Date: March 17, 2015
Author: Golf Australia

Interview: Lakelands GM Linda Duncan chats about role

Linda Duncan – General Manager of Lakelands Country Club’s (WA) is interviewed by Paul Vardy – Golf Australia’s Club Support Manager.

Linda, I first met you at the 2013 GMA Conference in Sydney.  I recall you were not in the usual GMA GM mould in that you were (and are for that matter) from New Zealand, and that in addition to being a former GM at Harewood GC in Christchurch, you ran your own pub.

Yes, and I’d also been the business manager for a planning and resource management company in Christchurch.

Tell me about how all these roles prepared you for your current role.

As GM of Harewood GC, it provided me with the essential tools required to be a change agent in a dynamic environment such as a golf club.  The experience gained in having my own pub provided me with the skills and expertise in matching suppliers to member demand as is the case in a private members club. In addition, my experience gained from working in the planning industry has provided me with significant knowledge in the requirements for residential developments and building relationships with councils.

When you arrived at Lakelands, what did you find and what did you see as most important for your role as GM?

On arrival at Lakelands what I found was a high level of disengagement between members and the key personnel, namely the previous GM, the course superintendent and the head professional.  This disengagement had more recently led to a significant number of complaints to the board members regarding the condition of the course and services offered at the club.  A survey completed prior to my arrival had also highlighted members concerns in relation to the course presentation and pro shop service.

My first initiative was to reverse this trend and work with the board for a satisfactory result that was acceptable to the members.  This culminated in a review of the pro shop operation and a review of our course management.  These reviews took nearly three months and resulted in the resignation of the course superintendent and the contract for head professional was not renewed. 

This sounds like quite a large cultural change.  How did that go? 

Changing the culture of the organisation such as a golf club is traditionally difficult, however, in this case with the three key ‘drivers’ all being replaced at the same time, change was of course inevitable.  With the change we had to also review processes, productivity, accountability and resource management – not just human resources but all of our resources at the club.  We reviewed whether we had the best suppliers, the right staff in the right jobs, the opening times the members wanted and whether we had the right mix of competitions.

Trying to change a culture will have a flow-on effect on everything and so each individual needs to ask themselves if they want to be part of the change and if not then move on.

I recall you had to establish better role clarity between your role and that of the club board. That can be problematic at times in a number of golf clubs.    How would you suggest that a GM overcome a role clarity issue?  

Endemic with all clubs is the significant change when committees change every year and these can have diabolical impact on the sitting GM.  The nexus between paid and unpaid staff is one that requires a balancing act and clear role clarification.  One aspect I have always tried to stress is that the board governs and the GM manages – if golf club committees work on this philosophy and let the GM manage then the difficulties that arise due to the micromanagement by boards and presidents could be overcome.  It is imperative that the board and committees allow paid employees do their job without interference, unless of course they are overstepping their boundaries that have been set through good policy and procedures.

You had the courage of your convictions in seeking these changes with no guarantees it would work out. How was your level of board support?  Did you feel as though you had to stand your ground?

It’s not so much about standing your ground.   It’s about educating board members so that they are equipped with all the information to make sound decisions.  Giving the board members their monthly board reports and meeting minutes so they are fully apprised of situations at the board meetings is the key to a successful partnership.  The GM is then able to fill in the gaps if required.  If the committee minutes are well set out and they are adopted firstly by the committee and then endorsed by the board, then the GM’s role is to ensure that the actions are carried out.  It is when people act outside the agreed minutes that problems seem to happen.  Clear role descriptions and adopting good governance models helps clubs develop into healthy clubs.  Fortunately for Lakelands, there were sufficient board members that felt adopting a governance model is the right path for the club.

So you changed the way your subcommittees work?

Subcommittees are there to help the GM not to hinder, so when a subcommittee is focused on operational matters then one must ask as to the value of that committee.  Successful committees are ones that are appointed by the board for a specific purpose.  They need to have clear operating parameters and are not to do the work of a paid employee. 

The course committee is now just the superintendent, chairman of course, captains + maybe one or two others plus the GM.  This way the committee can assist the course superintendent in ensuring the course standards and goals are maintained and help develop strategy and long term planning.  It does not dwell on the day to day stuff – that is what we pay the course superintendent to do.

Can you tell me about the process of helping your board focus on the elements of their governance role and away from the daily management?

This is a huge change for the club. Our board is now engaged in the longer term matters; long term strategic planning, land development, constitution review, governance and not the nitty gritty of day to day stuff. 

Do you think it’s harder because, unlike boards from other sectors, club boards are, by their very nature, embedded with the customers who are the members?   Do GMs and boards also need to educate members about role clarity?

The difficulty that can arise in club board structure is that you invariably don’t need any qualifications to become a board member other than being a member.  Boards that develop a skills matrix that can enhance the skills around the board table to grow the club are going to be far more successful than boards that are developed from ‘school tie’ selection processes. As we move into an age where the GM’s of golf clubs are qualified in certain areas, often finance or marketing or sport administration as their degree, we then look to the board members to fill the skill gap.  GM’s are not usually super human beings who are skilled in all manner of areas that are required to manage an eclectic mix of problems encountered every day and we look to the board members in areas of expertise that we may not have.  E.g. One of our board members has his own marketing business and one is an accountant. Other clubs are fortunate to have lawyers.  The key is to develop a skill matrix and fill the void from amongst the membership.  Being a member for 30 years doesn’t necessarily mean you are the best person to take the club into the future.  The education for members is ensuring that they choose their board members who have the skills to represent the club to make sound decisions. It should not be a popularity contest.  

How was establishing club values built into strategy?
The club has determined values that they believe are important after wide consultation with members and stakeholders.  Now it is about embodying those values with the staff and members. 

How do you go about communicating your values to all stakeholders?

There is plenty more that can be done on this, but we are working on this and this will develop over time, such as, the role that an understanding of governance plays in getting it together. Understanding governance is about ensuring that the board understand their role within the club and to do this we recently engaged a consultant to have a governance training session with our board.  This was extremely valuable, and it is hoped that each year as new members come on the board that a ‘refresher’ is done.

How has this external governance training changed things?

This was a huge step for the board members as many of our board members have come up through traditional committees and played pretty hands on roles within the club.  Letting go hasn’t been easy, but as we adopt good governance practices their roles are lessened as they then understand that their focus is on the longer term issues rather than the short term issues.  Putting good policies in place avoids the board making repeated recommendations over minor issues.  The club has sound operating policies and procedures.  It’s now about developing more in order to allow the board’s role to be more dynamic in terms of being strategy focused.

Did the board do a self-assessment and if so what things did the board have to ask themselves about their own performance? 
Yes they did however, the internal board review was not something I was privy too.

You recently completed the free on-line Club Support Club Health Check.
What did it tell you and how has it helped in focussing on what your board should be doing?

This was a fantastic tool and I would encourage all clubs to complete this. 

Great to hear.  Are you using the GMA Benchmarking tool?
Yes we are using the benchmarking tool and once there are more clubs that have had the information updated, it will be a very useful tool for the board and GM’s industry wide in a wide range of areas.

Have you been able to utilise any of the resources and templates on the Club Support web site?  Definitely – the website is AMAZING – I have used the HR, event costing, junior tool kit and I regularly look at the site for relevant information.

That’s great. We aim to keep adding content.  What would your advice be to golf club boards and managers who are struggling to work harmoniously or are pulled in too many directions? 

STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN.  Review as much information as possible on the GA website; engage with the Institute of Company Directors and get guidance on the difference between governance and management.  If you have a professional manager that is suitably qualified then let them do their job.  Engage with fellow GMs and boards with discussions of similar issues. 

Adopt a plan of where you want the club to go and set clear direction for both the board and the GM.  Unfortunately in many clubs the board all too often get involved in the day to day running of the club whereas they would be better asking themselves what value are we bringing to the development of our club and how can we as board members take our club into the next generation.  Ask the question, “What will we be remembered for?”. 

Great advice.   Finally, where do you think the industry is heading and how can clubs best adapt for the future?

The golf industry must adapt to the future with professional, qualified managers and clubs offering a wide range of services that do not rely on volunteers.  Boards need to be progressive, adaptable and future focussed as to where they can take their club to address the changing demographics; adopting new ideas and initiatives, being customer focused and service delivery orientated.

Linda –thanks for your time.  It’s been most enlightening.