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July 2018

Finding the Right Path

FindingtheRightPath.jpg‭By Trent Bouts

John Cunningham uses his own experience to guide employees to discover the job right for them.

John Cunningham turned down his first invitation to a career in golf. Bent on a future in education, he passed on an offer to become an assistant golf course superintendent. To that point, golf course work was simply a means to support life as a college student. His first job, walk-mowing greens, earned him $5.25 an hour.

This fall, Cunningham will help blue blood Aronimink Golf Club in Philadelphia host the BMW Championship, the FedEx Cup’s penultimate event, as the club’s general manager. Over 30 years in between, he stepped out from behind the mower to lead some of the most impressive golf course operations in the industry.

As golf course superintendent, there were 45 holes at private Black Diamond Ranch in Florida, 36 holes and an annual PGA Tour event, the Byron Nelson, at Four Seasons Resort and Club in Texas, and a $2.1 million Rees Jones renovation at Bellerive Country Club in Missouri, setting up the club to host this year’s PGA Championship in August.

None of that might have happened had the superintendent behind the first offer taken no for an answer. But Jeff Coggan, himself a certified Master Greenkeeper, saw something Cunningham had yet to recognize in himself, and persisted.

“He said ‘I’d love to have you as my assistant superintendent,’” Cunningham recalls. “I said, ‘Well, that’s great but I’m going to be a biology teacher and a soccer coach.’ He said, ‘I get that. But you’d be a better golf course superintendent.’”

It was perhaps Cunningham’s first exposure to the concept that some people are better suited to certain jobs than others. But it would be another decade before he was introduced to the science. In 2003, a greens committee chairman at Black Diamond Ranch told Cunningham they were going to embark on a leadership exercise.

“That’s where I was introduced to the Predictive Index,” he says. “It had a big impact on me.” The Predictive Index is a behavioral assessment tool that measures personality and cognitive ability to forecast performance in the workplace.

“That was the first time someone tried to teach me about me,” Cunningham says. “It kind of explained who I was; that I was a decision-maker, low-patience, mildly-extroverted, with a pretty strong formality score. I think that served me very well when it came to difficult situations in work as I moved up the ladder. Understanding who you are, you can obviously deal with situations better.”

Eventually, Cunningham expanded his understanding of those insights to realize that he not only wanted to be a leader, he was wired for it. And he discovered he “enjoyed putting puzzles together” and was comfortable “getting uncomfortable” in order to get better. It’s why he was prepared to give up bermudagrass greens at Black Diamond to take on bentgrass at Four Seasons. It’s why he was prepared to go from superintendent to director of agronomy and assistant general manager at Bellerive.

Standing as his own proof of concept, today, Cunningham employs behavior analysis in hiring, succession planning and conflict resolution through the Predictive Index at Aronimink. Applicants answer questions ostensibly unrelated to the job but which in fact tell Cunningham all he needs to know about their aptitude for certain roles.

“Instead of you coming in and applying for role on the team here at Aronimink, we’d like you to just interview and then show you how you’re wired behaviorally and what jobs you’d be great at,” he says. “Which is not really the way people hire these days. Too many times we hire someone or give them a role and then we’re frustrated because they don’t execute properly. When, really, we’ve got a square peg in a round hole.”

The Predictive Index serves as a filtering system that Cunningham describes giving him “an unfair advantage” when hiring new staff.

“It’s really just finding out how you’re wired, what you’re wired for, then teaching you the skills for the jobs you’re best suited to,” he says.

When people are put in roles they are wired for, Cunningham observes, they learn “very, very quickly” and they stay in their job longer because they’re happier at it. Cunningham tends to live what he learns, championing the Predictive Index to his wife, Jodie Cunningham, who now uses it in her own career specializing in workplace analytics.

And he is a passionate learner. A former boss “drilled it into me” the value of reading, says Cunningham.
“Leaders are readers,” Jeffrey Kreafle, now GM at Congressional Country Club in Washington, D.C., stressed when they were at Bellerive.

“It just really stuck with me,” Cunningham says. “He said one of the biggest differences between the people who were successful and those who weren’t, were that the successful ones were learners; they were readers.”
To that end, Cunningham maintains a book club for staff members at Aronimink. He wants his employees to be successful and even provides them with the books, mostly on self-development and leadership, and offers prizes, such as gift cards, for those who participate. It’s an example of the balance he strives for between challenging and nurturing his team.

“We never try and do 800-page books,” he says. “We tackle things that are a little more concise and pertinent to what we’re doing here at the club, and it radiates through.” The group meets for a couple of hours after reading the book and Cunningham leads a relaxed exchange. A recent group included everyone from locker room attendants, to line cooks, golf professionals and accountants.
In addition to any individual growth, Cunningham says, the collective reading makes his own leadership more effective. “Because if people around me are reading the same books we can all see the same thing,” he says. “When I say something or we’re heading in a new direction, they already get it because they’ve seen it. They see why we’re doing that because we’re all reading the same kind of scripture, if you will.”

Cunningham is careful not to make book club participation a chore, limiting books to “one or two a year.” But the impact is significant, he says, not to mention a lot more cost-effective than standard professional education.

“You’d be surprised how inexpensive it is, to get together 15 or 30 books. There’s a lot of talk these days about the cost of continuing education. It’s a big number for travel and hotels,” he says. “Compare that with free shipping from, say, Amazon, for books at $6 a piece.”

Cunningham’s career path is not unique but still unusual, moving from a position often regarded as primarily agronomic to one thought of as more administrative and business-related. He contends his route from superintendent to general manager was not so much a right angle as a straight-line extension of what he is naturally equipped for. It’s a path he says many other superintendents have the skills to follow, into the clubhouse and elsewhere.

“As a superintendent, you’re a leader of people, you manage resources, and you provide an experience,” he says. “So how many other professions would that describe? Quite a few, right?”
Having said that, Cunningham’s passage from pushing a walk-mower to administration of one of the oldest, most respected clubs in the country remains remarkable.

“The only thing I can attribute it to, and it’s happened all the way through my career, we can go blow by blow, club by club, and talk about the reason why I was successful, and it’s because I assembled and surrounded myself with a talented team,” he says. “At every single club, in every one of those spots, I can name the team that was around me and they were unbelievably talented, supportive. It’s going to be no different here at Aronimink.”

For all that he has learned since that “leadership exercise” in 2003, Cunningham suggests the biggest, most empowering lesson of them all, was the one that came back then: what he was wired for. “So often, we’re wrapped up in leading and don’t take the time to learn about ourselves,” he says.

Trent Bouts is a South Carolina-based freelance writer and editor of Palmetto Golfer magazine.

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