Different Courses, Same Strokes

This past September I was fortunate enough to chair a committee of several hundred volunteers for the BMW Championship held just after Labor Day at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Indiana. The BMW is the third leg of the PGA Tour’s Fed Ex Cup, the Playoffs of the PGA Tour. This event is limited to the top 70 players who have qualified over the previous two tournaments of the Playoffs. The BMW Championship has no cut and the top 35 move on to the final event which determines the winner of the Fed Ex Cup and more than Ten Millions Dollars is held at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. The BMW Championship was expected to attract more than two hundred thousand spectators over the 6 days of the event (two practice and four tournament days).

golf-sunset-sport-golferWhat does managing volunteers at a golf tournament have to do with managing our businesses?

To conduct an event of this magnitude, the proceeds of which support the Evans Scholar Program, more than two thousand individuals were needed to volunteer to work on the various committees. There was also a highly competent professional staff to manage the tournament and supervise the volunteers. Nevertheless, a lot of the organizing fell to the volunteer chairs. As one of those chairs, I worked with my co-chair and the operations committee, of which I was also a member, to make sure we had good plans in place for the event. Since I had occupied a similar role in the two previous national tournaments at Crooked Stick, I thought I had a pretty good handle on what we needed to do. Even with that background, there were still issues to address and I was reminded of a few lessons I have learned in business. Some of those lessons were:

  1. The best of plans do not survive first combat. Even though we had prepared extensively, the first day of the Championship always brings some surprises. Just as in business, there were unanticipated challenges: Additional volunteers were needed to man posts which were not anticipated; the players decided they would walk on a different route than we had planned; an autograph area was removed; there were credentials issued by the PGA Tour which we did not recognize, and finally; the weather seldom cooperates! All of these little issues caused us to change the plans we had spent months developing. The lesson we were reminded of was that we need to be flexible. No one tried to make things difficult, things just happen and flexibility is the key!
  2. Plan for the worst, and when it doesn’t happen you are pleased—if it does happen you are prepared! The weather was a challenge almost every day. From the oppressive heat and humidity on Pro-Am day to the down pours that threatened to wash out some portion of the first three days of the tournament, the weather was one thing we did not ever seem to be able to plan for. The first couple of days were extremely hot and muggy with a heat index exceeding 100 degrees. We needed to keep water for all of our volunteers…and we ran out for several hours on Tuesday. Again, we needed to be flexible; we found more water and we were prepared for the extreme heat on Wednesday. Then it rained and it rained and it rained! The afternoon round on Thursday was delayed for several hours and even with the rain, about half of the field was able to completed play before dark. Crooked Stick is located in Clay Township of Hamilton County, Indiana. It is called Clay Township for a reason…the soil composition is very much clay. When clay gets wet, it is very slick and slimy. Although the golf course drained extremely well, and the grounds staff did an unbelievable job making the course ready for the players, our Volunteer Headquarters was almost unreachable with all of the standing water and the slick clay. The volunteer parking area suffered a similar fate. Nevertheless, by the next morning we were ready and back in business by relocating the volunteer parking and using plywood sheets and mulch to make a path to the Volunteer Headquarters. We had plans in place to deal with the unexpected. (By the way, mulch does a great job of absorbing water and making water logged areas passable!)
  3. It is impossible to provide too much training. Many of our volunteers had worked on this committee during previous tournament and remembered their experience. Some were brand new with no knowledge of what was required to do the job. In both cases we needed to make sure that we provided extensive training prior to the event with on the job training each day. All of these people wanted to be here. All of them wanted to do a good job. Just like our employees, it is critical that leadership provide the training and perhaps most importantly, listen to what our team members tell us. There were instances where the path way we had identified just didn’t work out…we needed to listen and make the changes the volunteers on the post recommended. Similarly, it was important to allow them to react, without first waiting for permission, to changing circumstances, such as when the weather destroyed a roped walkway and a new path had to be created. When the volunteers were well trained, had some experience and knew they were trusted, they invariably used good judgment! Just as in our business, we need to listen to the people who actually do the work and sometimes they need to be trusted to make a snap decision because an emergency exists. After they make the decision, it is necessary to support them and assist in making corrections that need to be made. If everyone listens, understands the common goal and works to achieve the best outcome, great things happen!
  4. Tom Peters, the bestselling author and management consultant had a great phrase “Management by Wandering Around”. That is what we did every day, all day. Both I and my co- chair visited each post and checked in with each volunteer on multiple occasions during their shift. I admit to failing in this task on one occasion and left a volunteer on her post for much longer than necessary. I am the one who let her down, by not staying on top of the situation; something that could have been avoided, had I done more wandering. In similar vein, we cannot adequately manage our enterprises from behind our desks. We need to interact with our team and meet our customers. It is amazing what we learn when wander around and just watch and listen to what goes on daily.
  5. At the end of the day, say “Thank you”. A very simple act of thanks is always appreciated and acknowledged. While our volunteers had a very important job to do, our committee management always made a point of thanking the volunteers at the end of each of their shifts. When the weather caused us to have to extend and change shifts or when volunteers had to miss scheduled lunches (which we made sure they had access to alternative meals), we always made a point of thanking them. One of the missions’ for the entire volunteer committee was to make sure the volunteers had a good time each day. Saying “thanks” helped. Our employees and customers also need to be thanked for what they do for us each day. None of us can do everything ourselves and “thanks” goes along way!

The volunteer committee at the golf tournament functions much like any business enterprise. If we stop and think about the things that occur in a volunteer setting apply them to the business, it helps…and likewise when we are involved in volunteer activities, treating them like a business maximizes their performance.

I am truly amazed at how well our tournament was run. It is a testament to the small professional staff that very few issues needed to be addressed during the event. And, it is mind boggling to realize our experience is repeated around the country and around the world at thousands of professional golf events worldwide as well as the countless other events that rely on volunteers to make those events successful.

Blair Vandivier

President and CEO, Asterion, LLC