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Jumpstarting the Process of Turning Around Your Private Club

Search America
Understanding Effective, Sustainable Change
By Harvey Weiner & Mark Weiner
Partners of
Search America®


Change is difficult. Change is challenging. Change is frightening and Change is threatening. When we seek to transform an established organization we must recognize that we’re disturbing a legacy system of highly intricate, non-linear, self-organizing, self-perpetuating silos of power. Well-intentioned club leaders, successful in a variety of industries and professions, but characteristically inexperienced in dealing with the dynamics of an entrenched private club culture, may try to alter established systems with oversimplified, linear, reductive thinking. The predictable result is unfounded overconfidence triggering a disruptive, bungled intervention. 

Any club-experienced change agent knows that private clubs are comprised of numerous interlaced, intricately balanced loops of historic influence. Even after three decades of walking client club boards and management through this maze we continue to be surprised. Picture a series of bungee cords, each calibrated with different resistance, all connected at one end to a common ring, and all capable of being stretched to varying degrees. With sufficient effort you can extend every cord, but, the more you stretch it the more others are pulled out of position and the more opposition you encounter, eventually reaching a limit beyond which you may not pull or push. Once released, each cord either returns to its original state or, if you’ve successfully overpowered the resistance, the result may be deformed. Ultimately, the cords, i.e. the club’s culture, tend to either return to their comfort zone or become relatively useless. That established, fragile balance of behaviors must be credited for having kept the club from falling, until now. But today’s exceptional challenges force previously secure private clubs to confront frightened, inflexible, change-resistant cultures… an existentially threatening obstacle which must be overcome. 

Don’t blame the people within the system. It’s the comfortable, adaptive structures within the system itself that are at fault. Best positioned to affect change, i.e. real, sustainable change, are those at the top of each silo, who must themselves first accept the need for change. Silo leaders are not always those acknowledged by senior management or the board as the titled leaders. In fact, they are often unofficial influencers with cadres of dedicated, trusting followers. They generally emerge when a club is in a weakened state as are many in today’s economy. Or they may just be naturally adept at recognizing a threat and inspiring others with their hopeful vision of either a more secure or a revolutionary future, one that their supporters desperately seek.

Affecting transformative, sustainable change is much like addiction therapy. Club employees and even Members develop certain deep-seated beliefs, roles and behaviors. Like addicts, they resist acknowledging their problem. And there’s usually an abundance of codependents supporting their addiction. We have all witnessed club leaders whose board of directors or management team blindly support their decisions, whether or not they meet the standards of Best Practices. Club leaders frequently ignore their most obvious challenges while claiming to seek improvement, though what they really want is to simply submerge the real problems and hope they don’t float up during their watch.


1.      Ambiguous, unrealistic strategic vision or leadership priorities

2.      Weak or nonexistent support from senior club management and board leadership

3.      Unclear/insincere communication of rationale for change, specifying the consequences of achievement or 
         failure to adapt

4.      Vague or uninspiring personal incentives for accomplishment of objectives or penalties for failure to change

5.      Absence of consistent, trusted leadership communicating their sense of urgency and commitment to 

6.      Absence of a string of achievable, measurable, incremental successes during the first 2-3 months

7.      Lack of leadership courage to support change, confront blockers or sacred cows and shore up adherents 

8.      Failure to anticipate and prepare for unintended consequences

9.      Lack of respect for the club’s culture, history and traditions

10.    Insufficient ownership of strategy, training of senior staff to sell change and handle the natural fear of 

11.    Loss of momentum, lack of focus on the long range implications of change

12.    Interference with the staff’s day job of managing the club’s affairs during the change effort

13.    Limited appreciation for the complexity of effecting sustainable change

14.    Too little time, effort and interest devoted to crucial bottom-up support of those responsible for 

15.    Unproven, self-important, self-serving consultants posing as change managers

16.    Hidden agendas among those responsible for implementing change

17.    Unfounded, exuberant optimism based upon an unrealistic, impractical, idealistic vision

18.    Unsustainable momentum toward implementation and insufficient follow through

19.    Bureaucratic meddling 

20.    Insufficient resources committed to supporting and sustaining the change

Change is all about people and how we’re wired. We all, to varying degrees, naturally resist change. There’s a certain comfort in the predictability of status quo, no matter how painful or erroneous. Just look to the history of emancipation from slavery worldwide and how long it takes for those enslaved to wrap their minds around the personal responsibility that comes with freedom. A confident, truthful, visionary leader is required to impart the hope and belief we mortals need to trust that change can be positive. If our leaders appear uncertain then our fear of change is enhanced. This is true everywhere in the world. 

Change agents must understand human nature. They must be able to read a group, sense what drives them and empathize with their fears, even those unspoken out of discomfort or even shame. Passive resistance is the most difficult to detect. Watch those who pay lip service to change while harboring sincere reservations. Few will openly express their opposition so attend to those who say nothing. If you can present a compelling before-and-after story, then deliver on some short-term intermediate goal to show the possibilities of success then you will have defused much of the opposition. Club leadership must remain engaged in the process of change, available to neutralize the inevitable pessimism, discredit doubt and emphasize abiding support for the strategy and objectives. An experienced, professional turnaround consultant would not simply drop a plan on the client club then head for the next gig. In his absence people will slowly but inexorably migrate back to their old familiar patterns of behavior.


The Ten Important questions to ask before initiating change:

Does the proposed change constitute a real break with current methods, practices or culture?
Is the proposal to change simply one outspoken director’s latest idea du jour gleaned from the latest change-guru’s book?
Is the change merely for the sake of change?
Is there understanding that delay may create insurmountable consequences?
Is the club’s leadership creating anxiety and insecurity by always looking to change?
Is the club’s leadership ready to engage a professional change manager and is the rank and file supportive?
Is there a willingness to commit the resources necessary to see the change through to fruition?
Is there sincere support, for change as a top priority, from the highest levels of club leadership?
Is there a commitment to see the change sustained even beyond the current board’s term in office?
Is there recognition that an objective, outside change manager is essential; that less objective, in-house experts can not effect sustainable change?


Most efforts to change fail because club directors don’t accept the fact that change is difficult, painful and frightening. Clubs have a culture, even if only a few months old. Directors, however well-intentioned, often believe that because they succeeded in another industry they are infallible and can apply the same principals to the club business. This may not be a politically correct thing to say but you know it’s true. One can not assume that by simply dictating a new idea others will comply. It takes wisdom, patience, respect, mutual confidence and understanding to move the battleship.   
The crew must understand how, why, when, their particular role in shaping the change and what’s in it for them to change. The first step toward effective change must be acknowledgment of our limited ability to control change. We can steer it, manage it and try to anticipate unintended consequences but we can’t control it. 


The vast majority of change initiatives fail. There are myriad reasons but mainly those devising the change, including consultants, senior management and directors live lives far removed from the workers who are going to be directly affected by the change. They tend to devise solutions that have no relevance in the real world and demonstrate limited sensitivity or no understanding at all of how these ordinary people actually think and behave. Another reason may be that unscrupulous consultants have a vested interest in prolonging a project so as to generate additional fees. If you want to live another day to bring about sustainable, positive change, choose your change manager with care. Beware of overnight experts and those who tell you what they think you want to hear rather than what you need to hear. Check references. Spend enough time together to establish mutual trust and confidence. Look for the change manager who can get behind and drive a vision for your club as if the club is his/her own. Select with care the person who is packing your parachute.  

Then, be wary if early on everything seems to move along too well. It may be like losing the first five pounds of water weight in a thirty pound diet. The next 25 pounds are the most difficult. As change becomes more challenging and resistance builds, the board may flinch and management may stumble. Once the water weight’s gone you must focus on reducing fat while building muscle. Your strength is now really being tested. A well-conceived plan, supported by those responsible for implementation then properly executed can succeed. A rushed attack on the low hanging fruit may show quick results but sustainable change demands consistency. 

If you’ve ever hired a contractor to renovate your home you know that as soon as the contract is signed he’ll swing a sledge hammer at the sheet rock wall. Then, there’s no turning back. Poorly conceived and slowly executed change often fails. Machiavelli, centuries ago, recommended doing your worst and doing it all at once. Slow change encourages the opposing forces to rally their allies in resistance. Moving decisively deprives the naysayers of the time they need to circle their wagons and permits those who support change to express their gratitude for having survived the sledge hammer.

 © Search America

Mark & Harvey Weiner are partners in the international consulting firms Search America® and Harvey Weiner & Associates, since 1974, universally acknowledged thought leaders in the private club field. With offices in Dallas, Texas and Boca Raton Florida, the firm since 1974, has represented the boards of directors, developers and operators of the foremost private clubs and highly amenitized golf course communities of the world in Best Practices Consulting and their proactive search for appropriate senior management.

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