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Growing people and growing grass: Both must be right for the conditions

Retired golf superintendent compares the similarities of nurturing turf and employees

June 17, 2024  By  Mike Jiggens


Growing people is much like growing grass, James Beebe says. Just as the right grass type must in place for the game’s playability, the right people must be hired to make the team work. Photo: Microgen/Adobe Stock

Growing people is a lot like growing grass, attendees at February’s Canadian Golf Course Management Conference in Montreal were told. Both must be right for the existing conditions and must be nurtured to thrive.

James Beebe, who recently retired as golf course manager at Alberta’s Priddis Greens Golf Club, compared the strategies of growing turf and people to achieve the best of both worlds.

“To grow the right turf, you’re not going to put tall fescue or bermudagrass on our greens in Canada,” he said. “If you choose the wrong species, it’s not going to thrive. If you choose the wrong species, it’s going to be way harder to get performance out of your greens. You’ll have to work harder, and the rewards are going to be less.”

Selecting the right species of turfgrass will result in a better fit for that culture. People are no different, he said, adding the right type of people must be hired. Difficult people can fracture a culture.

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“If you get the right people on the bus, and they’re the right type of people for your culture and you set the bus in the right direction and you put the right people in the right seats, you can dominate any industry.”

Beebe spent 30 years at the Calgary-area golf property as superintendent, overseeing two 18-hole courses named Hawk and Raven. His final day at Priddis Greens was March 16 which marked 30 years to the day since he was hired. His address to his industry peers included a reflection of how he personally grew as a leader and featured sound advice for other superintendents to grow their employees, teams and themselves.

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“The leader is the most important person who sets the direction of the ship,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s not about you. It’s about your people.”

Beebe said that as he grew his leadership, he also started to think more about growing people, acknowledging how rewarding it became. The process could be frustrating at times, though, he added, noting there were periods of personal stress he dealt with during his younger years when producing the best-conditioned golf course possible was foremost on his mind.

“The weight of that burden takes its toll, but I was young and figured I could handle it. In hindsight, I was totally crushed. I remember being so stressed.”

Delegating responsibilities
As he learned to delegate certain responsibilities, thereby decreasing his own stress levels, he felt some burnout still existed but found a corner was turned following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It wasn’t just about growing people. It wasn’t just about creating great conditions. It was really about creating an environment of wellness for my team and making sure they were healthy, and I was healthy so that we could create a good culture so that we could perform.”

Trying to perform without a good culture and without team members being healthy helped bring on stress.

“As I flipped that narrative, it really seemed to prove dividends.”

The 2023 season saw Priddis Greens earn its highest ever member survey rating, and Beebe said he experienced 100 per cent engagement from the 84 employees on his grounds maintenance team. 

There can be a burden to leadership, no matter how strong or resilient one is to stress. Burnout is job-related stress, characterized by exhaustion, depersonalizing and a lack of accomplishment.

People working with those they can trust and who are willing to ask for help tend to deal with stress better than others. Burnout is more common among younger people who are unmarried and don’t have families of their own and who have no one to lean on when experiencing stress.

Beebe said superintendents of his generation were taught to “grind” when they began in the business. 

“Burnout and the number of hours we put in was a badge of honour. I hope those days are gone. It’s really hard as an older person to get over that because you feel that you still need to do that.”

Beebe said that among the employees on his staff, about 15 individuals are career-oriented people.

“They’re the ones who really tend to get burned out, and we’ve seen a real difference in the energy.”

Although a leader’s objective is to “put the right people on the bus,” the wrong choices can sometimes be made. If the wrong people are “on the bus,” they must be removed quickly, Beebe said, noting that holding onto them had hurt him and others on his team in the past.

The best way to select good team members is to hire slowly with the right intent, he said.

“Hire slow and fire fast if you get the wrong person.”

No one becomes part of the Priddis Greens team without proving its core values. Beebe said he looks for those who believe in people, want to work with others, are respectful, like to have fun on the job, and can work to a high level of excellence.

“That’s the type of people we’re looking for.”

Hiring the right people
Interview questions are specifically tailored to better the chances of hiring the right people, and the first impression a new employee has upon joining the team is important, he said. One of Beebe’s interns recalled a situation while working at another golf course where he was put on a fairway unit with only minimal training. When he returned to the maintenance shop afterwards, everyone had already left for the day without bothering to check on their new co-worker.

“Not a great first impression.”

Like new grass, new people need plenty of care and attention, he said. New grass can’t handle stress and must be “babied” to become acclimated. Ample time is spent learning how the grass is doing, how it’s behaving and how much water is requires. 

“You can ask people what they need. How are you feeling? Are you getting enough information? Do you need to be retrained? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to ask your grass that?”

New employees must be treated and prepared so that they can cope with stress once they’ve become competent, Beebe said. 

Until new turf has had the chance to mature, it won’t be mowed at a traditional height and won’t see play until it has become resilient. It requires density, some matting and the ability to handle stress. Its roots must also be long enough to deal with drought.

“That’s kind of how we look at training our employees. Baby them until they can handle that stress and until they become competent enough to do that.”

Once new employees reach that level of maturity, they will require a growth plan, Beebe said, noting growth plans for turf include fertility and chemical programs aimed to achieve a desired state of health. A growth plan has been developed at Priddis Greens to ensure its employees continue to grow and thrive.

Coaching for success
A mental health and culture performance coach has been helping with senior staff at Priddis Greens. Beebe said the involvement of the coaching professional has been a game changer and has allowed senior staff to acquire the necessary leadership training to potentially become a superintendent.

The superintendents overseeing the Hawk and Raven courses came from other clubs where they were inundated with stress and became disenchanted with the industry, Beebe said. Their lives have completely turned around over the past few years, however, due to the coaching program.

Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he said.

“Stress is what makes you grow. You need to get out of your comfort zone to be able to do something different. You don’t want to be in too much stress and don’t want to be in stress for too long.”

The key to wanting staff to grow is that it leaves a superintendent saddled with less responsibility, Beebe said. Subordinates can take on more responsibility and can be placed in an environment where they can grow and feel challenged yet have the confidence to achieve more. Those who take on too much stress are likely to become tired, frustrated and have a shorter fuse.

Delegation of responsibilities is a component of Priddis Greens’ growth plan. Beebe said he delegates as much responsibility as possible to his superintendents, not simply to unload it from his plate but to help them grow and be able to take over in his absence.

Although there were 84 people on the Priddis Greens grounds maintenance staff, only five answered directly to Beebe.

“I don’t have to have the weight on my shoulders of what everyone else is doing. I get to delegate the burden to other people.”

Beebe said his responsibility was to ensure the five individuals directly below him understood their roles, had the necessary leadership skills and had the club’s vision in mind. He said his two superintendents were capable of doing everything he did.

Growing people is one thing, “but growing ourselves as leaders is altogether different.”

If a mower’s blades aren’t sharp, it takes more work to cut grass. The same principle is true with people, Beebe said.

“If you’re tired or burned out, it takes more work to get the results you want,” and means having to focus on wellness for oneself. 

He pondered how a superintendent can help people grow if he doesn’t have what it takes for himself.

“Like growing grass, if the trees are tall and the shadows are on the green, your turf’s not photosynthesizing and not growing. In leadership, you have to be the best leader you can, but it’s about creating the best leaders around you.”


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