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6 Ways to Build Great Board: Club Leader Perspectives

What makes great board members so great? The fact is that top private club board leaders are made and seldom born. One of the common characteristics is their clear understanding of servant leadership and the necessity of putting the needs of others ahead of their own.

There are several important principles for building a strong board, according to Fred Laughlin, a director at Global Golf Advisors:

  1. Define your team. Laughlin cites three important characteristics needed: (1) required characteristics, which are often described in the club’s by-laws; (2) desired characteristics, such as integrity, advanced listening skills and experienced leadership; and (3) desired experience and skills, such as finance, audit, legal and insurance knowledge.
  2. Form a trustworthy and respected Nominating Committee. Call on the members who are known to be trustworthy, impartial and respected.
  3. Use an uncontested election process. Elections are inherently political. A Nominating Committee that puts forward only the number of candidates as there are open positions on the board serves the club well. If your club must meet statutory requirements for crowd-sourced nominees, see that those candidates selected by the Nominating Committee are designated accordingly and require voters to vote for the number of board seats available in the election.

Most club managers and many fellow board members can cite common traits of those servant leaders who truly rise to the duty of serving others.

Rick Bayliss, the CEO at Lost Tree Club in North Palm Beach, Fla., says it very simply, “No personal agenda … always acts in a manner that is best for the institution. Views the relationship with the chief staff executive as a ‘partnership’ and collaborative with the board.”

Tim Bakels, the COO and GM at Colleton River Plantation near Hilton Head, S.C., agrees and adds that the best board members “Get it.” In explaining that great board members understand the business aspects of the club calling upon their own good business sense and relying on fact-based decision-making. Bakels notes, “the best directors understand and use the chain of command. They discuss all issues with the GM before addressing operational concerns with other members. And, “they let the operational folks operate while the board members focus on policy.”

John Wright, the COO and GM at Norwood Hills Country Club in St. Louis, ticks off his most-needed traits for a board member on his fingers, “No personal agenda, ability to listen, true vision for the club, dedicated understanding of long range strategic plan and a team player.”

Norwood Hills, located less than one mile from Ferguson, Mo., has embraced its opportunities for community leadership through its community programs through inclusive caddy programs, scholarships and dependable employment. It is a great example of board vision and leadership.

At the National Republican Club of Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., GM Stan Lawson observes that his great board members shared common traits. “They are terrific ambassadors for the club and fully understand that the club relies upon dues revenue to sustain their fine club. They proactively sponsor new members. And they are an extra set of ears bringing their concerns to me so that issues can be addressed in a timely manner.”

Eugene Country Club in Oregon is managed by Rich Spurlin, who observes, “I think about a handful of individuals (mostly club presidents) over the years have a certain charisma that inspires a board, members or membership to believe in an established vision. I have yet to come across a charismatic board member who is isn’t championing something positive, which inevitably helps move the club forward.

Another outstanding trait of an excellent board member is empathy. Although most board members have experienced a certain degree of success in their professional careers, it’s always appreciated when they take the time to try and understand people, situations and issues before casting judgment. More often than not, following an excellent board member’s term, they share a comment appreciating how diverse the interests of the membership are in relationship to what they thought prior to serving the club.”

Joshua Tanner, COO and GM at Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert, Calif., notes that the great board members at Ironwood think strategically. He adds, “They listen more than they speak, but when they speak they are educated and well spoken. They ask the right questions and are able to view the big picture.  They are trusted and have gravitas. Others respect them and trust their processes and decisions.”

Terra Waldron, VP/COO at the Desert Highlands Association of club and residents adds, “Developing a Board Policy Manual (BPM) defines roles and responsibilities to be evergreen to adapt to the times. Keep it front and center at all meetings.”  In addition to supporting many points made by other club leaders, she emphasizes, “A great board member can assist a club’s/association’s growth and prosper with the times, to adapt to the changing environment by providing leadership through the board and trickle down to the committee level. Defining specific roles responsibilities and staying true to the mission. They encourage varied thoughts and discussion but control the environment to stay civil and respectful.”

Members today expect openness from their boards. Tanner adds, “They are transparent and build consensus. They are able to make the tough decision and stand by that decision. They understand the core values of the club and make decisions that are in alignment with those values.”

From coast to coast, the assortment of club managers who contributed their ideas here share certain common observations of great board members:

  1. Put the needs of their fellow club members first.
  2. Are prepared and fully informed to maximize their effectiveness.
  3. Command respect for their willingness to listen and understand;
  4. Understand the operational characteristics of the club;
  5. Respect the organizational chain-of-command; and
  6. Champion the club in all of their efforts.

James Collins, in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, provides the best guidance for those who would be great board members, “A company should limit its growth based on its ability to attract enough of the right people.” And so it is with private clubs.

Henry DeLozier is a Principal of Global Golf Advisors, an NCA Legacy Alliance Partner.