Friday, March 19, 2010

The art and science of hiring the best crew ever!

By Michael Vogt, CGCS

How often have you been in a hiring situation? With the majority of golf courses using seasonal and part time employees the task of finding the right fit is difficult at best. And the results; you’ve used your best interviewing techniques and questions. You’ve checked his references and they were great. Your gut instincts said, “He’s a winner.” You and your assistant have poured your heart and soul into training him and now, two months later, he’s late for work, doesn’t follow through on his jobs, and gives you every excuse in the book why he can’t perform up to expectations. You have to let him go.” Sound familiar? It has happened to all of us.

One of the most difficult tasks a superintendent faces today is finding the right person for the job. Most follow an old fashion interview and trust their instincts. They hire the individual and hope that with proper training and motivation, the individual will succeed. The difficulty with this approach is that it is human nature to hire people we like and that have similar personalities to our own.

You are a superintendent and hiring top positions on your team, like assistant superintendents or spray techs, you probably have a 50% chance of hiring the right person for the job. These positions are generally committed people with a definite career track. But, if you are hiring for a laborer or equipment operator or even a head mechanic position chances are you will fail and the position will become a revolving door. With the average hiring mistake in the golf course industry costing a club upwards of $5,000, for an avoidable miscalculation in most cases. Especially in this economy, competitive pressures make hiring right the first time a necessity.

There is a better way. I have learned that the key to golf course productivity is having the right people in the right jobs. I call people with the skills, motivation and work ethic to do the job Hour Savers. Put the Hour Savers in the job and you will have a top producer; someone you wish you could clone. Put many Hour Savers in the job and you will have a highly productive, exciting maintenance team that is fun to work with; a team that your fellow superintendents wish they could clone. An analogy that illustrates selecting the best employees this is a bus, the bus has many seats (jobs), hiring right puts the correct person in the correct seat, hiring poorly forces you to kick riders off the bus completely (firing them). Don’t let anybody on your bus that can’t find their seat and stay on for the whole ride.

Job Compatibility

The first question to answer is “Is the individual compatible with what you are asking them to do (will they fit into the seat)?” Many golf maintenance operations today have extensive cross-training assignments for their employees. The notion is based on the idea that the broader the experience, the better the employee. Unfortunately, many employees are miserable in cross-training assignments because their personalities are not compatible with what they are being asked to do. Their performance lags. They become frustrated and what was once a rising star becomes a management problem with an attitude. Usually, the employee leaves before the busy superintendent can determine the root of the problem. Doesn’t it make sense to determine a person’s compatibility with a new job BEFORE they are hired and/or promoted?

How is this done? I recommend the use of a personality profile. First, test your most successful people in the position you’re hiring. The results will uncover their dominant job related traits. This program will then model the results through a process called “benchmarking" or "base lining.” This process creates a hiring or promotion personality trait standard, by which you can compare your applicants or employees to the successful people in the job. Find out what makes Ralph the best cup cutter, or Joe the best fairway mower, just ask them some questions, find out what makes them tick! Use those traits to screen your applicants and voila, a better than average chance the applicant will fit the job profile. Ask questions that probe into their likes and dislikes, attention to detail, typical day on the job, you’ll be surprised what you learn.

Skills, Knowledge, Experience

The second question to answer is “Does the individual have the skill set to do the job?” This can be determined through good interviewing questions, checking references, and giving the applicant a skills test that is relevant to the position. Recent research has shown that many applicants lack the basic skills to do the job. I sincerely recommend the use of a basic skills test, if you’re looking for a greens mower, and you walk mow greens ask if walking is something the applicant has an affinity for, like 3 miles per day. At a company I used to work with we used tests that were developed by an employment consultant to uncover certain personality traits that might be congruent to the different positions we offered. Bottom line, what good is it to hire someone who can’t or doesn’t want to walk 3 miles to mow greens and have the desire to be at the job before the sun rises? Make sure they have these basic skills before you hire.

If you want to know if an applicant knows how to operate a mower, I sincerely recommend the use of a demo as part of the applicant screening process. It puts the applicant in typical mowing situation and then measures their responses against a known group of top producers. I am sure you have witnessed an employee that was trained without much effort; they most likely turned out to be excellent hires. Take the applicant to the nursery green with a greens mower and observe the basic walk, turn, throttle use, grip on the handle; the basic aptitude on their relationship with a walking greens mower. The stiff, apprehensive fellow might never find a balance in walk mowing greens.

Work Ethic

The third question we must answer is “Will the individual work?” Below is an assortment of interview questions mostly for salary or core staff members, to help you determine the applicant’s work ethic.

Mission/Sense of Purpose
• Who is the most successful person you know?
• What is your goal in life?
• Tell me about your 5-year goal? Your 10-year goal?
• Is there any reason why you wouldn’t be willing to commit to working 5 am to 3:00 pm, five to six days a week?
• Is there any reason why you wouldn’t be willing to commit to working weekends and holidays?

• Tell me about something you have accomplished that required great perseverance?
• Tell me about the jobs you have had that required self-discipline and perseverance?
• Tell me about something that made you decide to give up and why?

Time Management
• What method do you use to track time, appointment book, day timer, calendar
• At home how do you prioritize your “To Do” list?

Character and Credit History
• When we conduct our character and credit checks, will we find anything questionable?
• Check driving, credit, criminal, and employment history.
• Check personal references.

For hourly positions, the questions we must answer are different. We want to know:

• “Will the applicant show up for work?"
• "Will the applicant steal from the company?"
• "Will the applicant take drugs on the job?"
• "Can the applicant accept supervision?"
• "What is the applicant’s attitude toward customer service and communication?”

There are several tests that have proven to be very effective at screening out people with absenteeism, tardiness, drug, theft, supervision, safety, job hopping, and customer service problems. These tests are now given online and are available in English or Spanish, results can be returned in as little as 10 minutes speeding the process up considerably. Per test costs will vary but in most cases these tests can uncover attributes that are good and bad for your team.


The final question we must answer is “If I hire this applicant, who inside of my organization is best to manage the new hire and jump start his/her productivity?” How many times have you hired the “right” applicant, seen them perform excellently during the “honeymoon”, then watched their productivity slowly fall into the abyss? In my experience I have found that personality conflicts account for about 50% of the employee turnover. In a recent research study, it was discovered that often a new hire had all the “right” ingredients for success. The new hire was then assigned to a manager or trainer with whom they were incompatible. The result was after a month, the new hire became de-motivated, disheartened and left.

How can this be prevented? By making sure that the new hire and training supervisor are compatible. While opposites may attract socially, they usually like oil and water at work. If the differences are not as extreme, then have an initial conference and show the new hire and manager how they are alike and how their differences can benefit each other. Often, just showing two people how they can attack a problem from their different perspectives is enough to promote teamwork and often can jump start productivity.


With hiring mistakes costing golf courses real money, competitive pressures necessitate “hiring right and promoting right” the first time. In order to do this, you must have a complete picture of an applicant or employee’s strengths and weaknesses and how they will fit into your organization. This picture must include an assessment of their skills, their personality, their work ethic and consideration of compatibility with the immediate supervisor and/or trainer.

We all remember that magic year that we had the best crew ever, good morale, on time everyday, responsible team of just great people. The rush of spring often has the superintendent making quick “warm-body” decisions to fill needed positions at the beginning of the year. Resist the temptation to just hire the friend of a good employee or someone not known to you off the street. Take some time and research that applicant, your job will be better for it and it could be that “best crew ever”.

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