Mastering the Secret Etiquette of Golf

Mastering the Secret Etiquette of Golf

Greg Norman may have nothing to fear from you, but you still have to know the (unwritten) rules of the game

You may golf well. Or, you may stink up the course every time you put on your soft spikes.

But one thing is certain: Golf outings are as integral to corporate life as board meetings, annual reviews and holiday parties. And if CIOs want to play along, they have to know the subtle points of the game - not necessarily the rules or basic playing techniques but how to behave on the course and avoid perpetrating the cardinal sins of golfing etiquette.

Among the most egregious missteps: There's lying, of course. People lie about their scores; they lie about their handicaps; they lie about their lies.

There's rudeness - such as moving when someone is teeing off, talking when someone is about to swing or casting your shadow where someone is putting. There are errors of omission: failing to rake sand traps, fix ball marks on the green or replace divots in the fairway.

In fact, that serene golf course can actually be a minefield where CIO careers can be made or broken if you happen to believe - as many golfers do - that the sport reveals a person's true character. "Golf tells no lies," says Suzanne Woo, founder of BizGolf Dynamics, a company that helps executives better understand the nuances of the game. Golf, she says, "puts you under this weird pressure and expectations - and in this competitive mode".

In such a pressure cooker, CIOs need to be prepared for all types of situations on the links - including strategies for dealing with a cheating CEO who's giving you the nod and wink, or a pushy vendor who wants to monopolize the conversation with talk of business. "You learn more about a person in four hours on the golf course than you can possibly learn by only having business meetings," says David Guzman, the former CIO of Owens & Minor who's now chief research officer of The Yankee Group. "No matter how you try to be on your best behaviour, your true personality will emerge on the golf course." But CIOs need to watch themselves as well. They are representatives of their companies, and any unprofessional behaviour could kill future business deals or crimp their career plans. "If you are acting like a buffoon or cheating, the word will get out," says Woo. "And it won't bode well for you or your company."

First Things First

Among business golfers, the most debated topic is whether or not players should even talk business. CIOs and business golf experts advise to leave that up to the other people in your foursome - whether it's a vendor salesperson, your boss, your biggest customer or your CEO. "Your customer may use the golf course to ask you a question that's very important to him, and which is equally important for you not to fumble," Guzman says. Of course CIOs should answer, but they should keep it short. "Even when given such an opening, do not use it to drive a Mack truck of business through it," Guzman says. "Simply answer the questions and go immediately back to the casual camaraderie."

Expectations Management

A little bit of communication before a round can help CIOs set and manage the group's expectations for the day. Whether you are the host or the guest, make sure you find out about the expectations and abilities of the others in your group before you head out to the first tee. What are their handicaps? Do they even have one? Are they serious about their games? Or do they consider themselves perennial duffers who just like the outdoors? If CIOs are more interested in "shooting a number" (golfspeak for serious playing) than hearing about a vendor's latest product release, they need to make that clear up front. "If the sales guy hits with a pitch on the first hole, it's fine for CIOs to be able to say: 'Let's focus on golf, and we'll talk business at the 19th hole'," says Woo, referring to the watering hole at the clubhouse. And a good salesperson should always accommodate his CIO guest. "It's not rocket science," says David Collins, a PGA professional and owner of The Business Golf Academy, a company that helps salespeople interact better with clients on the golf course. "If all the sales guy wants to do is talk business, that's not a good sign [for the CIO]."

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