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Cohesive Governance: How the Yale Club of New York Seamlessly Navigated Transition

When Tim Muessle, CCM, stepped into the general manager role at the Yale Club of New York, he experienced a university club vastly different from the sprawling, multi-campus, sports-centric country club he managed for the previous eight years—from the facilities and technology to the culture and governance. The 25-story historic building is in a prime mid-town Manhattan location and has more than 12,000 members who graduated from Yale University. About 9,000 of those are nonresident members, but they utilize the club’s 138 guest rooms, various meeting, banquet and dining facilities, and fitness center when they are in town.

Connected by a Common Bond
The Yale Club governance model is like most clubs, but there are some aspects that are unique to it. For example, the board of directors is referred to as the “council,” which evokes a more collegial feeling. The bond among members is unique and as an Ivy League university-centric club, the tie back to Yale is a part of every conversation. The club is not technically affiliated with the university, but it is this main commonality and bond that drives the overall culture.

The council is made up of 20 members and the committees are comprised of another 60. Nine out of the 20 council members are women and the committees are comprised of roughly 50 percent women and a broad spectrum of diversity. The club consciously seeks to ensure that all alumni are welcomed, valued, engaged and heard. Celebrating member achievements is part of the culture and the club has commissioned portraits of prominent female graduates as Yale celebrates “Year of the Woman” in 2019.

Neil Hohmann, the club’s current president reflected on the club culture, saying, “We are very fortunate in our identity as a university club. The governance consists of a diverse group of 80 Yalies ranging in age from recent graduates to retirees. It’s a proactive, creative and talkative group with a remarkably uniform set of values. Tim and his management team are valued participants who have the primary reporting role in all of our committee and board meetings. We feel this combination creates a dynamic, unified governance process with long-term vision and good follow-through. It’s fair to say, though, that management may need to work a bit harder than at other clubs to properly manage the abundance of ideas flowing from governance.”

Muessle appreciates his role in the governance of the club, explaining, “Everyone in the Yale Club governance is smart. Really smart! As a result, conversations in council and the committees is highly thoughtful and prolific. So as the GM, I need to listen intently, and then work with the staff to translate the conversation into actionable directives. Also, the club’s governance has been really receptive to management bringing initiatives, ideas and strategies forward. We play an active and meaningful role in the strategic direction of the club, which is refreshing.”

Selection Committee
When the club’s longtime and beloved general manager, Alan Dutton, decided to retire, the club leadership knew they needed to seek a world-class general manager. Dutton managed the club with confidence and style but very much in the manner of the private city clubs that populate East and West 44th Street in Manhattan. They existed much as their own entity with their own ways of doing things, regardless of changes in the industry or best practices. The club leadership wanted to benefit from the successes of other city clubs throughout the country, so they sought to hire a new GM who had his or her finger on the pulse of new club trends and strategies.

The club put together a committee that consisted of the executive committee plus a few additional governance members in the business, such as a search firm owner (not in the club world) and Kevin Lichten, whose architectural firm has worked extensively in the club industry.

Lichten’s involvement with both NCA and CMAA enabled him to confidently recommend both potential search firms as well possible candidates. The committee performed due diligence and interviewed several search firms. Once they chose the firm, they left it to them to start the process, report back on progress, vet candidates, present a semifinal group and then introduce and guide the committee through the interviews with finalists. Lichten notes that the committee resisted reaching out directly to any GMs and that any personal favorites had to be processed through the search firm.

Search Firm Success
The process was extensive because as Hohmann said, “We were really fortunate to be able to choose from among an impressive pool of the best available candidates from the country’s leading clubs. Achieving this breadth was a critical objective for our choice of recruiter.”

Ultimately the selection committee came to the unanimous decision to hire Muessle based on established criteria, “Against a backdrop of great candidates, Tim stuck out as offering a powerful combination of the key skills we were seeking: operational excellence, strategic vision, IT acumen and undaunted optimism,” Hohmann said.

Lichten explained that the successful candidate would have to be someone who appreciated the unique character of the club culture and its proud members. He only half-joking said, “We are a specifically Yale-centric club and it was important for candidates to understand our limitations (we think that we know everything!) and ambitions (we think we know how to do everything!). We’re not an easy group and we wanted the candidates to appreciate what it means to spend four years at Yale and how it changes your life forever.”

Making the Transition
The club did not have a formal program in place to onboard Muessle and he had indicated to them in advance that his intention was to immerse himself in the club and really get a handle on the culture and the nuances, quirks and dynamics that make the club unique. He knew the main objectives and general priorities of the club and believed that from his immersion in operations a clear strategy would emerge. Muessle describes his approach:

“I believe it’s the responsibility of the incoming general manager to get himself or herself oriented, and I shared that with the then club president so that he didn’t have to worry about it. I asked for many documents—financials, bylaws, master plans, calendars—prior to starting. I met with the president on my first day to get his general thoughts, tell him about my game plan, and assure him that he didn’t need to spend a lot of time with me, though he was more than willing to. I set up individual meetings with key staff, and group meetings with my executive team and then the entire management staff, which is pretty extensive at the Yale Club. I also set up lunches and coffees with key members of governance. Basically, I just jumped in.”

Since his hiring, the Yale Club has met several key initiatives: He and his two full-time IT staff have completely gutted and rebuilt the club’s complex IT model; the athletic facilities underwent a $6 million, three-floor renovation; he hired two new division managers (department heads) and completely updated the organizational and accountability charts for the club’s 250 full-time staff.

The synergy and cohesion that the governance entity and management have has made for a smooth and successful transition that will carry the club successfully into the future.

Club Trends Fall 2018