Clarke finds his happy place

In his continuing series of leadership profiles, Ben Gibson catches up with Warrnambool Golf Club superintendent Brenton Clarke (CSTM).

Ask anyone in the Australian turf industry that knows Brenton Clarke (CSTM) for their ‘two cents worth’ on him and his turf management acumen and you will understand why he is the leadership profile for this edition of Australian Turfgrass Management Journal. From early career lessons to prioritising and balancing turf and family life, Brenton has had an interesting journey in golf course management.

Brenton (33) is superintendent at Warrnambool Golf Club on Victoria’s Shipwreck Coast and last month notched up his second year in charge there. It is Brenton’s first superintendent posting in a 15-year turf management career which has also seen him hold senior roles at Kooyonga, Blackwood and Box Hill golf clubs, as well as spend time plying his trade overseas. I think you’ll agree that the insights that Brenton shares on the impact that supportive and encouraging leadership can have on your team and club are definitely worth the read…

Tell us about your journey in turf management and how you came to be at Warrnambool Golf Club (WGC)?

I was in Year 10 and looking at doing some work experience. I had a huge passion for sport and at the time was playing junior cricket at Woodville District Cricket Club. It was 2004 and an opportunity to work a week at Adelaide Oval presented itself. Adelaide Oval was my Mecca and then curator Les Burdett was a huge idol. Meeting the man who had achieved so many great moments, I was starstruck. During the week I was guided by his assistant at the time Damian Hough (now curator) and it was an amazing experience which ultimately set me down the turf management path.

I completed high school and embarked on a horticulture Certificate before starting a traineeship at Blackwood Golf Club. Even though the sport of golf didn’t appeal to me at the time, I enjoyed the diversity of the role and the results that could be achieved. I learnt many positive skills from long-serving superintendent Stephen Pellatt.

In 2015 I moved from Adelaide to Melbourne in a bid to push myself and grow my knowledge. I landed at Box Hill Golf Club which would offer all that and more. With a range of issues that had just occurred, a new management team had been formed and within three months I found myself as foreman. Continually striving for more, I gave superintendent Josh Leyland no option but to create a new role for me in construction and budgeting. My knowledge of construction and team leadership grew immensely and I also completed my Diploma in Sports Turf Management during this time.

After nearly three years at Box Hill, I had to return to Adelaide for personal reasons, but was fortunate enough to land the assistant’s role at Blackwood. I knew I was going to lose the advantages I had in Melbourne education wise as the tertiary study options in Adelaide are limited as well as job prospects due to it being a much smaller market. So I started to think outside the box and eventually came about an opportunity in the UK.

In 2017 I was part of the ASTMA’s Future Turf Managers’ Initiative at the Sunshine Coast conference and connected with presenter Lee Strutt. Lee was then head greenkeeper at the Royal Automobile Club in England and mentioned there was a junior greenkeeper position available. I originally was trying to get one of the other staff to do the internship, but after he decided it wasn’t for him I ended up applying. It was a pretty crazy thing to do, but the six months I was there was worth every bit as I created a whole new network overseas. When I landed back in Adelaide I moved down a step to a 3IC position at Kooyonga Golf Club, which would prove crucial in gaining my eventual position at WGC.

Even though my time was short there, Kooyonga’s status and reputation certainly aided in the interview process. As I have realised through many interviews, most people only focus on the last place you’ve worked, but once you have been interviewed a few times you can learn how to control the conversation. For me, that was bringing the discussion back to my past experiences at Box Hill and Blackwood where I developed my core values and passion for being a turf manager. I was also starting a university degree (Bachelor of Agriculture and Technology, majoring in Sports Turf Management) at the time, which I’m still doing. Running a golf course and fitting in two units a semester isn’t easy, but I know this will set me up for the next step in my career.

Clarke relishes the diversity of his superintendent role and the results that can be achieved working as a team.

Who has influenced your career and why?

My grandfather was the first person to open my eyes to the world of horticulture. He had a well-renowned garden in the spectacular Adelaide Hills and even had a type of Clivia named after him as he cultivated his own species. His passion for plants has run through my whole family, so my father was a huge advocate in finding a path in horticulture (he didn’t follow his dream and slightly regrets it). He is someone who has shaped me as a person and as a leader.

The other key influencer was my former boss at Box Hill, Josh Leyland. He believed in me and encouraged me to further my career, adding extra values to my work ethic and behaviour. Josh showed me how being the ‘boss’ can mean being friendly, supportive, strong and, most importantly, genuine. Josh led a team through testing times and created a culture where staff felt safe and essential, while at the same time made continual improvements on the course. Through his actions Josh deserved and commanded respect, not simply demanding it because of the title he held. That is where I think a lot of managers fail and the reason why a lot of people in positions below leave in frustration.

What has been a big focus for you this year, post the COVID-19 pandemic?

May I start by saying that WGC were amazing throughout the pandemic. Despite mandatory lockdowns, course staff were not stood down and the club made every effort to help them. The club showed great leadership during hard times. This year has brought many new challenges, none bigger than the build of a new clubhouse. Even though the club received a government grant of $2 million, the club has tightened its budget on course. Despite that, with a proactive committee and working closely with manager Ashlee Scott, I’ve managed to forecast a maintenance machinery budget for turnover to new machinery for six years ahead.

With upgrades to the maintenance shed last year, the club continues to invest in staff facilities and culture. In addition, the club has just invested in a whole new irrigation shed with Lowara pumps to be installed shortly. Our newly appointed course architect, David Flood, is also currently working hard behind the scenes with myself and the committee to enhance the course.

How do you balance the demands of turf management and your personal life?

I’m yet to experience the dual demands of family and work life, but that will all change next year as my partner and I are expecting our first child. Looking back, I feel I’ve given up a lot to get to where I am. I have not been a great partner to others in the past, as I’ve often put work before them and my career selfishly before others too. Moving locations can be hard on relationships and I’ve definitely gone through some tough times, but now finding a supportive workplace and living in a country town has had huge rewards. As my parents always say “If you’re happy, we’re happy” and I can honestly say that I’ve never been in such a happier state.

The balance of demands will become interesting next year, though I feel the committees I work for and the manager I have do recognise that family comes first. Delegating will become critical and something I will be working on. Delegating doesn’t make you a weaker person or leader – it involves great trust and can reap great rewards. Hopefully with the team I have we can still uphold the values we have established and continue to build on our successes, while still having time away to dedicate to family.

Has your family shifted your perspective and has it influenced the way you lead?

My family had a business as I was growing up and the way my father cared for and interacted with his staff was amazing. However, they lost everything because they were not ruthless enough when they needed to be. They lived every second of their lives thinking about the business and stress took its toll on them severely. I would like to think I’ve taken a bit from their experiences. It’s important that you don’t take everything home with you and have that disconnect to freshen up the mind.

Since being elevated to the superintendent role, Clarke is continually fine-tuning his leadership skills.

What is at the top of your priority list as a superintendent?

My top priority is what I would want if I was on the groundstaff being led by another superintendent – a safe environment to come to work, a place where my views are considered and be supported by management, plus be proud of the product I am producing. I feel I’m required to stand up for the team underneath me. If one person doesn’t hold the link in the chain you are trying to make, it weakens the whole team. As most find out early in their career, there are experts around every corner, but people that can create strong culture and leadership are becoming rarer by the year it seems. As an industry we are crying out for more people, but we also need to consider the people we have and how we can retain them.

You have a relatively small crew. How do you structure and delegate your work?

I have a morning board that myself or the assistant will write tasks up on for the day. Then I’ll go through competitions, tee times and machinery issues prior to everyone heading out. We all have two-way radios for communication and charts in our lunchroom showing if holes have had work on them. If staff are sick or away, the team can still see what has and hasn’t been done.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I try to be consistent, firm when I need to be and supportive as much as I can to people that allow it. I want to have a legacy that I was easy to approach, able to have difficult conversations with and yet still walk away with the respect of everyone around me. I was someone who strived for perfection when starting here, though now working with a small and diverse team, including volunteers, I feel my soft skills have been key to creating relationships and building a strong culture. I’m someone who won’t ask another to do something that I won’t do. There is nothing worse than being asked to do a job because leaders above you are too lazy or don’t like that job. That brings down enthusiasm and burns any beneficial team culture.

Despite reaching his goal of becoming a superintendent, Clarke (left) is continuing to invest in education by undertaking the Bachelor degree, completing two units a semester while continuing to run the golf course.

How do you juggle that balance between people and turf in your leadership?

I have yet to refine this. I probably allow people to rule over the turf at times; we are in a time where people are hard to find and the turf is doing okay. Juggling priorities isn’t a great way to look at it. Yes, we are paid to look after the ground, but just as much investment is put into our people. So priority one is people and second is turf. I guess juggling what is essential and what is not efficient is something I stay strong on, which makes it easy for me to fall back on those values as the product produced needs to be held at a high level.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the turf industry at the moment?

The biggest issue is getting people in the industry, holding them and giving them education to excel. Some states have pulled the sports turf education completely which is a shame.

Are you currently looking for staff? If so, what is your pitch?

Not currently, but with appraisals starting soon and restructuring our grounds team I know there will be more opportunities around the corner. With an exciting construction project ahead in 2023, the crew will have the ability to grow their knowledge and experience. As for a pitch, if you haven’t been down to the course in Warrnambool, it’s a must. I had no appreciation until I got here how incredible the layout, views and environment is.

Finally, any advice for those coming through the industry looking for their next opportunity?

Do not be scared to approach other turf managers. Ask if there are roles coming up. A good leader will make you stand up taller, supporting you and make you into a better leader. If you feel you’re not good enough or not supported enough maybe it’s time to find a new position. Moving to new roles will help you find the way you want to lead one day. Everyone does it differently. Volunteering under some of the great leaders within the industry creates that mentorship and networking at the same time.

A huge advantage I had when applying for the job at Warrnambool was that they weren’t worried I had multiple positions previously. They saw I had a drive to find a course of my own and they realised that having a highly driven, ambitious superintendent would create an environment for all the staff to see promotion too. Businesses have shifted from the old mentality of working your way from the bottom to the top and being in the one place for 20-plus years. Businesses now are happy to see consistent growth and rejuvenation.

This article was originally published in the Australian Turfgrass Management Journal

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