Career transitions: the journey from golf course superintendent to general manager
By Mike Jiggens
By David McPherson
When we connect, Adam Zubek is finishing his last fortnight at Mississaugua Golf & Country Club, wrapping up a few loose ends before he tackles the next step in his career journey.
“There’s never a shortage of workload,” says the golf course property manager.
Zubek is moving west to Vancouver where he’ll assume the role of chief operating officer (COO) at historic Point Grey Golf & Country Club, host of the season-opening event on Mackenzie Tour—PGA TOUR Canada. With this promotion, the seasoned superintendent is set to add a lot more to his daily workload.
Zubek is taking a route which, at one time considered less travelled by greenkeepers, is now a viable career option.
Most superintendents are natural leaders and are comfortable managing risk and a heavy workload, so why not take that leadership and career to a new level? They are also some of the best zero-based budgeters at their respective clubs from coast to coast.
At some of the larger North American clubs, with a title of director of grounds, they already often manage operational budgets greater than $10 million. Zubek admits the transition from superintendent to general manager is one he’s been exploring and working towards for the better part of seven years.
“Right from the onset of my career I was interested in club management,” he explains. “I was also interested in professional golf management … I just loved the game. First, I learned about agronomy, but I always had aspirations to branch out.”
The superintendent’s journey began on the grounds crew at The Royal Montreal Golf Club. From there, he made a summer pit stop at Nicklaus North in Whistler, B.C. Highlights on the road to his current destination featured education both at the University of Massachusetts and Penn State’s renowned turfgrass program, an internship at Baltrusol (host of this year’s PGA Championship), and the head superintendent gig at Capilano Golf & Country Club.
For superintendents looking to make a similar transition in the current market, the most conventional way is through your current club; they recognize your skill set and advance you to the position if the opportunity arises. That’s how John Gravett—another former turfgrass manager turned GM/COO—made the leap.
Zubek references his colleague as a mentor and trailblazer who offered him advice as he looked to make a similar management move.
“I’ve always had a passion and enjoyment for developing and managing people,” says Gravett, GM/COO at Toronto Golf Club. “There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing your staff achieve great things. I also love being involved in the overall strategic planning of a club. It’s in my DNA; I get a real buzz out of being in that leadership role.”
Gravett’s opportunity came at his former employer—The Granite Club—where he started as the grow-in superintendent, knowing that if all went well there would be an opportunity for him to transition into the GM role.
“When I talk to superintendents, I tell them that you need to build your skill set towards this transition,” he explains. “Without knowing it, supers already have many of the main components needed for the job. It all goes back to professional development, education, and networking.
“You don’t need to know everything about club operations,” Gravett adds. “You will learn quickly and you can always hire the knowledge and expertise where there are gaps as you build your management team.”
Like any step up in your career, education and ongoing professional development is essential to making a successful transition from superintendent to GM. Gravett made sure he achieved his CCM (certified club manager) designation from the Club Managers Association of America (CSCM). As a leader, Gravett tries to pass along this knowledge to his team and allow everyone to have a voice.
“I believe many clubs weren’t achieving excellence in quality because everything was so compartmentalized,” he explains. “The pro shop, the food and beverage, and the turf and maintenance departments were all operating in silos. Bringing them together has been a huge help at the clubs I’ve worked at. It’s not rocket science, but it really helps to have everyone at the table.”
Education has always been at the heart of Zubek’s career journey. Currently, he’s in the final stages of obtaining his CCM designation. The Canadian Society of Club Managers also offers courses. Attending CSCM meetings and conferences and networking are also integral parts of achieving the designation, so you have a better understanding of the club management side of the business.
For superintendents considering this career change, there are a few other keys they need to know before making a final decision on whether or not they want to make this transition. Your life will change. As the GM/COO, the buck stops with you, so you won’t get to go home at 5 p.m. on a regular basis anymore. The potential downside is how this might affect your work/life balance. Your total working hours may not be that different from what you are used to as a superintendent, but it’s more how these hours are allocated.
What does Zubek see as the biggest challenge on the road ahead as he takes on this new executive leadership role at Point Grey? Dealing with areas of the business such as food and beverage that he’s familiar with, but not an expert in, he says.
“It’s one thing to get an MBA, but it’s another thing to go into the business world and apply that knowledge and be successful,” Zubek explains.
You can know all the theory behind running food and beverage, agronomy, and all the core aspects of club management, but you also need to understand the political landscape once you are there and how to navigate these sometimes turbulent waters with diplomacy. Zubek believes the biggest challenge all clubs face today is how to keep their current members engaged and retain them while still actively recruiting new members.
Zubek is a real talent management leader. The first phase, he says, once settled at Point Grey is to get acquainted with the rest of his leadership team and all the club personnel.
“I plan to work closely with all of them to identify where we need to go: what we can improve upon and where we can add value,” he says.
For superintendents looking to make a similar transition, Zubek leaves his colleagues with these final thoughts.
“Anytime you can add value to your organization by being better versed in other aspects of the operations, the more value you provide your employers,” he concludes. “The club and golf world today is in a more challenged position than it was 20 years ago. Every club is looking for value-add. Supers, in particular, have a wealth of experience in project management and leadership in overseeing key staff; they also understand the political landscape of clubs and its structure. Without knowing it, they already have most of the core competencies to being a successful GM.”
David McPherson is a freelance writer and communications consultant. He started golfing at Kitchener’s Westmount Golf & Country Club as a kid. A love of words soon followed. As a golf writer for the past 14 years, his work has appeared in a variety of publications. As president of McPherson Communications, David helps a wide range of corporate clients. Besides golfing, he enjoys playing tennis. listening to music, travel and spending time with his wife and two young children. Follow him on Twitter @mcphersoncomm.