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The Fatal Mistake Of Hiring The Tennis Pro A Member Recommends

empty tennis court

That Hire Is Always Going To Be the Member’s Pro

It happens every time. The Director of Tennis hands in his resignation and the General Manager, before the ink dries on the resignation letter, has a mailbox full of emails from members. The emails all implore the same sentiment: “Hire this guy, he’s great. He’d be great here at our club.”

Please don’t misunderstand the sentiment. It’s fantastic that members want to add to the department, or bring in someone they value to a club. It shows they care about the program and the club. However, in most cases, the members don’t know what a Director of Tennis does, day to day. That’s a good thing. It means the Director had been doing a great job: wonderful front-person with members by day, administrator and businessperson by night.

As industry consultants, we read the same book at each club. Hiring a tennis director or head pro has the same chapters and table of contents. The emails to the individual in charge of hiring comprise Chapter Two, after the politics of and the questions over the resignation fill Chapter One. Chapter Two is the only place where members include management as they talk about “our club.” What’s ironic is that it’s always going to be their club, the members’ club. And, if you hire their guy, he’s always going to be their pro.

The Members’ Sentiment Is Right.
Hiring That Professional Is Wrong

Time and again, we see it happen in the industry. And down the road, hiring a pro who initially came from a members’ reference can create issues. Word of mouth along with professional and personal references play a big part during any hiring process. But they should be kept in context.

The hiring process comes in three forms. One we term: “the closed account.” This is the toughest form for the General Manager to endure. The chairperson of the tennis committee rules. They want a particular pro. They’ve been planning this coup d’etat for years. They will not listen to anyone or anything else. Handpicked… It was always going to be this pro. Often, the club will cover this up. The club manager will go through a process, taking in resumes. He or she might even post a recruitment advertisement, to cover his or her backside and the club’s reputation as a fair and equal employer. But the writing is on the wall. The pro is already hired. De facto.

Oftentimes, this is where other Directors of Tennis get their say. These other Directors are asked by the chair of the tennis or search committee or the member pushing hard for their candidate to write and call, unsolicited. There’s a planned lobbying effort on behalf of the “anointed” candidate. The club manager will receive a call from a past Director for whom the “de facto” candidate has worked with a follow-up call from that Director’s general manager. It handcuffs the hiring club manager. And the process is closed.

This is so unfortunate. The hiring of a Director of Tennis, Fitness or Head Professional is an opportunity to educate members, and sometimes, club managers, as to the industry and the position. Most members don’t know about liability on tennis courts or realize the amount of mentoring assistant professionals require. They don’t realize that more than 50 percent of a Director’s work day is spent, or should be spent, in administrative tasks. Laying out a strong job description and going through the pros and cons of the former Director is a process worth its weight in gold. It helps to outline and structure the goals and objectives of membership in accord with management requirements.

Instead, with a member having their pro hired, the pro is always that member’s pro. If club management or another member has a legitimate issue or grievance, or another staff member feels differently about a methodology, the Director will rely on the member who hired him or her and lasso that member into any significant discussion.

Beware the Hire from Within

The second form of hiring is from within the club or facility. The Director leaves and the member sentiment is: “We need to hire from within. Tradition. Our club knows Tony, the Head Pro. He’s put his years in as number two. Let’s move him up. It’s the right thing to do.”

Again, the opportunity to educate by working through a full national search is lost. The department continues on and members have little, if any, idea of what a modern-day program may or should look like. They’ve had the same Director for, say, 20 years and now they are moving up his right-hand person to continue the same, banal programming for another 20. If the outgoing director were named John, the new pro being pushed up is always going to be “John’s guy” or girl as the case may be. It’s usually not a healthy or long-term tour of duty upon ascension. The denouement written a few years later is a quiet, but quick termination.

Here’s why. There’s always a group, perhaps small, but often not too small, of members who never liked the outgoing Director. And now they feel the following: “We are hiring his number two. When will our club ever learn.” They feel stuck with the same team and remnants of the former Director, even though the Director they didn’t like is gone. They don’t truly see a change in course of the program or the club. Of course, members feeling this will not make their voice known to fellow members, but they won’t be welcoming to the number two as the new Director. And they’ll let that sentiment be known when he or she becomes top dog. Eventually, the members of this group win over other members as the memory of their beloved and retired Director fades. And the new guy is quietly banished, because the hire was out of respect to the outgoing Director and not based on the qualities of his former head pro.

Cream Rises to the Top

The final option is the national search. “We will get hundreds of unqualified candidates.” We hear this all the time. We respond: “And you’ll get a handful of excellent choices.”

It’s not just the candidates, including those candidates recommended by a member, that need to go through the process. It’s the club and its members that need the process just as much. The interviews, the projects created for candidates to complete – such as drawing up a comprehensive lesson plan for a junior program – all help the club grow and mature as it goes through a transitional period.

Candidates with varying backgrounds both on and off the court possessing different business and administrative experience come to “lay out” their wares in front of members who have rarely or never conducted a search for this role. Members are truly unaware of what a Director of Tennis or Fitness does most of the day. “Aren’t they just the front-of-house at the tennis courts or in the gym?” We hide our smile as we begin to help outline the job description from budgeting for and retaining staff, from planning resurfacing to estimating liability and workers’ compensation insurance, from ordering and investing in inventory to approving new logo artwork.

Through this process, the cream rises to the top. Based on not just one call from a former boss, but on six to eight references from colleagues for whom the candidate worked and from others who were mentored by the candidate, the cream rises to the top. As interviews across zoom and skype help to create a fluid list of top candidates and a careful review by non-biased eyes look at verified experience, the cream rises to the top.

Don’t Be Bamboozled

The above experiences come in various shapes and sizes. A Head Pro advises the hiring of a friend for an Assistant Pro role. Again, that new hire will always be the Head Pro’s pro.

And it occurs right on down the line. Club managers and Directors are besieged yet again when a Head Pro leaves. Members know that getting their choice in at number two could lead to number one, with the hiring from within a stoic tradition at many institutions.

This November U.S. voters will have the choice to elect an incumbent or a former insider. We as voters have that right. Club members want that right too with their department heads. This year might see a lack of debate and discussion given the effects of Covid-19. The national search has already been truncated. A Senator from Vermont was shortchanged. We might not be fully educated as to the incumbent and the challenger, who we all view as the previous guys’ guy. Similar to what happens when hiring a Director of Tennis or Fitness isn’t it? But we have no excuse after Covid-19 not to go through the process, educate ourselves, and find the right candidate as the cream rises to the top.

Ed Shanaphy is President of BeyondTheBaselines.com, a subsidiary of SBW Associates, Inc, which is the country’s leading consultancy for country clubs. BeyondTheBaselines.com specializes in hiring and retaining tennis and fitness staff and management of club tennis and fitness departments on a permanent and temporary basis.

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