The Guiding Principles of Private Clubs

Episode 61

Derek and Tucker go over the top ways private clubs can find the balance between pleasing old members while attracting new ones, all while making moves towards the future.


Today, we’re talking about guiding principles – specifically around private clubs.

Tucker And I think that this conversation is relevant for not private clubs or organizations. But we’ve done a lot of these recently with private club clients, and it seems like a relevant conversation moving into spring.

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Derek Welcome to Brands Made Meaningful conversations with the team at Sussner about how purposeful branding inspires unity, identity, and powerful change for growth-minded organizations. 

Tucker Welcome back to another episode of Brands Made Meaningful. Today we’re talking about guiding principles – specifically around private clubs. And I think that this conversation is relevant for not private clubs or organizations. But we’ve done a lot of these recently with private club clients, and it seems like a relevant conversation moving into spring. 

Derek I don’t know when this episode will air, but it is Master’s week 

Tucker As we’re recording. 

Derek And you’re wearing green. 

Tucker As we’re recording. 

Derek Specifically what we’re going to talk about is the purpose, the vision, and the mission for the organization. We see guiding principles as a critical component of what we think of as a brand’s foundation of a brand strategy, core values, cultural guidelines, etc., but what’s super topical for us specifically based on these recent projects that we’ve been working on are vision statements and mission statements. So let’s start with what they are. Let’s define these things once and for all. 

Tucker And it’s a really interesting question when people go, What do you mean by guiding principles? We hone in on those two mainly but it includes a lot more than that. But the vision and the mission statement represent, in the simplest terms, where we want to go and how we’re going to get there. The vision is where we want to go, what we’re trying to build, and what we’re trying to create. And then the mission statement is, so how are we going to do that every single day? What are we going to try to accomplish every single day so that we can get to that vision that we want to make eventually? 

Derek The vision’s long-term. It’s aspirational. It might even be a target that is unreachable. 

Tucker I love calling it an infinite goal. The Simon Sinek book The Infinite Game is a great example of how you pull that idea out and say we don’t need something that represents the next three years. We need something that keeps us pushing forward as we keep going. So that’s what we try to do with clubs – to say you might want to be this in five years. That’s okay. What is that long-term? And so when someone joins, we hope that they’re joining the club for longer than five years. What are they strapping in for? What are they expecting as they keep moving through this journey with you? 

Derek When you describe a mission statement as the things that we do every day that help us work towards achieving that vision, I do want to caution to not get too hyper-tactical. When we help organizations build these, we’ll often add a component underneath the mission statement called milestones that can be much more short-term to-do’s. The CEO of one of the organizations we’ve worked with recently on this said this in a really great way. He said the mission statement is a plan. It’s a strategy. It’s not a to do list. 

Tucker It’s a strategy. It’s not a plan. So there’s a little bit of difference there. I think that when you come back at mission statements, most clubs, if we’re talking specifically about clubs, try to put every single little thing that they offer currently today on that list. We’re going to offer outstanding tennis and really good dining and 

Derek World-class service and 

Tucker World-class golf. So they just list all their amenities and you’re like, Okay, that’s your mission statement? 

Derek How do we do that? 

Tucker So why are we doing this? Why does this matter? 

Derek Not so much how to do these. Not so much how to craft these. But why should you be paying attention to what you have considering if it actually is helping you or hurting you? And if you don’t have one or if it’s stuck in a drawer somewhere, how to pull it out to leverage it and help you and guide you and make your job easier.

Tucker So I want to get into why these matter. But then I also want to get into what a really good one looks like sounds like. When we go to work with a client on something, what would we say is successful? And what do we say is not as successful? So it’s not quite how we do it, but you can start getting an understanding of where you might lean in that direction. So why does this matter? Why do we do it in general? For us and our team, why it matters is because if the brand in general is an asset that we’re using to communicate who we are, what we do, why it matters, and why people should care, then we should lean on our mission and our vision statements to help us articulate that and give our team a good picture of where this club is going. And we don’t brand for today. We brand for the next five or ten years so that this is relevant across those times. And if we don’t have a good set of guiding principles, it’s hard for us to look into the future and brand something that’s lasting. 

Derek I don’t want to say this metaphor too many times, but it literally creates a compass. It’s a North Star. It points you and guides you. Should we remove our pool and just be a golf club instead of a country club? When we renovate our clubhouse, should we do it this way or for this certain group? If you trace that back to the vision statement that clarifies and gives you clarity of who you are, where you’re going, and what you as an organization are working towards creating, you have an answer or a guideline or something to weigh those decisions and test those decisions. 

Tucker So for our team, why is it important? Well, it really gives us a good picture of where the club’s going. Why it’s important for the client and why it’s important for the clubs is more along having something on the wall – most of these aren’t on the wall – that you can point to and say, this is why we’re doing this. When a member comes to you and asks why we are spending money on a new tennis court, you say because, in our vision of what we want to create, this represents that shift in where we’re going and why we’re spending the money where we do. So not only does it give you the confidence to say we’re making the right decisions, but it also gives members an understanding of where those decisions are coming from. I’m not just sitting in bed one night saying, We really need new tennis courts. Let’s do that. It’s a part of who we need to become, and that is why we’re doing it. 

Derek And when it’s done right, it will rally that membership. It’ll give something, not only to the leadership, to rally around and to be able to provide those answers and to make those decisions easier if it has a clear enough picture painted and that membership is the right fit and they are in the right place because it’s the right culture and the right tribe that they want to be part of. It’s incredibly exciting and motivating. We’ve talked to members who get frustrated by a lack of transparency from the board or from leadership and this takes care of all of that. And it turns them into promoters like we’ve talked about. 

Tucker If we shift over to what are some red flags, what are some symptoms, what are things that maybe listeners can hear where they go, Yep, my club’s going through that right now or we have that problem, what do we think that that could tee this up for them to say, Well, maybe we should look at our guiding principles. 

Derek If your membership is voicing frustration over not knowing why the club is making decisions that it’s currently making, or why it’s not doing something about a certain opportunity or an issue, then you’re probably lacking an effective mission and vision statement. 

Tucker If your club has made decisions or capital improvements that it feels like 50% of the people in the club don’t agree with, it probably means your guiding principles are either too weak, non-existent, or not relevant anymore. Like I said before, that should be something where you say we’re doing this capital improvement because we need to become this, and the only way we can do this is through this improvement, and here’s how this all works. And the most successful clubs we’ve worked with do that really well. They communicate who they are, where they’re going, why they’re going there, and how the improvements and the investments they’re making are going to help them get to that place. 

Derek I would throw into the mix that if your club isn’t full and if you don’t have a healthy waiting list and you’re challenged by members either accepting members into your community that you and your gut don’t feel are the right fit but you need them because of the finances and you’re forced to bring in members that aren’t the type of people that will make your club better, then you’re probably lacking some guiding principles to help you make that decision. 

Tucker It’s so hard not to say no to someone when you need more people. It is probably the hardest decision you can make.

Derek And if your membership is fractured, if you’ve got a strong divide – you said 5050 – or if there is a strong divide between demographics or between opinions over decisions or lack of decision or over certain issues, we see a fracture there. 

Tucker We’ve dealt with a fair amount of clubs that have a generation gap. There are the older legacy members. There are the new members. They want different things. They come from different backgrounds. They have different expectations. But what can unite them is the understanding of what they’re all going to become together and how we’re going to get there. To be honest with everybody, this isn’t a one-year plan. This isn’t going to solve itself in a year. We’ve worked with clubs that have seen that and the relief that some people have just by having a united yes, we all agree. And no, not everyone’s going to always agree on everything. But to say this is a great, ideal place that we want to go, how we get there can be in different ways and that’s fair, but at least we agree upon where we want to go. And that’s really important. 

Derek As a prospective member, that gives me great clarity to say, this is for me. We’re working with a club right now that is at the beginning of transforming into what’s going to be their next generation. We’ve had the benefit of helping them through this process, which is great because now members are starting to be able to see what’s to come. And they couldn’t see that before simply because the board didn’t have the tools or the language or the confidence yet to be able to say, this is who we are for, this is where we’re going, and this is what we’re excited about. And if that’s exciting to you, then please come with us. 

Tucker From a brand perspective, this helps us position the club. If you come back and say, who are we, where are we going, and how are we any different than any other place around here, that’s where we go, Well, what do you want to become and how do we articulate that? And then how do we show that to the world? And for our team, having a set of guiding principles that’s really impactful can come back and reap big rewards down the line because we’ve had those conversations upfront versus having those conversations after we’ve completely reimagined someone’s identity. But how can they solve this problem? We’re not going to get into how our team does it specifically. We do a lot of research. We do a lot of discovery. We have an understanding of this. But what I want to talk about is success. What does success look like when we’re looking at the actual statements? We have two, three, four kinds of parameters that we look at and go, it should be this, it should do this, and it should do this. Can we walk through some of those here? 

Derek We can go straight to Simon Sinek’s Five Guidelines for Success.

Tucker That’s where we start normally. 

Derek Which is great. This is from his book The Infinite Game, all credit to Simon Sinek. Number one, this vision should be for something, not against something. It should be affirmative and optimistic. 

Tucker Versus saying we don’t want to be this. It’s, we want to do this. 

Derek We are going to do this. 

Tucker We’re not against this. 

Derek The second is that it should be inclusive. It should be open and inviting to all of those who would like to come along on this journey. 

Tucker Everybody at the club should be able to contribute. It should be something that people move forward with you. 

Derek His third guideline is service-oriented. It should be for the primary benefit of others. 

Tucker We don’t want to be the best just to be the best for ourselves. It’s who we are being the best for.

Derek If we are the best for our members, then this is what happens. Number four, it should be resilient. This isn’t short-term. This should be long-term, and it should be able to endure political, financial, and cultural evolutions. 

Tucker It shouldn’t be something that’s just relevant today. 

Derek And five, it should be idealistic. Big – bold – hairy. Jim Collins refers to the BHAG – the big hairy audacious goal. 

Tucker What are we trying to create? 

Derek Vast. Maybe not vague, but big and idealistic. 

Tucker It should be something that gets you a little, whether you call it excited or nervous, but it should be something that gives you a little, Oh, how are we going to do that? If it’s not big enough and it’s really table stakes, then you’re not going to get anyone to go, Okay, how do we change then from there?

Derek It’s something that should make your club stretch its muscles to continue to provide direction and to inspire you to continuously challenge your organization to improve. Another thing that I would throw in there is that people get caught up in wordsmithing this. We’re a creative company. So for us, how you use your words and the writing that we do is very, very important. But if you’re doing this on your own, it’s more important that this is the right sentiment than maybe the perfect cadence of language. 

Tucker And when we come back to a vision statement, which is what we’re talking about right now, we try to keep it as short and sweet as possible. We’ve worked with lots of clubs whose vision statement ends up being 30 to 45 words. 

Derek Shoot for seven or eight words. 

Tucker Seven or less is this powerful, you say memorable, not memorized, and I think that’s a perfect way to look at your vision, mission, and vision statements. It’s going to be short enough that you know what it is but don’t necessarily have to spend time thinking about it and writing it down and making sure you know it, but something that’s easy to socialize. Seven words. 

Derek Another how-to to start with is to envision a world or a community or a club and then take it from there. 

Tucker When we look at vision statements, I usually try to find the word to. 

Derek Our vision is to. 

Tucker And so if they say to multiple times, I just cut it off at the last to. And that’s the vision statement moving forward. So if we do this, our vision is to do this, to do that, and to do that. I would go, okay, whatever that last to is, that’s probably your actual vision statement. 

Derek And those last two might be your mission statement because now you’re probably getting into why you’re doing it or how you’re doing it. 

Tucker Exactly. So I would say that people get really lost in the nuance of all this stuff and they get really, really heated. Most people we work with at a club are successful in their own careers. The members are successful in building businesses, in running organizations, and doing all of that. And that’s amazing. And the way that they’ve done it in the past might not work for the club moving forward. And that’s a really hard conversation to have. But it’s an important one so that we understand that the most impactful thing for the club is what we’re trying to do here, not necessarily what you’ve done before. 

Derek Back to the comment about people getting hung up on the wordsmithing of this language, the other thing that will come up is writing a mission statement or a vision statement and then when you look at another club, the sentiment on face value looks or sounds similar. I would make the case that that’s okay if what you have written for your club is authentic and relevant to you. We will often write a narrative, a paragraph, that elaborates in more colorful language and expands on what these seven words mean. And that’s where we can get into the nuance of how this is specific for us. 

Tucker Don’t think about these as marketing statements. They’re not marketing statements. They’re all for you internally. If you make them as here’s how we’re going to stand out in this marketplace, then it’s not going to be authentic to you. It’s going to be something that you’re not necessarily excited about, and it’s more about someone else than it is about where this community is going. Where’s this group of people going? Versus where should we go based on where those people are going over there? 

Derek What’s your opinion on where the vision statement lives? Clients ask us this all the time. Some clubs put their mission statement right on their website for all to see – prospects for guests, for prospective members. Other clubs keep that mission statement within all their internal workings as their own guide to their team.

Tucker My preference for guiding principles, granted not all guiding principles uphold the short and sweet requirement that I try to push our clients to have. If it’s not short and sweet, I’d keep that to yourself for right now. If it is, I’d put it right into your marketing language. I wouldn’t say it’s your headline, but it’s who you are. It’s on the About Us page. It’s who we are, it’s where we’re going. And if you want to be a part of that, that’s great. But what I don’t think it should be is the first thing you see on a homepage that says, Hey, here’s where we’re going. Do you want to join or no? It’s not about that at all. You can build really great market messaging for that part of the website or that part of the message. I think that it’s really important for people to understand who you are and where you’re going. 

Derek I agree. If you have that statement crafted and you don’t get hung up on writing a vision statement in marketing language, in a headline language, use it to then inspire your marketing language and guide and direct all of the reasons and the meaning and the whys that you can answer that that statement provokes. 

Tucker There have been plenty of times where once we get to the brand messaging, we slide the vision statement in a certain headline or in a different way or we take some of the words and say we’re going to sprinkle this in different things because it makes it feel authentic. It makes it true and also bookends really nicely to say we’re all about this, this is who we are, this is how it’s going. And by the way, this is where we’re going as a club. It bookends the first part you hear about why you should join here and why you’re all about us. And that’s exactly why we’re building this type of community, this type of club for you. 

Derek Shifting to the mission statement, what are a few things that’ll help people think about this and review their own? We don’t have five clear, hard-hitting criteria like we do for the vision, but we have a couple of benchmarks that we look at. 

Tucker So the mission statement is a little bit more tactical. There’s a little bit more of: what are we doing? What does this look like from a strategic standpoint? I like to say it’s still aspirational in some regard. We need to come back to it and say, are we doing this or are we not? And there’s a lot of times where we work through this and say, well, we’re not currently doing that. We want to be an industry leader in X. Well, are we currently an industry leader in that? No. So then we need to be that. And that’s okay. I think a lot of committees and leadership get really hung up on that they don’t do that right now. That’s okay. This is supposed to inspire us to keep going and improving and moving forward. So, one, is it aspirational? Can we keep moving forward based on it? Two, is it sort of measurable? And I don’t say smart measurable like it needs to be data-oriented, but something where we can look at it and say, are we doing that or are we not doing that? Are we leading in this or are we not? And it’s a little bit of a gut check. But honestly, when you ask these questions, it becomes very apparent if you’re doing something or not. Do you have outstanding facilities? That might be a little vague. But honestly, coming back at it, you could say, Yeah, I think they’re outstanding. And you can survey your membership on that, by the way, to ask if they all think it’s outstanding. I also like to think about what do we do better than anybody else is a good way to start thinking about that. I think the better question is, what could we be doing better than anybody else? Or what should we be doing better than anybody else? Because if we think could or should, that’ll push our leadership, that will push our board, that will push all of us to think bigger about what we do rather than just saying, It’s fine right now. We have okay racket facilities.

Derek And do that sentiment of what we should do better than everyone else through the lens of what your members value. 

Tucker Absolutely. And that mission statement can start pushing this idea of a positioning. So most of the time when we come at this, the positioning statement for a brand, a club brand specifically, kind of finds itself in this pairing of vision/mission position. And when we have those three things together, they work in tandem to identify who the club is, who it’s for, where it’s going, why it’s going to go there, and what it’s all about. That’s the authenticity, relevance, and surprise. How do we delight people? How do we move ourselves forward? This all gets answered within all three of those. I think that most of our clients, at the beginning of the process, try to do it all in each one of those statements. They’re used together. They’re not used individually. 

Derek The last club that we’ve been working with, the draft of their mission statement was a blend of the vision and their positioning. And it watered it down into a big jumble of words that, in the end, didn’t make any sense and wasn’t helpful or actionable. 

Tucker Alphabet soup. 

Derek Absolutely. 

Tucker When we go through this process, there’s this level of clarity that comes out of it that’s fantastic. There’s also a level of relief to say, Oh my God. We were working with a 35 word vision statement that sounded like every other club. And we didn’t have clarity about what we were doing or where we were going. And so that kind of clarity is almost priceless because the argument is there to make improvements. The argument is there to change service requirements. The argument is there to increase service or certain dues, or to increase certain things to say, we want to move in this direction. It’s going to require this from an investment standpoint, or that’s going to require this from our cultural standpoint. It makes it a lot easier to have conversations about change. 

Derek The confidence that it provides you is unmatched in those decisions, in answering why, in deciding between this or that, and in deciding who you are for. You said relief. I’m throwing confidence in there with that clarity as a huge benefit of doing the hard work to get this right. And I would also say, be a little bit brave when you do this. 

Tucker Don’t worry about trying to please every single person or trying to please any type of person who could walk through the door. Be yourself. Be true to what’s true to your culture, and make sure that you’re being bold. Being bold in your sense. Brave is a great word to say. Don’t be scared to push yourselves a little bit here because not pushing yourselves here will mean never pushing yourselves on things that really matter within amenities, all of those offerings. 

Derek Otherwise, you get lost. You go right back down to, How do we set goals? How do we react to that specific member who’s concerned about something or that member’s actions, whether they’re appropriate or not? How do we take all that back to, Who are we? What are we for? Who are we not for? Where are we going? How are we going to get there? If you keep asking yourselves where you are going and what your strategy is, head in that direction. And then if you want extra credit, put a couple of shorter term one-year or three-year milestones underneath that mission. 

Tucker How are we going to do this mission? How are we going to be able to achieve this mission? 

Derek You could check in on those every year or every quarter and say, Yep, we are actively working thoughtfully in this very intentional direction. 

Tucker This is an elbows-out kind of conversation, by the way. 

Derek Formula One reference. 

Tucker Oh, for sure. When we’re in these conversations, it’s don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of a little aggression. A little heated conversation is the way I would look at it. 

Derek The passion comes out when you have the trust in the people around the table that you’re doing this with, and everybody has the same hopes and aspirations. Then let the passion come out in how you define that and how you get clarity around what that looks like. 

Tucker Working with private clubs is awesome because they have passion. 

Derek They care. 

Tucker They love it.

Derek Working with people who love their club is infectious. And when they’re frustrated, it’s because they love their club. The frustration is coming from a lack of clarity because they want it to be the best that it can be. 

Tucker And I can empathize with that to say you’re passionate because you want this to be the best, and they’re passionate because they want this to be the best. And you have different viewpoints of what that best looks like. That’s okay. And it’s healthy. Those conversations are healthy. What’s not healthy is not having those conversations and then just being upset about every single initiative that comes through because it doesn’t meet your requirements. 

Derek And what’s unhealthy is not having any direction in the first place. Not choosing not to do this, choosing not to make a decision, choosing not to set the compass of where you’re going is just going to continue in frustration. 

Tucker Almost every club we’ve done this for has come back and said, We should have done this ten years ago. 

Derek We should have done this before we agreed to build that brand new clubhouse was what we just heard. 

Tucker Or we should have done this before we even thought about what we should do next. So not only what we should do within the clubhouse, in your example, but why we are doing that versus we could be doing anything. We should have done this before we changed our dues. So a lot of people go, This is helping us move forward, but it’s also helping us be more strategic about how we move forward. And that’s a huge benefit to a lot of clubs. 

Derek I don’t think I can add anything else on top of that. 

Tucker I don’t think I want you to. 

Derek It’s a good punctuation. 

Tucker So there you go. All right. 

Derek Enjoy Masters Week. 

Tucker Yeah, have a good one.

Derek Sussner is a branding firm specializing in helping companies make a meaningful mark guiding marketing leaders who are working to make their brand communicate better, stand out, and engage audiences to grow their business. For more on Sussner, visit sussner.com. 

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This episode shares the steps behind Sussner’s work in refining the Shock Doctor brand.

Defining PerceptionEpisode 20

Derek and Tucker discuss the positive and negative impacts of brand perception.

What is a Brand?Episode 19

Derek and Tucker discuss what defines a brand and what makes them successful.

Branding Golf Courses vs Golf ClubsEpisode 18

Derek and Tucker further hone in on golf course design.

Refreshing a Golf CourseEpisode 17

Derek and Tucker discuss the bar for golf course design – and how to push past it.

Let’s Talk Taglines Episode 16

Derek and Tucker talk taglines in today's episode.

Refreshing an Athletic DepartmentEpisode 15

Derek and Tucker sit down today to discuss what logos mean within branding.

Branding a Club Episode 14

Derek and Tucker discuss how to brainstorm branding a club.

An Intro to Internal Branding Episode 13

Derek and Tucker discuss the power behind internal branding.

The Value of Stereotyping Episode 12

Derek and Tucker sit down today to discuss the meaning of stereotyping within the branding world.

We’re on a Mission Episode 11

This episode digs into the rallying cry for the greatness your team is going to accomplish.

Aren’t Brands Just Logos? Episode 10

Derek and Tucker sit down today to discuss what logos mean within branding.

The Business You Are Really In Episode 09

Derek and Tucker sit down today to discuss how to discover what business you are really in to better understand your mission statement.

Clarity of Vision Episode 08

Derek and Tucker discuss the importance of looking ahead towards the big picture to better hone the purpose behind what we do in the now.

Branding B-2-B Environments Episode 07

Derek and Tucker discuss the Branding of Spaces.

It’s All in the Name Episode 06

Derek and Tucker discuss what a name can say - and not - about your company.

Delving Into Branding Data Episode 05

Derek and Tucker jump into the discovery phase of branding before it hits the drawing board. 

Content Made Meaningful Episode 04

Today Derek and Tucker discuss the concepts within content and its common misconceptions such as the phrase "Content is King."

Visuals That Take The Cake Episode 02

Derek and Tucker sit down to discuss visual impact and what that could mean for your brand. 

Are You Different or Distinct? Episode 01

It's not about being the only option, it's about being the right option. Join Derek and Tucker as they discuss Differentiation & Distinction.