I was having a drink with a young college graduate who wanted to make his mark at his current place of employment as a manager. He asked me, “What does it take to be a good manager, a recognized leader? How can I become a force to be reckoned with in my organization?” I said, “In one word, humility.” I then told him my story.

After I graduated from turf school and became an assistant, I thought I knew everything about turf and managing people. It took me only a short period of time to realize my professional training was inadequate and there were many things I didn’t know especially when it came to managing and motivating people. I simply thought that my education and experiences would automatically give me more stripes on my arm than my subordinates, therefore they would do exactly as told and precisely the way I would complete the task. Wrong!

One morning, after following up with a staff member’s delegated undertakings and seeing they were completely wrong, I lost it. Because I was the “sergeant” and he was my “subordinate,” the louder I got the quicker he would respond in a positive way. The follow-up conversation became a high-volume disagreement of pointing fingers with unnecessary and nonproductive expletive words. Nothing useful was accomplished by the conversation and I lost complete credibility with the entire team. Ouch in the biggest way!

That night, I did some deep soul searching and said to myself, “I will never go back to that point in my career again. Never. But how do I grow past this? How do I learn to alter my default reaction to these situations?”

After acknowledging this huge weakness with my management style, I became a self-taught reader of every management, leadership and motivational book I could find. I learned and applied as many techniques and theories to my management character. If/when I made an error, I self-reflected to do better during my next interaction. Gradually, I realized improvement. My confidence was restored. Thankfully, after many years, I have become a much-improved leader of people.

My first digested book was “The One Minute Manager” by Kenneth H. Blanchard. It’s a must read that is short and filled with dynamic information. It taught me to set common priorities and goals with shared end results. I give this to each of my new assistants as a mandatory read.

Management Team

I am fortunate to work with three awesome assistants. They work long hours and extremely hard. The assistants and I use Mondays to make a plan for the upcoming week and priority plans for multiple weeks. We agree as a team what needs to be completed as high and secondary priorities. In addition to this, every evening the assistants create a priority list for the next day’s accomplishments, including what every staff member will be doing for all the day’s work goals. This is reviewed again in the morning by the management team prior to the start of the day, adding any other needs. This habitual procedure gives buy-in by sharing a common vision and expressing respective ideas with the entire management team.

Staff partners

Our staff is comprised of many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, making management especially unique. The staff represents more than eight distinctly different backgrounds. If I would summarize our successful management philosophy with a single word, it would be appreciation.

Not all staff members are motivated by using the same means. It is critically important to know each individual person to figure out what they value and what is important to them. I have done my best to get to know each person and know them as a person, not a laborer. I have come to realize this is a true motivational technique.

I know what their children are doing, what is going on with their lives, what they do after work and what is on their respective minds each day. I care about each person and what is important to them. Most of the staff is here to earn money to support their families and not to make a career of managing a golf course. They could be anyplace and make the same amount of money to satisfy their needs. Why do they come back when it is 100 degrees or 30 degrees and snowing? I like to think because I care about them as a person.

I also believe the staff needs and wants to know their boundaries. If something goes awry with a task, it is our obligation as managers to correct the concern. It is my true feeling that our best motivator while maximizing behavior is immediate feedback. This goes for both positive and not so positive outcomes. I try to say great job when appropriate and this is where you need to improve as needed without waiting.

If the individual is praised sincerely when a job is completed as requested, then they feel positive and it reinforces what is good and what the standard of task is. On the other hand, if the quality is below your standards, then a corrective conversation is needed. We need to have a balance between these two dialogues. A good staff member will appreciate knowing exactly how they stand with the team.

Another vital management item is having the staff partner take ownership of the assignment. Make them feel what they are doing is important to the entire presentation of the golf course. It is hard to have a new staff member get excited about raking bunkers. But if it is explained to them this detail is very much noticed with the golfers and the consistency of each bunker is essential to the consistent play of the course, better results usually occur.

Other mechanisms used:

  • Employee of the month special parking space
  • Employee of the month monetary bonus
  • Employee of the month, best attendance, most improved, best innovative idea awards
  • A staff Olympics where the staff breaks out into teams and we compete with events like backing up a cart through an obstacle course or tug of war with a Carry-All cart

I am better and still improving but always learning and never expect to be perfect. My improvement has come through hard struggles, numerous mistakes, and identifying and improving upon a weakness. My formal education did a good job teaching me how bentgrass would react on the 10th day when it was 100 degrees and 85 percent humidity. I was not taught how a staff member would react while working in the same environment.

Dean Graves, CGCS, is the golf course manager at Chevy Chase Club Chevy Chase, Md.