Culture Club

What is workplace culture and how can we measure it? As Ben Gibson explains, the secret lies in discretionary effort.

Workplace culture is described as the qualities and dynamics that make up a team and influence how motivated people within it are thinking, acting, and working together towards common goals. Culture is an incredibly important part of an individual’s success at work. It is also essential to the success of the team and the leader. A great workplace culture provides everyone with the opportunity to initiate change and to grow on a professional and personal level. A great culture promotes openness, and encourages your team to contribute without judgement or fear of retribution. It creates satisfied team members and increases productivity.

“Leading a team of 45 spread across two maintenance facilities, our culture has to be at the top of my list,” says Adam Marchant, the course superintendent at Royal Sydney Golf Club. “Life is too short for the workplace not to be enjoyable, and I take this as my responsibility to instill this in our culture. Maintaining good communication channels and having strong trust among the team is the only way we can manage such a diverse operation.”

What I love about the turf industry is that it wears its heart on its sleeve. Turf managers are some of the most resourceful, resilient individuals I have ever met and I think it is these shared experiences and challenges that build relationships beyond your average workplace.

Things as simple as the volume of laughter or chat coming from the lunchroom, the amount of banter in the WhatsApp group and the way team members speak to each other and to their leader are all effective, practical and simple barometers of culture.

The strength of these relationships can directly influence the safety culture of the team and organisation, and the differentiator is discretionary effort.

Discretionary Effort

Discretionary effort is the level of effort your team members contribute above the minimum requirement; the energy, ideas and enthusiasm they provide because they want to, not have to.

  • Discretionary effort is simple to observe and quick to assess.
  • Did the team drop tools at 2.25pm and leave a job unfinished – even though it could have been finished in a few minutes and will take far longer to come back the next day and start again?
  • Have senior staff members walked past a standard or level of quality that was questionable and accepted average?
  • Has your apprentice not only cleaned their own tools but also all the other tools in the rack without being asked, simply because they knew it was the right thing to do?

Discretionary effort stems from an individual’s connection to their team, leader, workplace and purpose. If we convey our vision as leaders, build a positive and supportive culture and support our team, we will see discretionary effort rise among the group. To be clear, this is not saying you must be ‘best mates’ with everybody, but by having a strong professional relationship built on trust and mutual respect, you can earn discretionary effort from your team and enjoy the benefits that come from an engaged, proactive team. Culture is the way a team talks about their workplace and leader when they are away from work, plus an individual’s willingness to contribute for the benefit of the wider team rather than just their own (covering shifts, offering to help without being asked, etc.).

“To me, leadership and developing culture means you bring others around you up,” says Brendan Clark, the course superintendent at Atherton Golf Club in Queensland. “Great leaders have a way of supporting others and making them more productive and effective. It is about putting the right people in the right place at the right time. It’s tough, but when you help someone find their ‘groove’ and you let them stay there, they excel.”

Culture and Safety in Sports Turf

I have been fortunate in the past few years to volunteer at the 2016, 2018 and 2019 Emirates Australian Opens at Royal Sydney, The Lakes and The Australian Golf Clubs, respectively. I absolutely loved the opportunity to get involved (plenty of bunker time!) and am grateful to course superintendents Steve Marsden, Anthony Mills and Phil Beal for helping make it happen.

Working with so many talented turf managers from across Australia and overseas presented a unique insight into the different styles of leadership in the industry.

  • Steve: very calm, soft-spoken, powerful presence and a strong plan. Well-executed with two talented assistant superintendents in Adam Marchant (current Royal Sydney Golf Club superintendent) and Jake Gibbs (current Royal Canberra Golf Club superintendent).
  • Anthony: great communicator, happy and positive relationships with all the staff and volunteers. I really respected Anthony for his choice of two very different assistant superintendents in Simon Blagg (current assistant at The Lakes Golf Club) and Aaron Taylor (current superintendent at Cronulla Golf Club).
  • Phil: clear and confident, almost had an aura around him, but I noticed him pull nearly every single staff member and volunteer aside throughout the tournament to have a quiet conversation or chat about their week. Phil personally delivered the morning tea to all the work teams on the course every morning, which was a brilliant way to establish relationships and strengthen connections. He saw and had a chat with every team member for a few minutes every day.

All three achieved a fantastic result and led effectively with their distinctly different styles.

Beal thanks a staff member during the 2017 Australian Open at The Australian Golf Club

I love seeing tournament preparation firsthand and particularly the arrival of the volunteers from across the country. For me, a little like speed dating, this is the ultimate “speed culture-building”. The leadership team has such a short period of time to build engagement, ensure the volunteers buy into the vision they have established for the tournament, integrate into the team of permanent staff, get kitted out, trained and understand their roles for the week ahead.

An example that really struck me from the Open in 2018 at The Lakes was the impact of the leadership team at the (very) early morning meetings. With a brief overview and welcome from Anthony, the morning meeting was run by Aaron and Simon together. Aaron factually outlined the day’s activities and was clear on the outcomes required for the day. Simon finished with logistics and how the team was going to work together. They made a great team and I can see why Anthony had them in their respective roles. Simon finished his section of the meeting each morning with a motivational or inspirational quote from a well-known authority to fire up the team and build team culture.

What was really interesting to watch was the change in the group’s reaction to these quotes each morning as the week progressed and the group got closer, knew each other a little better, got more comfortable and became a team. For me, an outsider, this was a great barometer of culture among the group – far more powerful than any report from a consultant. Initially, the quotes generated a little awkward silence, quiet whispers and one or two uncomfortable laughs as many did not know how to react. For Simon, in front of 50 to 100 of his turf-industry peers, this would have taken guts! I watched avidly as Simon persevered as the week progressed and he gradually got more and more engagement from each quote or phrase. During the course of the week there were such gems as, “Alone, we can do so little, together we can do so much,” and, “Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you. Spend a lot of time with them and it will change your life!”

The tail end of the week saw lots of laughter, discussion and banter as a result of his efforts. He reached a pinnacle on the final day of the tournament when the leadership team had the group in such a fever of excitement and engagement that they stood and sang the national anthem at the top of their lungs at 4 o’clock on the Sunday morning. This is putting yourself out there to lead and inspire the team; a great example of developing culture among a work group. Simon should be commended for his initiative and demonstrating leadership far beyond his experience at the time. He will no doubt chip me for including this example in the article! Awesome stuff.

Open communication lines across all roles in the golf-course landscape are essential – especially during an Australian Open.

Importantly, across all three events, leadership styles and teams, worker safety was paramount. It was discussed at the first induction on day one and highlighted throughout the event. Risk and safety controls were emphasised at every morning meeting. Volunteers were not allowed to operate equipment until trained and deemed competent by paid team members – even qualified, career superintendents. Personal sets of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were distributed, meaning no one would ever be caught without it and “just do it”, and daily debriefs would be held regarding any incidents or near misses.

With great leadership, systems and consultation, the safety and compliance management was seamless and there was complete involvement from all staff and volunteers. It was widely communicated, “That is just how we do things here.” The mutual respect, trust and engaged culture of the teams meant that tasks were completed with no raised eyebrows, while procedures were followed and PPE worn. No cut corners, no quick fixes or shortcuts; everyone was all in due to the respect for the team and outcome they were all trying to achieve.

This carries into teams right across the industry. When leadership, systems and consultation are on point, our observations show that 99 percent of the time the team is engaged, enthusiastic and ready to support any initiative or idea their leaders throw at them because of the mutual respect and trust. Invest in your culture, watch the discretionary effort across your team rise and enjoy the benefits of a happy, healthy and productive work environment.

This article was originally published in the Australian Turfgrass Management Journal

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