Scott Strickland, left, with North Carolina State head baseball coach Elliott Avent.

What’s it like leaving the field for an administration job?

We asked some STMA members questions about leaving their “on the field” jobs for administration posts. The questions: What were the main reasons you choose to “leave the field” and take an administrative post? Are there ways the challenges of your current job are similar to those of turf managers? What are the biggest differences now in your day-to-day routines? What do you miss about working on your fields? What advice do you have for others who are contemplating moving from the field into administration?

Scott Strickland, Assistant GM, Operations

Durham Bulls Baseball Club

I’ve always been in search of “more” is likely the best way to answer why I [chose to change]. I’ve always cared deeply about the overall success of our organization. I think that is an extremely important characteristic for all employees to have, especially those on the grounds staff and those who are in more of the expense spending areas of a business as opposed to a revenue generating or sales position. As head groundskeeper I did my best to make sure everyone understood the value of items, e.g., how many tickets need to be sold for us to cover the cost of one bag of conditioner. I think that helps the overall value of an employee when they have that type of mindset. That then leads to career growth opportunities as managers, GMs and owners see that type of mindset. They appreciate it and are more willing to offer “more” to those type employees. “More” can be defined as many things: greater responsibilities, greater opportunities to manage full time employees, greater challengers to embrace and overcome, more pay, more everything. I didn’t set out to move off the playing field, I just set out to obtain “more” and that has led me to the position I am in now.

I’m not sure if the challenges are the same, but the way we go about our days as field managers is incredibly applicable to roles such as the one I am in now. Thanks to my background, I appreciate lists of tasks to accomplish. I enjoy having processes in place to make sure we do not “miss” something. I do not enjoy having tasks or projects linger. I want to see the hole, patch the hole, and move on to the next task at hand. Sometimes that can be a negative in my current role as patience is required when we’re at the mercy of someone else, another vendor or contractor accomplishing the task as opposed to your mowing the grass, patching the mound, dragging the infield, etc.

An interesting area that exists in baseball that I’ve grown to appreciate is we have a 70-game home season, or 135 with Bulls, Duke and ACC Tournament. One, our attention to detail leads us to identifying problems. Because we have 50 more games, 35 more games, 68 more games, whenever you identify the problem, you want to correct that problem as soon as humanly possible to avoid repeating the problem 50, 35, 68 or however many times. It’s Groundhog Day so let’s get it right early to improve our overall effectiveness the rest of the season. That way of thinking isn’t as prevalent in my current position as I thought it would be. People often take your passion for correcting a problem as complaining about their effectiveness. No, we just want to fix the problem so it isn’t repeated and the next day is a little easier than the one prior.

What are the biggest differences now in your day-to-day routines? This can easily be summarized by saying my old office had a wall around it. In some parts that wall was 32 feet tall! To a degree, I controlled who came into my “office” and how that set my required routine to function and be successful. “Problems” were much easily identified and solutions were even quicker. Dollar spot, spray it. In front of the mound worn out, sod it.

Now the day-to-day is a combination of long-term planning, managing and helping numerous other full-time employees succeed, and responding to “fires” that pop up. Another difference is the more you move up, the more you have a voice, the more you’re able to speak your opinion. The only problem is sometimes those matters have higher implications and consequence. Previously my opinion was on mowing heights; now my opinion impacts business decisions that reach outside of our organization, as well as our bottom line as a company. Challenging and stressful at times, but a lot of fun.

I specifically miss that time on the tractor pulling cores after a long home stand. Outsiders think we turf managers complain all the time about the hours. We love the hours. We love taking care of our fields. There is no greater feeling than giving your field what you know it needs, and an aerification/topdress/verticut etc. after a long home stand heading into a long road trip is an outstanding feeling. Often times its 1, 2, 3 in the morning when you’re facilitating that cultural practice and therefore the stadium is empty and nobody is there to bother you. I miss that the most.

I advise everyone to simply follow your interests. If that ultimately leads you off the field, then so be it. If that keeps you on the field for 30 years, so be it as well. If you move off the field you’ll find great opportunity to apply those skillsets you learned on the field to help others succeed. There is tremendous enjoyment watching others succeed, whether that is facilitating a special event, or helping a new intern sell a season ticket, or even when those in your community come to the ballpark and enjoy the atmosphere and facility you helped create.

In my case I’ve gotten to watch Cameron Brendle, our head groundskeeper, grow into a better leader of his staff in addition to providing an outstanding playing surface experience for so many. Not just a great surface but also a great experience from the time they walk onto that warning track to the time they get on the bus. User groups from the University of Virginia, Florida State, Tampa Bay Rays, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s administration, the list goes on. They all love coming to the DBAP and that is thanks to Cameron and his staff. We use his department as an example to other departments on how to tackle challenges.

Being in administration allows you to see that bigger picture and help move the needle one day at a time for the entire organization. If you move off the field, hit the ground running and never look back. Do what you think is best for the greater good and never apologize for that.

Brian Gimbel, Director of Outdoor Facilities

Ohio State Athletics

I didn’t so much leave the field so much as I took on extra responsibilities to the point where my role was dramatically changed. We have been in a period of construction pretty much since I was hired on in 1995. As we built the outdoor stadiums, they were assigned to me to operate. As our athletics campus grew, my time has been increasingly spent on operating the outdoor facility complex as a whole. I am fortunate to have a great staff around me. This makes the transition to a more administrative role much easier. I can trust them to make the right decisions and to get all of our work done so that I can focus my energy where it is needed.

One thing that has remained constant is the need to be flexible and to plan ahead. Sports turf managers all know that you have to work around event schedules, weather and labor. When one of those things changes, and they will, we have to be ready to change our plans as well. An administrative role has many of these same demands on it. If our coaches change their minds, or funding doesn’t come through, or there are cost overruns, I find that I need to be flexible and prepared with a contingency plan. Plus, I still oversee the sportsturf too, so all of those variables are also present.

What are the biggest differences now in your day-to-day routines? I now spend more time at my desk, on my phone or in meetings than I do out in the field. There is a significant amount of time spent on communication. It is important for me to communicate not just to my crew, but also upward to my superiors. When sitting in lots of meetings, there are many other people involved that require communicating with as well. Whether it is architects and engineers, contractors, or business office staff or sport ADs, my role requires that I keep communication flowing between everyone concerned.

I miss the feeling of getting something done, looking back at the day’s work and knowing what was accomplished. In an administrative role, it can sometimes be harder to discern what was accomplished after a set of meetings.

My advice is don’t be afraid to work outside of your comfort level. If you work your way up to an administrative position, then you are fortunate to have that working knowledge of what it takes to get things accomplished.

Amy Fouty, CSFM, Assistant AD/Sports Turf Manager

Michigan State University

After spending 29 years in the turf grass industry, the wear and tear on the body physically, and mental focus needed to function at a high level has really worn on me. I think as a turfgrass professionals the expectations and passion we personally demand of ourselves and set as our standards are hard to sustain over decades even under the best of circumstances.

As an Assistant AD for project and turfgrass management it really has not changed my challenges working in the business of college sports. I still mentor staff, work with students, coaches, and administration as I have in the past. The challenges will always be getting everyone on the same page.

My day-to-day routine often is more meetings and phone calls than anything else. I spend less time on turfgrass management and more time planning and forecasting of the areas. 

What do you miss about working on your fields? Fortunately for me, I still have the ability to get on a mower from time to time and enjoy some unplugged time, not as often as I would like but as needed. LOL

On a serious note, just being there in the trenches with the staff. I am not always there to mentor as I was in the past; it is the little things you learn day to day and put together with the science that make you a great field manager. It takes time I do not often have, but do my best to do as often as possible.

Re advice for others, I have found it challenging to make the transition. As people review your resume, they see turf management and have a set idea what that person is and what they are capable of. Take advantage of as many opportunities to add facility, projects, operations, and event management to your resume as possible to show a well-balanced professional.

CJ Lauer, Associate Director of Facilities

The Episcopal Academy (Newtown Square, PA)

For me the move was one that allowed for upward mobility within the school. I lead a talented crew that keeps the campus running day in and day out. The new opportunity gave me the chance to increase my responsibilities along with learning a new skill set, in facilities management.

Are there ways the challenges of your current job are similar to those of turf managers? I think the challenges are a little of both. I have to deal with people each day, students, parents, faculty and staff. Any turf manager or manager for that matter has their constituents with whom they have to interact with daily. There is always the daily grind and the goals that are set by any manager or leader. These are very similar. For example, I look at plumbing systems, HVAC and other building systems and always relate it to an irrigation system. It’s a pipe and wire network.   

My day-to-day consists of being the main point of support for the crews that keep our facility running. I am here to lead, guide, challenge, and support their talented efforts. I have more contracts to manage, I have a larger budget to oversee, and my responsibilities are much greater. I have nine buildings, 125 acres, 1300 students with families, 200+ faculty members, and 40+ staff members to serve and provide an environment that is conducive for their success.

I miss the opportunity to make that sudden impact of change. I got into the business because I enjoy the satisfaction of making a space better than the way I came upon it, for instance, the lines and pattern that can be mowed into a field or the setup of a baseball or softball field for game day. The time and energy I spent in that moment made an impact instantly. With my position now, I do not physically get to make the change; I miss getting my hands dirty, so to speak.

It has been such a great experience for me, I would encourage anyone to give it a shot.  I have learned so much more about what it takes to run a highly successful facility, and the rewards have been endless. Sharing the successes and failures with my team, growing and learning from them each day, keeps things fun.  

Abby McNeal, CSFM, CPRP, Field Superintendent, City Wide Operations

Denver (CO) Parks and Rec

I chose to advance my career toward a more administrative role to support the programs and grow professionally. I support four citywide operations teams for Denver Parks: Athletic Fields (daily prep, painting/installing multi-use fields, renovations of softball/baseball fields); Regional Trails Operations; Park Inspections; and DPR Mower Shop (maintaining our fleet of 6-foot mowers and smaller). This position has allowed me to broaden my knowledge of the city operations, strengthen my managerial skill set, and elaborate on the people partnerships with internal and external agencies. I get the opportunity to work on “growing” the supervisors within the teams and help all staff develop themselves and their careers.

The similarities between this position and previous turf management jobs is that I am still “putting out fires”—constant problem solving and supporting solutions. Just like in the field, this position allows for the supporting role of solving the issues, be it that it is more solving people issues. It takes a team and there has to be a leader but developing the staff into leaders of their team is what I try to focus on.

Most days it’s just managing the “fires” and working on the administrative items like purchasing, budgeting, and forecasting the future spending and planning of capital project spending or capital purchases for the department. We have been focused on converting our aging equipment with newer pieces while providing equitability across the city.

I truly miss mowing and painting, leaving a professional “look/feel” to a field; however, I get to help others that want to learn and bring a professional feel to the parks/athletic fields for our users. Passing on and sharing the knowledge and industry connections is important to me as we grow our programs and bring them to the next level for our citizens.

What advice do you have for others who are contemplating moving from the field into administration? The best advice I can offer is to be willing to share and let go of doing it all. As field managers we do it all, mowing, painting, irrigation, fertilizing, etc. When you take a step “up” and transition to administration you have to be willing to let go of being in the field, accept that your “field” is now a desk/office. You have to build trust in the field staff and support their program. Being the leader of more is the administrative role you moved to. Making the bigger decisions and providing the oversight to more than just the field(s), you obviously have the skills needed or you wouldn’t have gotten the position.

To “grow yourself” you have to build on what you are good at and take advantage of having the seat at the table to represent where you have been. You have to be willing to sit back and allow your teams to shine and be more of a support role for them to grow their programs. Their programs are your programs but you need to just be the support. You grow those programs by doing your ”new” administrative role. You grow yourself through those around you.

Always take a moment to look where you have been but never take your eyes off of where you are going. Everyday in this position I believe that I/we are making a difference in Denver. We are raising the bar on all the fields, trails, parks, and equipment that we touch and are having fun doing it.

Ryan DeMay, Sports Facilities Administrative Manager

City of Columbus (OH)

What were the main reasons you choose to “leave the field” and take an administrative post? Having a bigger impact on the total experience of our customers. Much like a restaurant, I worked in the back of the house for nearly two decades while others were trusted with the front of the house. Now I can float seamlessly between both facets of our organization to instill confidence in our staff and create joy for our customers.

There are ways challenges of this job are similar, absolutely. It is imperative I be a great communicator of challenges, solutions, and progress every day. The same could be said for turf managers in being able to document and advocate on all three of those fronts. As it was as a turf manager, I know I could not do this job alone and need support within the organization from bottom to top. It is through building relationships and trust with customers, co-workers, vendors, and others I am able to accomplish what needs to be done at a high level.

The customers I deal with, external and internal, are much more diverse in their backgrounds, expectations, and communication styles. Adapting to meet their needs is important. Taking a step back to being a turf manager, I look at this like I would turf and ask myself, “How do I need to change my approach to meet the needs of our customers?” The only thing different now with the answer is the scale and impact of my role.

I miss the simplicity of putting together an agronomic program, executing it, adjusting it, and then reflecting on how to do better next year. Just the grind to keep improving a field that is in use is great to be a part of. I am fortunate that I still get to do this in my current role, only now on more of a global level, across all of our fields.

As for advice, I say, “Where your focus goes, your energy flows.” Seek the self-awareness to know where your focus takes you and that will lead you where you want to be. 

We have some tremendously talented people in our industry with excellent communication, problem-solving, and leadership skills. The intangibles are what separate people in the turf industry from most others. To be successful in our industry requires patience, confidence, professionalism, and a strong work ethic. All of those hard and soft skills translate directly into administrative roles. Our industry needs more people like you to take a step forward and lift the rest of us up as you go.