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Confronting Club Leadership Deficit Disorder

Search AmericaBy Harvey Weiner & Mark Weiner 
Partners of Search America®
PUBLISHED IN The Club Leadership E-Newsletter

Has there been a time, in the memory of anyone alive today, when leadership has been more pertinent or its application to the club industry more essential? Where are the vocal, visionary leaders who recognize that the closest they will come to immortality is by successfully influencing others to bring their dreams to reality? The professional commitment-to-craft must become more respected than dedication to self-interest. The narrow agenda or vendetta that drives some Members to run for the board or serve on a committee must give way to the overall strategic interests of the club and its Members.

A career, be it professional or voluntary, driven by self-interest, is doomed to fail by most accepted standards of success. The presence or absence of the critical characteristics: trust, empathy and vision, often determine the success or failure of the person in a position of leadership. People perceived as insensitive to the needs of others, e.g. club and board Members, club employees, vendors, investors or other stakeholders, will fail to engender the loyalty of those who must put their faith in the club’s leadership to help satisfy their own personal, professional or voluntary career objectives.

It makes little difference how many university courses or degrees a person may own. If he cannot use words to move an idea from one point to another, his education is incomplete. — Norman Cousins

Leadership is the ability to influence others without coercion. Without a doubt, the economic challenges of today have driven some private club directors, developers and managers to behave as if everything must be seen in purely fiscal terms. But, the policy of slash and burn can cause others to perceive the “boss” as a domineering, insecure and a weak strategic thinker, lacking in vision and confidence. If you follow this person you risk being tainted as a participant in collective failure. Those who choose to remain under these negative conditions do so only out of necessity or fear and likely intend seeking a more optimistic environment once the economy improves.

Experiencing success leads some people into thinking they can’t fail. Just look at what’s happened to Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe and those who inflated the real estate bubble. Yesterday’s Wunderkinds are today’s targets of derision. Conversely, individuals who have experienced failure, learned from it, and achieved muscle memory from the challenge, may be in the best position to train others to avoid their past mistakes. They now possess a greater sense of purpose, the understanding, the vision, and if they’re willing to accept the challenge of influencing others, will emerge as tomorrow’s most sought after club industry leaders.

The years leading up to 2020 represent perhaps the single most important window of opportunity in the history of the private club industry for both professional club management and members of boards of directors to display effective leadership. Redirecting attention and resources from cutting costs, reducing Member services, and cut-rating entry fees, to responding to a new marketplace, delivering member value, and developing skilled, visionary leadership must be the overriding priorities.

We have had the privilege, for most of the last four decades to travel the world speaking with leaders of private clubs, through both great times and bad. Little did we, or anyone else for that matter, anticipate just how awful conditions could become for our industry. Throughout the United States private club memberships are hemorrhaging; capital reserves are routinely depleted by otherwise well-intentioned club directors in the flawed belief that failed practices must continue and be subsidized, maintenance deferred to better times, and reserves can be rebuilt by assessing the new, uninvested, bargain-attracted members, who are likely to bolt at the first hint of the dreaded “A Word”; replacing senior management with volunteer directors and inexperienced department heads reporting to their respective committee chairs; value has become synonymous with low-priced rather than something of worth; retention is less important than wholesaling new memberships; traditions and rules have become wistful memories; the wait list to get out grows larger than the list to join ever was; staff can't remember your name and asks for your member number (even if you're the President); non-member functions preempt member dining; and the average club Member’s age is deceased.

The worldwide economic misery, clearly, has not been caused by those responsible for the private club industry. Getting us out of this predicament, however, depends upon our devising a visionary approach to the education and training of accomplished, divergently thinking, artful, creative, confident and competent leaders. Let’s explore together how the industry got into this mess, how we can fix it and move toward a better tomorrow.

The road traditionally traveled to the top club management jobs, has been from the back-of-the-house to the front. Restaurant and hotel trained people saw the opportunity for quick advancement and generally better compensation in the rapidly growing private club field. Golf clubs, for a good part of the last half of the twentieth century, were enhancing food & beverage offerings, expanding menus and banquet facilities, introducing heart-healthy spa cuisine, fitness facilities, swimming and kids’ pools and tennis leagues which attracted younger families. Those golf clubs became Country clubs. City clubs, particularly in dry communities, were business and professional magnets for those seeking a legal drink and lunch while business networking. Developers discovered the appeal of a clubhouse and notably designed golf course as an amenity to sell surrounding lots and homes.

Chefs, restaurant supervisors, cruise directors, food & beverage managers and hotel desk clerks became clubhouse managers, most often with no leadership training. Those who were fortunate or just plain lucky were mentored by a skilled, general manager/leader nurturing their experience and education and then unselfishly nominating them for a higher position when that manager considered the mentee ready for his/her own club. Some, by virtue of hard work, diligently studying principles of leadership, or divine intervention have cracked the code of masterful leadership. They are the few who today command the highest compensation and manage the most complex private clubs in the world. The industry must be concerned about who will be there to replace them when they’re gone.

Sadly, senior club managers and directors of today have had little or no serious training available to them regarding how to be a leader. The private club industry quickly outgrew its available supporting infrastructure during the last half of the twentieth century, largely due to the spread of gated residential golf course communities. Hotel & Restaurant Management programs, even at the best universities, introduced club management courses late in the game. Then even more time passed before “leadership” courses became available in all but a few graduate business programs. The club industry historically focused on developing generations of sergeants when we needed generals. Schools turned out potential department heads and supervisors, culinarians, service personnel, marketing experts, administrative staff, golf and turf specialists, but few actual leaders.

Troublesome too is the process by which club directors and committee chairs are seated. Typically, a Member expresses interest in serving or has been called by a one-time nominating committee of those buddies to whom the nominee can’t say “No”. The draw may be: the perception that once and for all s/he will be able to wield the power to effect “change”; or the prestige of director status; the visibility for networking; or the sincere desire to help the club and represent a constituency. Most private clubs, in our experience, have no board leadership program in place. This leads to the most outspoken Member being put in charge of a committee or elected to the board. Absent too are governance orientation, volunteer career planning, and understanding of the club’s strategic plan and mission. Several of our more enlightened client club partners have introduced active, ongoing nominating committees whose job it is to monitor the behavior, participation and dedication to the club of those serving on committees, then to work with them in a board-leadership development program focused on leadership skills. Those same forward thinking clubs engage in routine self-evaluation procedures. They were prepared for the new normal. Sadly, most clubs are not so enlightened and for some it is too late.

Managing a neighborhood club with 400 members and $3MM budget is totally different from leading a $25MM or $40MM community of thousands. One is essentially hands-on while the other demands effective, artful, executive leadership. For too long senior management has been selected from those exhibiting long-term loyalty to the club and devotion to its Members, while serving in a lower management or supervisory position. These are important qualities, for sure, but not predictive of success in the top leadership role at the club.

Successful attorneys, physicians, real estate and insurance brokers, fast food entrepreneurs and other bright, educated, personable business people have achieved the privilege and responsibility of serving on their club’s board of directors. Their term in office is generally for up to three years and perhaps an optional second term. The mandate is not to accomplish everything on their watch but to ensure the viability of the club and secure its future. Whatever their particular reasons, some directors check experience, education, business acumen and common sense at the parking lot, permitting egos to dominate. These same people would never consider, in their own practice or business, some of the inappropriate behavior and short-sighted decisions on display at board meetings. If they simply complied with their own club’s bylaws they’d realize that their authority rests in the board acting as a whole, not in them personally. No director, committee chair or Member has the authority to make unilateral decisions on behalf of the corporate entity.

The board, as a rule, is empowered to employ the services of a manager– by whatever title–designated to oversee the day-to-day management of the club, reporting directly to the club president. Individual directors and committee chairs are not empowered, nor should they attempt, to direct the activities of any member of the club’s staff. The board’s job is to determine what the right thing is to do, i.e. establish philosophy and policy. Management decides how to do it right. The board must provide management with the support, resources and philosophical guidance to run the business of the club. If your board meetings go on longer than two hours ask yourselves why you enjoy micromanaging the club. Board leaders who have confidence in the club’s manager permit the manager to manage.

For too long, the boards of directors of private clubs and companies engaged in the private club field have neglected to devote either the time or the resources necessary to build adequate volunteer and management bench depth. One obvious reason is that their term on the board or contract will probably expire before the investment pays a return. Such shortsightedness has produced at least two generations of Peter-Principled junior managers, elevated beyond their ability to serve as general manager, often by default, and woefully unprepared for today’s challenges. The board has a responsibility to put their manager in a position where the manager can succeed and supporting their manager in that effort. The authority to employ a manager to run the club, assigned to the board of directors in the club’s bylaws, is threatened when the board promotes someone beyond their skill level. However popular, convenient or considerate it may seem at the time, the board will have doomed that person to failure and ultimately cost the club and its Members dearly. Promoting an otherwise productive member of the staff, either because a better qualified candidate doesn’t come to mind, or as has been said too many times, “We just want to give him a chance” is irresponsible and destructive to both the club and that individual’s career. Such short term thinking has significant long term consequences. Hundred of unemployed applicants send us their unsolicited resumes every year. These are often otherwise talented second-tier managers who accepted the “honor” of being elevated, perhaps by a well-meaning board, beyond their ability, to general manager. Their ill-equipped performance in the club’s senior management position inevitably disappoints the board, themselves and their families but they are unable to accept “going back” to their proven level of competence. And another unfortunate albeit avoidable statistic in club management turnover faces a career of successive but unsuccessful jobs. Please, doesn’t everybody, including board, Members and staff deserve better?

Meetings of the club’s top management and elected leaders should be the delivery room for the birth of vision. The accomplished leader interprets that vision, provides the support, tools and guidance, consistently sets the right example and does that which is necessary for management, the board of directors, committees, the club staff, Members and trusted suppliers to achieve their goals. The really challenging part is, of course, learning to practice the true art of leadership: that means being knowledgeable about and effectively communicating what must be done, how to do it correctly, when and why it must be done, and delegating to those best qualified to do it.

Leaders know when and how to choose their moments. While some situations call for the leader to be proactive and out front leading the charge, at other times it may be more prudent to stand back and let those you’ve trained take charge. A skill acquired through experience is the ability to know what to do and when. Possessing the sensibility required to know precisely how to act and the necessary extent of personal engagement is the kind of art that you recognize when you see it.

Management is a descending process of detail-handling and supervising down the day to day issues and responsibilities. Leaders look to the future, sharing a vision and strategic objectives, providing inspirational satisfaction of aspirations. A leader helps people justify today’s effort through the visualization of better tomorrows.

© Search America

Harvey Weiner & Mark Weiner are industry thought-leaders and partners in Search America®. Since 1974 the firm has been acknowledged as the leading, trusted, international executive search and private club consulting firm representing the developers and boards of private clubs worldwide.