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Search America revisits the GM/COO concept for private club management.

Search America By Harvey M. WeinerManaging Partner
Search America®


The COO is the key coordinating management person on property. Ideally, the Board of a private club sets policy and establishes the club’s mission and philosophy. The Chief Operating Officer implements. The COO concept, in its purest form, decrees that the General Manager/Chief Operating Officer is the go-to guy. Though the title may remain unchanged, the hybrid manager’s position commonly shifts with the incoming and outgoing tide of directors. 

The club or clubhouse manager reporting to the GM/COO is a no-brainer. Employing one lead management person, on whom the board of Directors can depend, makes absolute sense. But when the golf pro or superintendent, often accustomed to reporting to their respective chairmen, become subordinate to a GM/COO, perhaps for their first time, discord is to be expected. Significant modification of tradition and structure are not decisions to be made just because others in the club industry are doing it. Such change must fit the club’s leadership vision. Boards should cautiously evaluate the implications before initiating what, for some, is radical and frightening, a challenge to traditional, albeit informal alliances. Long standing relationships, pipelines, and just the “natural way” of doing things can not and should not be junked overnight.

All clubs have established traditions, relationships and a functioning hierarchy. Golf professionals, green superintendents, head bartenders and locker room attendants all have a capacity for generating support among members, even at the expense of running-off the manager. Staff/member and staff/staff relationships may be based on familiarity, personality, or trust built over many years. Sometimes, a member’s best-kept secret, presumably safe in the keeping of that long-term employee, is perceived as suddenly at risk if reporting structures unexpectedly change. Fear can provoke some unpredictable behavior.

We have learned in over three decades of recruiting senior private club management that every GM/COO must be a hybrid – part clubhouse manager and part top executive – depending on the realities extant in each club. The Board of Directors determines the appropriate system of governance and operations, consistent with the club’s bylaws. While most enlightened owners and directors do, in fact, favor delegating day to day responsibility, authority, and accountability to the club’s professional management there is no one-size-fits-all club management concept.

Member demographics may drive the management concept. Directors and perhaps members, for example, of a typical retirement community tend toward micromanaging their manager. They may issue daily marching orders to the manager whom they perceive to be a hired-hand. Members of a more traditional, established club will expect their manager (by whatever title) to be experienced in the care and feeding of the affluent requiring lots of management visibility, availability, and member recognition – possible only if the club is sufficiently prosperous to employ a professional staff to whom the GM can delegate responsibility. The more modest, smaller club may require that the manager, of necessity, oversee everything personally.

Club leaders assert it is easier to manage a large club with layers of management than it is to manage a small club with fewer resources, requiring the manager to wear many hats simultaneously. Is it realistic to expect one person to effectively manage multiple, direct rank-and-file reports while delivering a consistently high level of member services? Veteran executives agree that six direct reports are about right. Clubs generally have more than that many departments. 

Actual authority granted the manager, i.e., the freedom from frequent Board instruction and the empowerment to more than simply administer golf and turf matters, determines whether the manager is a true Chief Operating Officer or simply a clubhouse manager.   

A club manager or clubhouse manager, by definition, is typically responsible for what goes on under the clubhouse roof: food & beverage, locker rooms, banquets, maintenance and housekeeping; sometimes tennis, swimming and fitness.

A General Manager is also responsible for the clubhouse and related functions, but frequently has a support staff of clubhouse manager and/or F&B Director, office manager (depending upon size and complexity of the club) under him/her – plus golf, turf, and other club departments. 

The Chief Operating Officer is the key coordinating management person on property, the “Go-to Guy”. The Board sets policy and establishes the club’s mission and philosophy, which the COO implements. All department heads (perhaps including a Chief Financial Officer as opposed to the customary bookkeeper) report either directly or indirectly to the COO. The COO reports to the club’s Board of Directors through its President. The COO participates in, and often initiates strategic, long-range and capital planning for the club. S/he may also identify skilled members with the talent and commitment to become club leaders. In a club, consistently supportive of this concept, the elected president is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) while the General Manager would be the Chief Operating Officer (COO) in actuality, not just title.

Realistically, club management, regardless of title, often has little more than administrative authority over the golf pro and greens superintendent. Insurance, legal, human resources and budget adherence are the general extent of the manager’s authority in golf and turf issues.

Responsibility without authority is common in clubs. Some purported COO’s couldn’t terminate the Golf Pro (or the head bartender, or the locker room attendant) even if s/he caught them stealing. Any title, without the teeth of a comprehensive job description based on the realities of each club and the backing of the Board is, therefore, a misnomer.

A club’s management concept often clumsily shifts with the tides of incoming and outgoing directors. The title may remain unchanged but Board expectations of management may swing to extremes as individual directors and officers redefine their own role and assert their agenda. In fairness to private club directors, it is their club, right or wrong and the manager serves at their pleasure. 

Micromanaging by the Board is usually symptomatic of diminished management credibility. A Board’s natural inclination is to fill what they may perceive to be a management vacuum.

Ideally, once a management philosophy has been adopted, it should be incorporated into the club’s bylaws. The Board, responsible for employing such a manager for their club, must then regularly and formally evaluate their manager’s performance consistent with the job description.

A title, in and of itself, is meaningless. Authority dictates title. The manager must have clearly defined expectations, responsibility, and authority. Likewise, the Board and each committee must have a definition of their mutual responsibilities and authority. Straightforward communications between management and Board are essential. Once agreement has been achieved and expectations defined, then members, directors and management must uphold the job descriptions and scope of mutual authority. The Board must consistently support the manager in word, deed, and resources if the club is to flourish.


Harvey Weiner is Managing Partner and Founder of Search America®, Dallas-based Board Consultants for Management Search and Selection. 800.977.1784 Since 1974 the firm has filled over 750 club management positions and served as club advisors to over 2,500 private clubs throughout the world. This article was first published in Club Executive, Feb/March, 2002. © Search America

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