How to Foster a Mentorship and Learning Culture

In the ever-evolving talent landscape of the turf management industry, a pertinent question often surfaces in our consultation and search projects – what holds more weight, formal education or hands-on experience? 

This question is not merely a matter of academic curiosity but a real-world dilemma employers and employees face. The nature of the job, industry demands, lack of industry-trained professionals, and specific organizational needs have tested this deeply rooted belief of education over experience.  

Let’s be clear: there’s not a one-size-fits-all method but adaptability to the circumstances will be pertinent for YOUR situation. Employers often feel pressured to disqualify candidates immediately with no formal education because of industry norms or bias of their career pathway. 

Given the lack of supply of talent, employers play a pivotal role in nurturing talent, recognizing the value of practical experience, and providing opportunities for continuous learning and career advancement. This shouldn’t be “a ha” moment for any employer or new innovative concept, establishing a structured, formalized development program should be a part of your talent strategy plan. 

By adopting a holistic approach that values experience and promotes continuous learning and development, employers can unlock the full potential of individuals, contributing to personal growth and organizational success. 

A real case study

Consider the case of a dedicated employee who has been developing their skills for multiple years. The individual has developed foundational competencies and are recognized by their team members as a top performer, a highly engaged and dedicated team member. Exhibiting exceptional employability skills in combination with a great work ethic, passion, and love for the game of golf, they recognize a barrier to advancement.

A formal degree in turfgrass management is prohibiting them from higher wages and responsibilities within the organization.

With a critical position opening in sight, the management team is in a quandary – to offer this high performer or open the position to external candidates with the hopes of someone with a formal education. The dilemma is the current club policy requires all assistant managers to have certification in turf management from an accredited university.

Instead of offering the position to the candidate, they built a formal plan to upskill, train the individual with advanced responsibilities, increase compensation through 90-day reviews, and also support payment towards the individual’s continued education through an online turfgrass management program.

Additionally, they were able to secure an individual with similar experience levels with a formal education. A win-win for both parties.

Education: A Foundation or a Facade?

Education, undoubtedly, lays a robust foundation. A formal degree or certificate in turf management offers a structured learning pathway, equipping individuals with theoretical knowledge and industry insights. 

Right or wrong, it’s a ticket that often facilitates entry into the professional arena through enhanced networking, structured learning, recognized credentials, and credibility.

Executive and senior-level management positions in the turf industry require higher level education, whether a two-year certificate, associate’s, or bachelor’s degree. While this may not be needed for all golf facilities, it is the industry standard most adopted.

The traditional pathway toward higher education still holds substantive weight for all the right reasons. Still, in an industry underserved of educated individuals, employers, out of necessity, must look for alternative solutions to fill critical team and skill gaps.

However, does a formal education always guarantee the practical employability, teamwork, and problem-solving skills required? Not necessarily.

Experience: The Unsung Hero

As our team has evaluated in dozens of assistant manager searches, experience is the silent deal breaker. It doesn’t boast fancy certificates but speaks volumes through practical wisdom and hands-on proficiency. 

An employee who has ‘been there and done that’ brings a wealth of rich and relevant knowledge to the table. They understand the existing team’s workflow, cultural nuances, and challenges. 

All too often, we can identify talent, who doesn’t necessarily show on paper their qualifications, acumen or passion, but clearly rises to the top upon further examination and discussion.

A Balanced Approach

So, how does the industry navigate this crossroads? A balanced approach is the key. 

Employers could consider adopting a more flexible stance, valuing experience and willingness to provide as much formal qualifications. Here are some other strategies to ensure you don’t fall into this trap.

  • Foster an environment where individuals are encouraged to bring new ideas and innovative solutions based on their practical experience. Ensure that the work environment is inclusive, where individuals are valued for their contributions, irrespective of their educational background.
  • Establish clear career pathways that allow for progression based on experience, skills, and performance. Conduct regular performance reviews to recognize individuals’ hard work and contributions, allowing them to advance in their careers. Reward individuals through performance-based bonuses or increased wages upon completion of external courses, workshops, or online certificates.
  • Support and facilitate enrollment in external courses, workshops, or online learning platforms to allow individuals to acquire formal knowledge and certifications like those offered by numerous turf programs in person or online. 

Moreover, fostering a mentorship and on-the-job learning culture can also be immensely beneficial. It allows the experienced to impart practical wisdom and the newcomers to infuse fresh perspectives, creating a vibrant learning ecosystem. 

Employers in the turf management industry, and indeed in various sectors, can adopt several of these strategies to support and leverage the skills of individuals who bring practical on-the-job experience but need formal education.

Author’s Note: Here is a link to a podcast I was on with the National Association of Landscape Professionals – podcast.

About The Author

Tyler Bloom is the founder of Tyler Bloom Consulting. A former golf course superintendent and turf professional, Tyler’s love of all things golf began at the age of six when he stepped onto the course for the first time. 

Tyler has an Executive Certificate in Talent Acquisition from Cornell University and a degree in Turfgrass Science from Penn State University. With 20 years of experience in the golf and turfgrass industry, Tyler has worked directly with reputable club leaders at some of the most prestigious clubs to place over 100 professionals in executive and management level positions throughout the United States.

Are you ready to build a top-performing team that drives results? Our proven framework, methodologies, and implementation is based on our personal track record of developing world-class teams. In addition to talent acquisition, we provide leadership development and ongoing consultative services for the golf course and club industry. Our team has personally coached and mentored dozens of future golf course superintendents across the United States.