Businesses are often broken down into areas of expertise. For example, we have sales and marketing, operations, finance and accounting, quality control, human resources, and more. Each area is important and serves a purpose. The delineation is needed as it allows responsibilities to be separated and specialized skills to be cultivated. However, there are several downsides that follow from the separation. Groups can become self-interested silos seeking to promote their own interests over the common objective of the overall business.
If we look at golf courses as an example of the complexity of an operation, we can see that there are many people doing very different jobs while serving the business. From a customer’s perspective a golf experience involves three different variables. Each of these may mean more to one golfer than another. A smart course is trying to play to its strengths in one of these areas while minimizing its limitations in the others. It’s the rare few that stand out as exceptional across all three areas. First, golf courses can be appealing based on their setting. Are they a city track or out in the country? Are they easy to get to or are they out in the middle of nowhere? What are the views like? Is it exclusive? Do we need to play with a member or be invited in order to access or is it available to anyone with $50 to spend? What type of scenery will we enjoy while playing our round? Will we be blessed with mountain views or will cars from the neighboring highway be rushing by? In what condition in the course kept? Is it immaculate and well maintained or are there problems with burnt out spots? Turf care and maintenance are a big part of influencing the grades of a golf course in this area.
Second, the layout and nature of a golf course is a separate potential attraction for customers. It can be like the work of a chef in restaurants. Who is the designer of the course? What kind of holes are there? Is it a par 72 or an executive course with lower par? What is the slope rating? How may tee options are there? Is it difficult or player friendly? Are there a number of blind tee shots? Do the holes make sense or are some set up where one needs to hit short irons off the tee followed by needing a second shot well over 200 yards to reach greens on par 4s? Again, different strokes for different folks. There are many options and some will appeal more than others.
Finally, we have service. This involves the points of contact customers have with employees of the golf course. It can start from the moment customers pull up to the club house in their cars. Is there a club drop off area? Will staff greet, help unload clubs, and load clubs onto carts for customers? How are players greeted and treated in the pro shop as they check in? Are there starters/marshalls on the course? Is there a beverage cart service that comes around to offer sustenance to players? Or, is the only opportunity for a drink or bite to eat available from the half way house between holes 9 and 10? What other amenities, if any, are available on the course? Are there clean and available bathrooms? Have the turf care staff started well ahead of golfers so that their efforts are not seen by players? If turf care staff are working on the course while golfers are playing, how do they dress and how do they behave? Each area is incredibly detailed and complex on their own. These three areas make up the main operational variables at the heart of success for golf courses. How well do they work together to serve the interests of customers?
These three areas are served by employees across even more departments. We have turf care staff, pro shop staff, guest services, food and beverage, golf pros and range facility staff, and management. Within each of these areas are many individuals performing their tasks. Those that work in a given area know little and care even less about what is going on in other areas of the business. This arrangement is the same for us in the insurance industry. Separation of duties is needed for many practical reasons. Unfortunately, along with the benefits for training and efficiency come challenges from development of disparate departments. The lens through which one sees their work world is shaped largely by the sphere in which one operates. We see the world through our eyes, not the eyes of others. If we’re working in the pro shop we think this is the place that’s most important and where meaningful work is going on. We think we’re one of the first folk people see on the way in and we’re taking their money for the rounds. We’re the first impression for customers and the primary producer of revenue, we must be important. Without us, the business is nothing. Those getting to the course hours before other staff and golfers are even thinking about their days work in the dark and alone preparing things for others to enjoy. They toil in obscurity. Yet, for many patrons the condition of a golf course is a very important matter. Are the tee boxes freshly cut each morning? Golfers are asking Is it easy for me to find a flat, level, and smooth surface on which to both stand and tee up my ball on each hole? Are the greens consistent? Do balls roll similarly from hole to hole? Can I predict the speed of my putt? Are the pins placed fairly or are they challenging for my ability? The staff working turf care rarely encounter golfers but they have a large influence over the experience customers will have. Some golf courses see turf care as pure cost. They aren’t generating revenue. They aren’t running customers credit cards or collecting cash for anything. Staff can be grubby and greasy from their efforts and can be discounted by other departments as a result. Our food and beverage folk generate revenue and offer drinks and food to fuel the fun during the customer’s experience. They can bring pleasure to patrons before, during, and after rounds. They can see immediately their impact from both revenue and customer service perspectives. Each group lives in their own worlds largely oblivious to that of others.
The separation of duties segregates our focus. The left hand doesn’t always know what the right hand is doing. Each department is doing what they think is best based on their limited view of the business. In a study of customer service professionals, well over two thirds of respondents (which included both frontline staff and executives) agreed that a “silo mentality” was one of the biggest barriers to effective customer service. The customer suffers from breakdowns in communication and service levels between departments. An approach available to all of us to reduce these risks is cross training. Helping others understand the nature of each department builds both understanding and empathy. In a perfect world part of the onboarding process for staff would not just be walking them around the operation pointing to the obvious sign on the door saying this is where food and beverage work, this is turf care, here’s the pro shop, and here’s where you’ll be working cleaning carts. This serves little value. The goal of cross training is to not just read the signs on the doors of departments but to spend time learning what it is that is done at each. With exposure and immersion staff see what they are trying to do in each department. The problems and pressures that arise are experienced first hand. Staff will gain a better understanding how the efforts of each department contribute to the overall customer experience. It will help staff better interact with customers in their role. Cross training is a great approach to use which is, all too often under the excuse of we don’t have time, ignored. It’s even better when it’s not just used as an onboarding technique, but done regularly. Ensuring each employee spends one day per year in each department, for example, is an ideal to which to strive.
Cross training is enhanced when done by top leadership. When leaders walk a mile in the shoes of staff across the organization it communicates with absolute clarity two things. One, there’s no job that’s unimportant. We’re all serving vital roles. And, two, each area of the business matters to making us the best we can be. The General Manager of Copper Point Golf Club in Invermere, BC offers a great example of this idea. Turf care teams not only work different hours than most other staff, they also do while they are physically removed. While pro shop staff easily bump in to guest services and food and beverage staff, turf care are on their own out on the course for much of their day. In the turf care department there are a number of different skill sets required to operate various complicated machinery. The simplest job is often the most physically gruelling and is given to most newcomers. Yes, two weeks in a row, just like my golf game, we’re back in the sand traps. It’s the job of raking and preparing the sand bunkers. This past summer, General Manager Brian Schaal, made time to both do this job on several occasions as well as train a new team member to do the same. His actions didn’t just whisper but shouted clearly that the task matters. All members on the turf care team either saw or heard about this in short order. They were impressed. It’s not every day their role in preparing the course is recognized and watching the big boss come through on their schedule doing a basic task is about a high a compliment as they could receive. They didn’t need to be told that their role matters; they could see it from Brian’s actions. Moreover, as someone who played on one of the days Brian prepared the bunkers, he did a great job. He took pride in the task and it showed. It makes a difference both looking at and playing from clean, smooth, consistent sand traps.
This Forbes article highlights the disconnect between the value with which empathy is held and the levels exhibited by executives. Staff in surveys consistently rate empathy from management as a “critical driver of overall performance”. However, the same surveys suggest that workers assess empathy skills in their leaders as lacking. Well under half of leaders were rated well in this skill. As a leader, even if you’re not able to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty directly in each department, consider having one on one conversations with staff. Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick write in Leading with Gratitude, “Coaching yourself to regularly ask people about how they’re approaching their work and for them to share some recent accomplishment can bring you into their world in a much more revealing way.” Reaching out and asking colleagues about their work successes and struggles is a solid start. It is progress away from the tendency of knowing little of what goes on in the daily lives of staff. Elton and Gostick offer, “we never cease to be amazed by how little many leaders know about the challenges their people are wrestling with in their daily work. In part that’s because they’ve never done their jobs themselves, but it’s also because they don’t take the time to ask about the difficulties team members may be encountering.” Yes, when part of the IT infrastructure crashes, the impact is felt throughout the organization. However, any number of little issues that are department specific may be niggling away at staff on a daily basis. These types of issues aren’t found from MBWA (Managing by Wandering Around). It’s digging in with purpose and doing the work directly. It’s literally walking a mile in others’ shoes. It can be small cuts that hurt most. A department that struggles to connect to a printer or scanner wastes time over and over each day. The problem is too small for staff to bring forward. They don’t want to push the fire alarm over something so seemingly small just to be cast as the boy that cried wolf. Frustration is fostered while staff endure nuisances which are even more painful as others in the organization aren’t impacted or aware. These are the types of little frustrations that a leader can best find by actually sitting with their people, not just observing, but doing the job.
Experiential learning truly is the best kind. Gostick and Elton offer, “Leaders who develop empathy for others are great enablers of authentic gratitude…the best way to be truly empathetic is to roll up your sleeves and actually walk in their shoes.” Here’s Elton and Gostick again, “It’s only by getting to understand what it’s like to do a job that a leader can be most effective in assisting people in doing it. That’s empathy at its best.” When we not just see but feel the pain that others are feeling, we’re witnessing the definition of empathy. Leaders that make time to expose themselves to the workflows of staff are best positioned to see what others see. Moreover, they will benefit from boosting their personal credibility coupled with trust that translates into staff being more comfortable raising issues proactively. It’s a win-win for the organization.