As anyone in the club industry is aware, a capable General Manager (GM/COO) is critical to the success of any club. Whether member-owned (equity) clubs or those owned by for-profit investors, the GM/COO is often the single individual communicating to both leadership/ownership and the membership. As such, it is the GM who often becomes the face of the club when there’s a problem, a decision to be made quickly or the outside world. Thus, the GM/COO conveys the culture of the club to all concerned. We’ve had the privilege of working with numerous capable GM’s at many of the nation’s premiere clubs. One of the absolute best is Roaring Fork Club’s (CO) Geoff Hasley. His vast background includes a Master’s Degree from Cornell, GM/COO stops at Green Tree CC (TX), Colonial CC (TX), Eldorado CC (CA) and since 2016 Roaring Fork, an upscale destination club in the Aspen Valley of Colorado. After completing our project with Geoff, I had the chance to pick his brain about what makes a great GM/COO in the private club world and how he has been successful.
With clubs being an exercise in hospitality, I first asked Geoff about his focus to ensure a consistently excellent level of service and hospitality. His simple answer was “PEOPLE”. He emphasized all involved, ranging from high quality members served by a well trained, well communicated to Team of people who view what they do as a profession rather than a job. He emphasized training, but not only for employees but also members. As he put it: . (GH)“How do you train your patrons, or in the club industry…your members, to appreciate it when someone from our Team fills an unanticipated need? My favorite example is a story of a member of our Valet Team who saw that a tire on a member’s car was losing air. The staff member took it upon themselves to take it to a nearby tire store and have the tire repaired so that it was ready when the members finished their meal and were ready to leave. It exceeded everyone’s expectations.” Having once experienced that same service when I was a guest at a club I understand what he means. (Notice that the word “Team” is capitalized throughout this piece)
Hasley is a master at developing positive club culture. When asked, he said: (GH)”We try very hard to manage expectations for everyone: vendors, Team members, Club members. We also try very hard to properly vet each of these groups prior to forming relationships. Every organization does it differently and there a numerous examples of organizations who get it right. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Respect, mutual consideration, appropriate resources expended to train and provide the tools to successfully execute their tasks, reinforcing great attitudes and behaviors, correcting conduct respectfully when it doesn’t meet or exceed standards…all of these form a circular relationship where the absence of any component creates an imbalance. Staff must do their part, members must do their part…Club leadership MUST constantly monitor the landscape to ensure the cultural pH balance is maintained.” Everyone has to care about the long term not just their own short-term agenda.
The obvious next question was how management and staff contribute to a club’s culture from the member perspective without overreaching. His answer was quite insightful, noting that in an emotional environment like a club, there are “lines” and everyone has to know where they are. (GH) “How much information sharing between a member and a staff member is proper? The answer is always “it depends”. A member may ask how my family is doing. I might answer that they are terrific, thanks for asking. What next? What if they aren’t terrific? What if the member asks how my children are doing and isn’t one of them in college now? Since I have no children BUT the member is entertaining guests….I might answer “thanks so much for asking…everyone I love is doing wonderfully”. Some members really want to know and others are just being polite. Should I correct the member in front of his or her guests? No, of course not. In the real world, you provide an honest and completely forthcoming answer. In the club world you have to completely read the situation and answer without dishonesty (ie: “everyone I love” rather than “oh, I don’t have children”). If my Club Chairman asks, he wants the complete answer….if member XYZ asks, they are just being nice. How do you teach this skill?” Hasley emphasizes caring for others, whether they be co-workers, members or guests.
Among the most sensitive and often frustrating dynamics of club management is the “amateurs” (club leadership) dictating daily procedures to the “professionals” (club management) – MicroManagement. Hasley’s perspective on this is quite insightful: (GH) “First of all, you have to make peace with the fact that as the GM/COO your obligation is to perform in the manner that club leadership is compensating you to produce. You will be evaluated on what is important to them, not what is important to you. I’m good with that and part of the art of serving in this role is adapting to what they want you to be while assisting their evolution to an environment where you and the Team can be successful. As long as it’s honest, they have the right to expect that. Now, what happens over time in organizations with volunteer/member sourced leadership must be viewed as effective by the membership. Hasley observes that many boards are fearful of a strong GM and sees his role as one of leading the board with thorough analysis of a given situation and provide a limited number of acceptable options. Furthermore, he asks when boards actually and sincerely seek input from the membership on new ideas, proposed projects and policy changes. With a strong GM/COO, clubs can make timely decisions and have a place where the “buck stops here.” As Hasley says, “clubs fail from no decisions or bad decisions”.
When I asked Hasley about varying club cultures, he emphasized that the most important thing is that all involved be honest about accurately self-assessing who they are. We all know lots of clubs that fail in this regard. I asked about creating and cultivating a culture of “ownership” and he emphasized exceeding expectations. He said (GH)“Don’t deflect blame when things aren’t going well and when things are going well, give away the credit to those doing the real work. If you have the right club leadership, they recognize what you are doing. This permeates every level of our operation…I am proudest when a Team member worthy of recognition gives it away to someone else equally worthy.” Hasley emphasized that success in defining a club’s culture depends on clubs knowing, elevating and enhancing their strengths. He warns against a false sense of security on the sustainability of gains made during the COVID pandemic and fears that there are clubs becoming too aggressive in a time when things could turn for the worse very quickly leaving clubs with lots of debt and declining membership.
Among the talents I’ve always been impressed with are club staff members’ ability to remember everyone’s names. Hasley (laughingly) said (GH) “We all recognize that some Team members excel at it while others struggle. In general, like anything else in life, repetition helps. If someone comes to the club every day, that’s easy. It’s also easier in a high touch club where the typical member experience is more interactional than transactional. Staff continuity helps as well…but it really does boil down to this one factor…the staff member has to want to remember names and therefore works at it, reviews member rosters, queries other Team members. There are formal methods to increase memory retention but generally, successful club employees actually enjoy this exercise and embrace it. Its rewarded by the membership through warmth and thus the circle gets perpetuated.”
This conversation could’ve gone on forever. Geoff has such a deep and insightful knowledge of club culture that a book could be written. Who knows, maybe that’s next?