Leading your crew

Pictured: Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, UT

Thanks to Tom Nielsen of the Louisville Bats, Allen Reed, CSFM, FC Dallas, Eric Harshman, Berea (KY) College, and Dan Farnes of Real Salt Lake for responding to our questions about crew leadership.

What attributes in your bosses did you most appreciate before you were a boss?

Nielsen: What I appreciated most in a boss was the boss that was even-keeled. I mean by even-keeled is you always knew what to expect; he never was too excited or too down, and he was easy to talk to.

Reed: From day one my boss never micromanaged anything I did. He trusted me in my ability as a turf manager to make the right decisions, and how to pick your battles. Extra events are a part of what we do. We don’t always like when things are thrown in last minute or certain events are booked. At the end of the day, the field is here to be used and it is up to us to manage the grass to be able to take anything thrown on it. With that, he has taught me the importance of communication when it comes to these extra events on the field. You don’t always say no, but explain to them what could happen worse case if the event was on the field.

Farnes: I’ve had bosses who would lose their minds when something would go wrong and punish the offender for it. I have found that is not the best way to do things. When I first started working in the industry, my supervisor wouldn’t freak out if something was damaged/broken. He realized that stuff happens and when something did get broken/damaged, he would find out what happened, correct any issues, and have me fix the problem. That way it turned into a learning experience.   

Harshman: I always appreciated (and still appreciate) trying new things, getting myself out of my comfort zone. Having the support of my peers/bosses has helped in my maturation process. Knowing that it’s ok to fail, to not do everything exactly right the first time, only builds character and provides teachable moments for future success. 

What have you found is the best way to communicate with your crew?

Reed: I still think face-to-face communication is the best. I feel I get a better sense of understanding when I can see their facial expressions when I am explaining what I want done. My assistant and I communicate daily on what needs to happen for that day and the week. We are constantly talking future events and planning. 

Harshman: I’m straightforward in my communication with my team. I use several large dry erase boards as a ‘command center’ in our shop. Daily job assignments for our different sub crews (mowing, landscape, etc.), contractors on campus, equipment repairs/general maintenance, meetings schedule/priority changes etc., can be found on these boards. I update them as much as possible throughout the day. We go through a quick briefing first thing in the morning and then again after lunch. I make use of, and value, the teams’ time. If items need to be addressed I share them collectively with the group or individually as needed to allow for open communication so everyone is updated/knows what’s going on throughout campus.

Farnes: We try and meet up every morning to discuss what needs done, but that doesn’t always happen due to the crazy schedule we have. We have a big white board that breaks down the next 2 weeks with training/game/maintenance schedules and that has helped a lot in getting everyone on the same page. There is also another white board with prioritized tasks that need to be done. I try and keep them in the loop with what is going on around the stadium but things change so fast it’s hard to cover everything.

Nielsen: The best way I feel to communicate with my crew is to encourage them to always be asking questions, and never make them feel that any question is a stupid question. Show them that you really care for them more than just an employee but as a person. I try not to micromanage people, and try to let them figure things out on their own without letting them go off track, which I think helps them build their confidence. I never try to crucify them when they do make a mistake but instead use it as a learning tool.

Does your management style change depending on the person? For example, do you go tough on some and easier on others depending on their personalities?

Farnes: My style may change from person to person a little bit, but I try to be consistent. For example, I may talk to my assistants differently than a brand new intern but that’s because my assistants and I have been through a lot more together and they both need different feedback/direction.

Nielsen: My management style is definitely different for each and every person. Someone that I feel has more confidence in him or herself may be treated differently than someone that isn’t as confident. I’m always testing the people on my crew, giving them situations to think about and jobs to do depending on their knowledge. If someone thinks they are ready to be a head groundskeeper or a first assistant, I expect a specific answer or reaction to my question. Most of the time they don’t realize I’m actually testing them. For someone who is brand new I would expect a completely different answer to that question or job that I wanted him or her to do. This is how I judge their abilities and their thought processes at that point in their career. Then I adjust accordingly on how they are maturing.

Reed: I try to treat everyone the same. I am not the kind of boss that yells when mistakes are made. We have all made them and it doesn’t help the situation if you lose your cool.

Harshman: My communication tactics differ from person to person. This is simply because everyone receives, understands, and communicates differently. Some individuals need to know step-by-step procedures, tools and materials needed to complete tasks, while others are the exact opposite and can be given minimal information and still get the job done. It comes down to getting to know your team, what drives them and trying to get the best out of them, which is rather difficult at times and takes time developing relationships with the team/crew.

What do you do to make crew members feel valued?

Reed: I like to give my crew tasks that once completed, they can look back at it and be proud of their work. It’s nice for them to be able to see their hard work pay off when they see their field on TV over the weekend.

Harshman: “To show how I value them, in the past I have purchased gear like sweatshirts and T-shirts made for the team. We bring in doughnuts, order lunch, grill out for the team. There have been occasions where the team has been grinding it out, getting things done and I’ve cut them out early for the day. A simple thank you for work well done also goes a long way! Another way to show appreciation is sending individuals to professional development classes/training, allowing them to learn and better themselves.”

Farnes: We all participate in fantasy soccer and football.  I do different challenges with different prizes each week; nothing too crazy, just little things like gift cards, team gear, lunches, etc.  It helps everyone have something else to talk about other than work and breeds a little healthy competition. I also try and get out on the golf course as much as possible with the crews and we BBQ quite often in the shop. Since I can’t pay them all what they deserve, I try and do everything else I can to show them how much I appreciate their hard work.

Nielsen: How I make a crew feel valued is by giving each and every one the ability to try any job they would like to learn or become better at without hovering over them. I will get them started and then step away to let them try to figure it out, then make constructive criticism if necessary. I want them to feel that they’re all very important. It takes the whole team to be able to do the job needed and the more confidence each person has the better job they’re going to do, and the more jobs they will do so we don’t have to rely on one person doing one job. I want them all to be able to do all the different jobs.

Please share some specific examples of what you do to show your crew how to be a professional.

Nielsen: One way I like to show my crew how to be professional is how you dress and how you act like there’s always someone watching. One thing with the groundskeeping profession is we’ve always been compared to Bill Murray in the movie “Caddyshack,” which is not the perception we would like. To be a groundskeeper you must be a jack of all trades. One thing I definitely like to do is lead by example. After 28 years I feel I’ve seen and have done it all. What keeps me coming back year after year is these amazing young people that I have the opportunity to work with. They helped me as much as I help them. I am truly blessed.

Reed: Always take pride in what you do and know that someone is always watching. I lead by example. There is nothing I ask my crew to do that I haven’t done or would still not do at any point. It’s important for them to know that we are one team trying to achieve the same goal of perfection.

Farnes: It’s important to conduct ourselves a certain way around the team and fans. That means not bugging the players and coaches and to respect their space. It also means not getting too crazy at the games and being as helpful as possible to the fans. We all have the same shirts from Toro (who sponsor the grounds crew) that we wear throughout the week and on game days we all have the same polos with clean shoes, hats, and khaki shorts.

I’m sure the crew would have different answers to these questions! We have a great crew at the stadium and out at our new training facility and everyone seems to get along really well. That helps when you work as much as we do and see each other more than you see your family and friends. I have only been a director for about 4 years so I still have a lot to learn and every year I learn more about how to manage not just the grounds but the crew as well.