Written by Mike Hamilton, CCA & President of Turf Dietitian
Many of you know me as Mike Hamilton, Turf Dietitian, and the guy who typically discusses soil science, so you’ll find that this newsletter and stab at psychology is way out of the norm for me. I’m writing this because, after years of visiting hundreds of golf courses each year, I’ve found that many superintendents struggle with some of the same issues I did when I was a superintendent.
I’d like to share some tips to help you get along with the people who ultimately decide if you keep your job – your club members. This advice comes from my thirty years as a superintendent and that of the many superintendents I’ve met over the years. I’ve always been a person who enjoys helping people. I can’t explain why, but I’m sure it’s because I come from a long line of teachers, farmers, and politicians. Now that I am older than dirt, and my health is like waterlogged soil, I have a stronger desire to share the wisdom I’ve gained from the millions of mistakes I’ve made in the past.
I’m hoping you may be able to relate to the some of my experiences and that they will help you.
One thing I struggled with when I was a superintendent, was the relentless critics: the five percent who are never happy. I felt like I was on an island because practically NO ONE (other than my staff professionals) fully understood the challenges I faced. I avoided the five percenters because it seemed that nothing I said diminished their disapproval.
When I reminisce, I realize their aversion towards me and my programs was not the problem.
I was the problem.
By avoiding the five percenters and whining about them just as much as they did about me, I was simply fueling their behavior.
Instead of taking the time to learn their real objections and ways of thinking, I gave them information and answers without considering how their brain was processing the information I provided them. If I would have taken the time to learn their actual objections and address them one on one, I honestly believe I would have silenced most of them.
Now that my job consists of visiting superintendents, I realize that practically EVERY golf course has its own five percenters. I listen to the stories you tell, almost all of them are the same. The five percenters frequently don’t understand why things can’t be perfect for them all of the time, and you are a source for much of their annoyance. I remember my frustration at this feeling all too well.
When I got into sales,I really sucked at it, so I bought a bunch of books and tapes and read and listened to dozens of them. I stopped after a while as I realized they all basically said the same thing: get to know the customer and make him or her your friend. They all offered good advice, with slightly different approaches to making your customer your friend. About three years ago I took a class on reading people’s body language. For me that was a game changer, and it pulled most of the sales skills I learned together.
No matter how many books you read, you’ll find that trying to make an assorted crowd of people think you are the best is a very difficult task. I’ve been using the skills I learned from all those books and tapes, and after 15 years, I feel like I’m at best average. But I’ve learned a few things, and I hope you’ll hear me out.
Dealing with members is similar to dealing with customers. The most important principle to understand is that you have to make most of the conversation about them. Your goal should be to learn more about this person and try to understand where they are coming from. If you find yourself saying words like “I,” “me,” and “we,” you’re losing. Replace those words with “you,” “yours,” and “how.” For me this was hard to learn, because I’m very hardheaded, and I hate to kiss someone’s ass who dislikes me. But it works.
Understanding three basic problem-solving characteristics
To appease the critics and befriend your membership, you’ll need to work on understanding the way they think and what is important to as many as possible. There are three basic healthy mind types: logical, practical, and analytical. The best minds have a balance of all 3, but many rely heavily on one of the three characteristics.
The three basic ways people learn are by reading, hearing, and doing. Knowing all the possible combinations and levels individually with roughly 500 members is practically impossible; there will always be few people that don’t like you. Accept this and move on. Likewise, knowing what a person did or does for a living can help you identify their dominant characteristics. Also understand some people are simply more addicted to complaining than actually wanting their problem solved.
Most Golf Course Superintendents have practical minds because their job consists of exploring both proven and unproven theories and observations. Superintendents tend to be some of the most clear-thinking people at their clubs. Superintendents are responsible for many tasks, all of which require a different type of practical, logical, and analytical problem-solving. Most superintendents I know have developed problem-solving characteristics; they are smart and they are very well trained.
Practical thinkers tend to work in industries like farming, mechanics, construction, law enforcement, military. Practical thinkers develop theories, are highly adaptable to change, and are great problem solvers.
People with logical minds are best suited for engineering, banking, financing, accounting, data entry, etc. Golf Professionals fit into this category. Logical thinkers are process oriented. In their minds, there’s only one correct answer to a problem, and everyone finds the answer the same way. Logical thinkers are strict in their approach to how problems should be solved, so typically aren’t willing to try different methods.
Most logical thinkers use math to prove their point. I don’t think you would want your accountant preparing your tax returns by using theories. Just as you, being a practical thinker, wouldn’t use a calculator to solve a problem when your greens are under attack by a pathogen. You’re going to use a fungicide that’s been researched and tested to work on the pathogen that’s doing the damage. Then you’re going to cross your fingers and hope it works because the approach you took is a theory, one that works maybe 90% of the time.
People with analytical minds tend to work in fields such as chemistry, research, physics, teaching, psychotherapy, or journalism, among others. Analytical minds want to know why things work, and what they are made up of. Analytical people are often tasked to prove or disprove theories, research product efficiency, test medications, study health values, find out why people think the way they do.
Why is it important to understand this information? Have you ever been in a meeting where one of the attendees quotes you and interprets your statement wrong? The reason is that their brain is trained to process the information in a different way.
If you are a practical thinker, and you are trying to convince a logical or analytical minded person to act, there’s a high chance that they walk away with an entirely different plan of action.
Let’s look at a few ways you can turn a person around to your way of thinking.
If the five percenter (let’s call him Mr. Smith)is a bad putter, he or she is going to complain about the greens being bad every time he has a bad day. This person won’t have any explanation for why the greens are bad, so they will say something very generic, such as they were inconsistent, or they were slow.
You know very little about this man other than he was an accountant, and he’s trying to get on the Green Committee. Mr. Smith is a constant complainer and will make life miserable for you if you can’t get him on your side. Mr. Smith is in rare form because he 4-putted twice today. When he looks at you like he’s going to spit nails, don’t ignore him; this is your opportunity to try to make him an ally.
Mr. Smith is an accountant, so his most dominant characteristic is that he’s a logical thinker. His mind is telling him there is a simple solution to the problem. So, give him a simple, logical solution.
As we know, the reality is there isn’t a simple answer because he’s not a very good golfer and needs lessons, but you probably shouldn’t tell him that. A simple question can keep his frustration from turning into a major complaint, “How did you like the greens today, Mr. Smith?”
Mr. Smith: “I thought they were terrible.”
You: “Can you explain why they were terrible, and what could we do to make them better for you?”
Mr. Smith: “I’m not really sure, but some greens were fast, and others were slow.”
You: “I will have our mechanic check the sharpness of all the reels to make sure they are all cutting the same. Sometimes the reels come out of adjustment a little in transport, which can make them cut a little different from each other”. The next time he plays, track him down, and say: “What did you think today, Mr. Smith? I had the mechanic adjust all the reels, and you were right, the greens should have been much better today”.
Unless Mr. Smith is completely unreasonable, he has to believe they are better, even if you didn’t do anything to make them better. You influenced his thought process simply by placing it into his mind that they were better, because you addressed his concern.
That sounds simple, right? Not at all! It takes a highly evolved communication skills to make other people understand your detailed theories. You should strive to evolve your skills every day. Learning to read body language is the quickest way to improve communication skills.
Here’s another example, but one that’s more critical for the good of the golf course and your job security.
Your new Club recently hired you to fix greens that have had regular turf loss for about ten years. The Club has had four Superintendents in that time, and their frustration has grown with each new Superintendent. The greens are 25-years-old that were not aerified enough in the past because the members protested too much. The greens have heavy organic matter at 3.7%, and a very high saturation index of 64% water pores. You see other indicators of saturated soils, such as high levels of magnesium, sulfur, and sulfates in solution. Once greens are hydrated, they are slow to drain, and once they do, it happens quickly, and they are hard to rehydrate. You have multiple layers that go 6″ deep. The symptoms of decline always start in the rainy season when you can’t control your moisture levels. Once the deterioration begins, nothing you do culturally, nutritionally, or chemically reduces the decline. Eventually, the turf dies, and you end up sodding and patching the bare spots. To further enhance the problem, you have many greens that are shaded, and you get over 200 rounds of golf every day the course is open. As each year passes, the problem becomes worse. If you don’t fix the problem or convince them to rebuild, you will likely lose your job.
You’ve recommended a rebuild, but you’ve received substantial opposition to that solution. Mr. Jones, the President of the Board of Directors, is telling you the Club doesn’t have the money to go to that extreme. He asked you to find other options. You know the Club is doing well financially, so you have to assume that money is not a real objection.
You’ve got to uncover the real objection to get them to do what is best for the Club. It could be that they don’t think you are doing your job correctly, so you’re not only fighting for new greens you’re fighting for your job. Because of that, you’ve got to come up with a viable solution that will at least show some improvement if they don’t rebuild.
How do you get the true objection of 500 members? You start with a survey. When you receive the completed surveys, find the top five objections, and come up with solutions for all of them. The majority of the membership doesn’t want to lose a golf season.
- They don’t want to take on the extra work that will this requires from club officials.
- They don’t want all the dirty work going on in their back yard.
- They want to try fixing the problem first.
- Twenty-five percent say it’s about money and can’t afford the expense.
The reality is that your recommendation is correct; these greens need rebuilding. However, you’ve got to have an excellent plan B just in case you can’t get the vote for a rebuild.
Mr. Smith is the President of the BOD, and his involvement in the club politics goes back ten years. Let’s get to know Mr. Smith and his family.
Let’s review what you already know about Mr. Smith:
- He was a very successful Cardiac Research Scientist.
- He graduated with a PhD. from Duke University.
- He’s got a large home on the property.
- He’s a scratch golfer.
- His wife is very involved in both the Green Committee and Golf Committee.
- His son and wife also have a home on the golf course, and are avid golfers.
- He’s got a dominating personality and likes to talk about himself.
What is your first move to get Mr. Smith on board to rebuild greens?
You’ve got to learn more about him, his family, and his 10-year love affair with the club; those appear to be the most important things in his life.
Try to get a meeting with him at a location somewhere other than the Club. There are too many disruptions, and you need his undivided attention. Try to get the meeting at his house and ask him to invite his wife. His house is where he’s most comfortable, and by seeing it from the inside, you can learn a lot about him and his wife just by observing the decorations and photos.
You’re relatively new at the Club, so neither of you know a lot about each other. Try to learn everything about the two of them and their family before you begin talking about business. You need to have them sold on you without talking much about yourself. How on earth can you do that? There is nothing a person likes more than to talk about themselves. Ask the questions that will make them feel good, and they will love you simply because you made them feel special. If they ask questions about you, answer them and then very quickly get back to them.
Below are two lists of questions to ask Mr. and Mrs. Smith and power statements you can work into the conversation.
Get to know you questions
- Where are you from? Past history will show you how his ego developed.
- Where did you live as a kid?
- How did the two of you meet?
- What do your children do for a living?
- It looks like you did a great job of raising your children, do you have any advice for me?
- This is a beautiful house, how long have you lived here?
- What do you attribute your success to?
- Where did you go to school? He went to Duke and he’s athletic, you can bet he loves Duke Basketball. Learn everything about Duke athletics and get him into a conversation about that.
- How many Duke Basketball games did you see when you went to college?
- What years were you there?
- What was the best game you ever saw?
- What do you love about the Club?
- What do you dislike about the Club?
- The Club has had bad greens for a long time. What do you think needs to be done to fix them?
- If I could show you a way to rebuild the greens and keep the majority happy, would you try to sell it to the membership?
- When we first started talking about the problem with the greens, I thought money was the main reason for not rebuilding greens. However, according to the survey results, it appears that money is only a minor concern. What do you think about the insights we received from the survey?
That should keep you busy for a few hours. Try to focus on his and her body language. You’ll know when they’ve had enough.
In the conversation with Mr. Smith and his wife, work as many power statements into the conversation as you can.
- I know you wanted me to come up with a solution to the problem with the greens without rebuilding them. I’ve done that for you. Here is the plan for remediation. I know by you spending most of your career in medical research that you will understand the theories and that there is some risk with the speculations.
- The ultimate decision to rebuild or put into place plan B, is going to be in the hands of you, and the green committee. The members have great respect for you and will follow you no matter which plan you prove.
- I would like to show you how affordable and practical it would be to do what is best for the long-term future of the Club. You are one of the few leaders at this Club who can understand the theories my team and I have given you.
- I know you’re a person who gets things done the right way, let’s work together on this to do what’s best for the Club.
- You’ve done a lot for this Club; this project is the chance to assurance your legacy at the Club.
- You and your family have been involved with the club for over 10 years, I can’t think of anyone who loves this club more than you.
- One of the reasons I took this job because I knew that I would be able to count on you. I’ve never heard on negative comment about you.
If you want to silence your critics, the best approach is to get to know them and become more friendly with them. Finding out details about their life, like what they do or did as a career can help you to uncover if they are a practical, logical or analytical thinker. Asking them personal questions can also give you an idea how they learn and what their true objections are. Set up a meeting to get to know a person, and devise a game plan for your objective, implement it without talking much about yourself, and read their body language to see if you are making a change in their view on you. Using these techniques will hopefully help you get them to understand you are both on the same side – you both want what is best for your club.
I hope this helps, if it does let me know and I may stray to other topics again a little now and then.