EXCEL Goes to Dallas

By Katie Beth Groover | December 2019

At first glance, an EXCEL meeting might look more like a gathering of old friends than a leadership program. The room carries a strong sense of camaraderie. Travis Cook, assistant superintendent at The Country Club of Birmingham in Birmingham, AL, says “Hey Mom!” and hugs GCSAA account manager Karin Candrl, group-appointed mom. The participants and facilitators laugh and talk because at this point, two years in, they are not just peers in the golf industry, but friends.

The EXCEL Leadership Program, a collaboration between Nufarm and GCSAA, is a three-year program that spends a full year on personal development, leadership on the job, and leadership within the industry and the community, respectively. A new class is added each year, entering a three-year rotation. The program includes a trip to the annual Golf Industry Show and two other annual trips elsewhere in the country to learn from industry leaders. While many of the participants have been involved in leadership programs before, the EXCEL program is unique in its timeline and focus. Participants have time to build real friendships and a strong network of peers and mentors from across the US and Canada.

Nufarm broached the topic of the program with GCSAA with the goal to give back to the industry. “As an assistant I wasn’t afforded chances to differentiate myself,” says Cam Copley, Nufarm’s Golf National Accounts Manager and former assistant superintendent. “There is an opportunity to focus on helping assistants make themselves better and grow so they can achieve their goals to be superintendents.”

Each meeting is packed with quality education and a little relaxation time, where the real conversations happen. Featuring speakers like Chris Tritabaugh (golf course superintendent at Hazeltine National Golf Club, Chaska, MN), Matt Gourlay (golf course superintendent at Colbert Hills Golf Course, Manhattan, KS), Shelia Finney (senior director of member programs at GCSAA and former golf course superintendent), and Alex Stuedemann (golf course superintendent at TPC Deere Run, Silvis, IL), just to name a few, the trainings are inundated with a wealth of knowledge. In fact, networking opportunities are one of the biggest benefits of the program.

This fall’s meeting, held in Dallas, TX, featured Bob Farren (golf course superintendent at Pinehurst Resort in Pinehurst, NC), Robert Dedman Jr. (whose family owns Pinehurst), Kasey Kauff (Director of Grounds at Trinity Forest Golf Club in Dallas, TX), and Amy Leslie (CEO of Perspective Consulting). The week’s training ended with a Q&A panel of five of the EXCEL program’s six newly minted superintendents.

A full day of education was hosted by Kauff and the beautiful Trinity Forest Golf Club, home of the AT&T Byron Nelson and a course that just five years ago was a dump, literally. Under the capable hands of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, heads of architectural firm Coore & Crenshaw, the former landfill was transformed into a tournament-ready links-style course in the heart of Dallas. The club boasts an airy, modern clubhouse and a prestigious membership roster.

The EXCEL group was able to play a quick scramble on Trinity Forest’s par-3 course. “It might be the hardest par-3 I’ve ever played!” said Copley, an admission that was a relief to me, a confirmed beginner golfer. The time in the sun was a welcome break for everyone. Stephen Hicks and Brett Oxley, both program participants, were unswervingly patient with my lack of golf prowess.

EXCEL_DallasThe EXCEL Leadership Program held a portion of the Fall 2019 meeting at Trinity Forest Golf Club in Dallas, TX. Photo by Scott Hollister.


It’s Not My Course
One trait that stands out among EXCEL speakers is humility. Bob Farren started his presentation by saying that he hoped to learn from the millennials in the room. He remarked that EXCEL members, all millennials, are in the “generational sweet spot of opportunities.”

One place these opportunities reside is in how superintendents approach course management in service of members and owners. There’s a difference between owning and taking ownership, according to Farren. The key is to take ownership and pride in your work, but remember that you don’t own the course, or its people. Kauff agreed, explaining, “It’s not my golf course. It’s their golf course.”

It’s About Relationships
Taking some in the group by surprise, Kauff says that he intentionally hires people different than himself to diversify skill sets and personality traits. “Nobody on my staff is like me, and that’s on purpose,” he says.

In fact, Kauff expects staff to leave. He anticipates that superintendents will stay for about five years, and then move on with the skills they learn at Trinity Forest. All assistants are assistants – no ranking system. There is no hierarchy for who will replace an outgoing superintendent. Kauff says this inspires every assistant to step up his or her game for a chance to be next. Trinity Forest is becoming known as a place people want to work, because they can move on to even better jobs later.

Kauff’s philosophy mirrors Farren’s in many respects. Farren highlighted the four E’s of leadership: Set Expectations, Equip for the job at hand, Evaluate performance (and do this early), and Empower. At the end of the day, the goal is for staff to be empowered to do their work well and enjoy it and each other. This requires good relationships.

“All good relationships are personal and should be managed that way,” says Farren. “Relationships need to be cultivated and managed at the same level of care as the turf itself.” Dedman, too, emphasized the importance of this concept. “I will challenge you to see if you can determine any difference in how one would manage a personal relationship versus a professional relationship,” he says. Professional relationships don’t just happen. “Be proactive and intentional,” says Farren.

Farren also recommends having older friends to learn from. “I always just had a great deal of respect for adults,” he says. “Even now I have a lot of friends 12 or 15 years older.” He quotes Shawn Emerson: “If you’re 30, know someone who’s 40. If you’re 40, know someone who’s 50.”

Of course, good leadership is difficult without honest self-evaluation. Before the spring meeting, participants took the Predictive Index Assessment to determine their own leadership styles. In this second workshop they took what they’d learned about their own styles and discussed tips for applying them to staff and situations at their courses.

Several participants said the workshops have already helped them on the course, and some said they’ve even begun applying some aspects at home. While most people gravitate to one leadership style, it’s evident that a healthy balance of all styles builds the most effective leader. “I found it interesting that there is a right and wrong leadership style to use depending on what is going on with the situation,” said one participant in the anonymous post-meeting evaluation. “I am going to try to develop myself to use every style in the appropriate situation.”

Work-Life Balance
As always in this ever-changing industry, work-life balance is huge. Golf course hours are tough; the question of how to do the job well and still have a family is a big one, and it gets harder once you make the transition to superintendent. “As an assistant, I could go home and shut that off,” says Chad Gilkison, first-year program participant and new superintendent at Cherry Creek Country Club in Denver, CO. Mitch Savage, EXCEL member and new superintendent at Broken Tee Golf Course in Englewood, CO, agreed. “It’s easier to flip that switch off when you’re an assistant,” he says. “One thing that helps me not think about work is to get out and be busy around town, volunteer.” Savage is a long-time proponent of the benefits of community involvement.

“Intentionally make time for family,” says Farren, who lists his priorities, and indeed his foundation, as Faith, Family, and Friends, in that order. “You don’t have to be on the course 24/7.” He suggests keeping a journal and offered advice for the busy times. “Take time during the day, during the championship, and just soak it in,” he says. “Those are the times you remember.” Of course, says Farren, the bottom line is to love what you do.

Personal Advancement
With the emphasis on leadership, advancement to the next stage is a natural topic. Five of the six new program superintendents conducted a Q&A panel about their recent job changes. They spoke about what led them to their new positions, how the transition worked, and how they’re settling in.

Kyle Haines, who moved to Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, IL credits his industry connections with getting him his new job. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a phone call that a job was posted, because I have those relationships,” he says. He also says that mock interviews and phone calls were good practice. “Work on yourself and be genuine. Don’t turn it on and off.”

Changes are inevitable at a new course and imposter syndrome is a real fear. “Growing grass is the easiest part,” says Oxley. “It’s a membership of 500 bosses,” says Stephen Hicks, Brantford Golf & Country Club in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. He purposefully goes out to meet the weekend members and hear their feedback. Haines says that social media is a big help, even more than it was a year ago, “Like a big family of guys.” Savage says, “I view myself just as much a student of this industry now as I did when I was an intern.”

People First, Turf Second
In the midst of all the leadership training, tournament prep training, and self-evaluation one thing stands out above the rest: this job is about more than growing grass. “People first, turf second,” says Farren. This group cares about the game and the people who play it. The conversation regularly comes back to, “How do we make the game more attractive to new golfers? How do we speed up the game?” While the program doesn’t focus specifically on agronomics, in a room full of golf professionals it’s bound to come up. They trade stories and tips and get excited about how other courses take care of their turf.

Wrapping Up 2019
Each meeting ends with a brief feedback session where participants can voice concerns or make suggestions, as well as an anonymous survey after they get home, and the EXCEL committee is ready to hear their suggestions. After all, this is a growing community of men and women who are already industry leaders – it’s in our best interests to listen to what they have to say.

The 2020 curriculum focuses on community service and giving back. Participants shared a range of ideas, and one participant says he has already begun volunteering.

Overall, the confidence levels of EXCEL participants have visibly increased in the program’s first two years. People who nervously introduced themselves at the first meeting now speak in front of groups, join committees, give suggestions for improvement, and fearlessly introduce themselves to other industry professionals. The first two classes are excited to mentor incoming classes, host events at their courses, and give back to the industry and their communities. Looking ahead to 2020, participant Travis Cook says, “I’m most excited to continue to develop the network that EXCEL has provided me and gain an understanding of how others balance their work life, home life, and still be able to volunteer their services to others.”

For more information about the EXCEL Leadership Program and to learn how to apply for 2021, visit https://www.eifg.org/education/excel-leadership-program.