Call it “Failure Forum.”
Wherever I went, I heard one big agronomic rehab session. Superintendents from across the country opened up to one another, friends and foes alike, discussing their biggest mistakes, gaffes and screw-ups.
And you know what, I think it’s great. Maybe it’s because misery loves company, or that we all feel better when we realize everybody makes mistakes, and maybe made the same mistakes. Messing up is part of life.
But because we work in a business that is very public, and which everyone else thinks they can do better that you—particularly people with no experience or training—our mistakes in pursuit of unachievable perfection are magnified.
We’re all under constant pressure to make the land we’re responsible for as green, or brown as the case may be, and friendly as possible. Every weed, brown spot, tire track, puddle, bad lie and unfair break is our fault, and there’s a men’s grille full of critics willing to tell us so.
No wonder we’ve forgotten how to fail.
Failure. That’s the F-word we won’t say. You’ve probably heard the expression that “you’re not a superintendent until you lose grass.” When we lose grass, we lose face. Crop failure, procedural failure, personal failure. It’s all the same, and the good superintendent is stung deep and hard whenever something fails.
However, if you don’t know this already, if you haven’t taken this to heart, then do so now: Failure is part of our business, part of our personal learning process. So, the most important question to ask yourself when you fail is, “How am I going to handle it?” Here’s how.
Stay strong. Don’t beat yourself up, at least not too much. Get mad and then get over it. Quickly. Remember: You’re not the first superintendent to have this problem, whatever it is, and you won’t be the last.
Stay positive. Angry at yourself? Good. Use that energy to find a solution to the problem and get it done as soon as you can. Failure does NOT make you a bad superintendent: It makes you 1) human, and 2) a better superintendent. Still feeling down? Remember all the good things you’ve done in your career. Same guy, right?
Communicate. This can be hard. But as soon as you know there’s a problem, tell those people who need to know, above and below you. And here’s what you have to be able to share: What happened, why it happened, what you’re doing about it, how long it will take to fix, what it will cost and what how will it affect the golfers that play your course.
Be prepared. For what? Everything. Criticism, calls for your head, to accept blame, repercussions. And in this age of social media, for your mistake to go viral.
Set realistic and workable goals. Be very careful to only propose actions that you can control or things will get worse. In the process of planning to make things better, take a hard look at your programs and procedures: Was the cause of the mistake something in the way you work that is unrealistic for your course or maintenance program? Or experimenting based on the newest and greatest?
Ignore negative people and negative thoughts. You know exactly who will be giving you a hard time, and while it’s impossible to avoid them entirely, don’t let them get into your head. Instead, turn to your trusted advisors—at the club, outside experts, friends—people who have your best interests at heart and who have been there for you in the past.
Stay open-minded. Something else that can be tough. But there’s usually more than one way to undo a problem. Be flexible and willing to listen to options.
Stay honest. Lay out the plan for every step of making things right. That’s not just finding and implementing a solution to the original problem but also continuing to communicate to your constituents as well as management or board. And don’t promise more than you can do: Set reasonable expectations, a workable timetable and manageable steps. Then do it.