by Thomas Wailgum

Does Playing Golf Actually Help Your Career?

Jun 20, 200811 mins
Relationship Building

According to our survey results, playing golf with business peers and corporate partners isn't as critical a career-enhancing and networking activity that everyone once thought it was -- especially for those in IT.

Conventional business wisdom has long held that to succeed in the corporate world, to win friends in the ranks of senior management and to show you can interact with co-workers and customers alike, you should take up the game of golf.


Mastering the Secret Etiquette of Golf

So, You’re Thinking of Playing Golf

How to Network: 12 Tips for Shy People

But that’s not the case in 2008. According to the “CIO Magazine Golf Networking Survey,” not everyone is convinced of the relationship-building, networking and career-advancement power of the game of golf. The results are from an online survey of 394 IT industry professionals who identified themselves as golfers (48 percent), non-golfers (34 percent) or those considering taking up the sport (18 percent). (A wide range of industries and company sizes were represented by the respondents, who took the survey via in May 2008.)

Overall, opinions from the respondents were split on whether playing golf had actually helped them professionally: 55 percent said that the game of golf had helped their careers; 45 percent said golf had not helped them.

For years, many in corporate America have claimed that the golf course is “where business gets done.” Donald Trump once said, “I have done many deals on the golf course.” (Occasionally, though, 18 holes can’t create M&A nirvana: Steve Ballmer and Jerry Yang’s May 2008 round of golf could not seal the Microsoft-Yahoo deal.)

But according to our data, many IT industry professionals have no qualms about saying “no thanks” to the boss’s invitation to the country club or a day out on links on a vendor’s dime. To some of our respondents, there are plenty of networking opportunities on Internet-based social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook—and you don’t have to leave the office. Plus stringent post-Enron corporate practices that frown on schmoozing and gift-giving may have had an effect on vendor- and partner-sponsored golf junkets. (See “Mastering the Secret Etiquette of Golf” for a look at the written and unwritten rules of the game that all executives need to know.)

Your Dream Golf Partner

We asked: If you could play a round of golf with just one of these people, who would it be?

Number Who They Picked
32% Pro golfer Tiger Woods
19% Microsoft’s Bill Gates
19% Former GE CEO Jack Welch
15% Actor Bill Murray
11% Actress Jessica Alba
“CIO Magazine Golf Networking Survey” May 2008, 394 responses

For IT executives, in particular, just a little more than half (56 percent) said that their presence at golf outings had helped them professionally. (To see if you’re ready for a golf outing, read “So, You’re Thinking of Playing Golf.”) That percentage becomes a little more telling when you compare it to business and sales executives’ perceptions: 73 percent of business executives in the survey said that playing golf has helped their careers, and a whopping 93 percent of sales executives said the same.

In other words, in IT circles, golf skills are perceived as less important to enhancing a career. Whereas in business and sales, golfing abilities appear to be a prerequisite skillset.

Perception: Missed Golf Means Missed Opportunities

In the survey, nearly three-quarters of all the respondents thought that their decision to say “no thanks” to a golf outing had not hindered them professionally.

The flip side is that one-quarter of the respondents (26 percent) said that their decision to not play golf had hurt them professionally. The majority of ways in which it affected them were predictable. The theme of “missed out on networking and relationship building” was most frequently cited.

Yet some of the reasons written in by the respondents give credence to long-held stereotypes of corporate golf circles: that those business leaders who play the game with each other—predominately males—are a fraternity that needs to be joined in order to move up the corporate ladder. And not being able to strike a little white ball in front of their boss or colleagues—or, if they’re not very good, at least possessing the ability to carry themselves well on the course—somehow detracts from their future corporate worth. (Test your knowledge of golf’s written rules: Take our quick five-question quiz at “Golf Rules.” Note: It’s a .pdf document.)

What Is Acceptable Smartphone Use?

We asked golfers’ opinions on what should be done with the BlackBerry or cell phone.

Number What They Said
76% Turn to silent or vibrate and check if necessary
20% Leave it in the car
4% Leave it on with no restrictions
“CIO Magazine Golf Networking Survey” May 2008, 394 responses

Several survey responses illustrate the perceptions and frustrations of those who chose not to hit the links: “Deals happen on the course”; “It’s admission to the old boy network”; “Many business meetings happen playing golf, and it excludes the non-golfers”; “I couldn’t socialize with board and investors over golf. I was too embarrassed about my lack of skills, so I didn’t play”; “I seem to be stuck in the middle management rut regardless of my business performance and track record”; “If you’re not in certain circles, you miss out”; “People who play golf seem to know crucial business information that has grown their business and income”; and “I lose visibility and recognition.”

About one in five of the survey respondents were women. Thirty-seven percent of them said not playing golf has hindered them professionally, whereas just 23 percent of male respondents felt the same way. Noted one respondent: “I’ve only been playing the last few years. Not being able to play reduced the number of networking and professional socializing, and being a female in a male-dominated business place, playing golf would have given me something in common with the ‘boys.'”

Dona Munsch, a senior director of commerce at Cisco who took the survey, says that when she moved into her new operations role, she quickly discovered that golf played a big part of the group’s culture. She hadn’t golfed before and thought she’d take it up when she “was 60,” she says, but then she thought that “maybe it was time to accelerate my golf schedule.”

So far, her relationships with her colleagues have gotten stronger and her golfing abilities have improved (her handicap is in the high teens). She claims not to have “sealed any big deals” on the course, but that’s not what she’s really after. “I think that success in any role you’re in, especially as an executive, is about creating strong relationships and partnerships,” Munsch says. She adds that the golf course is “a place with a more relaxed setting than the office so that you can better understand what drives and motivates the individual” you’re working with.

What a Round of Golf Can Do for You

So for those respondents who see value in showing up at corporate golf outings and meeting with key vendors for 18 holes and a beer, what exactly are they getting out of it?

The overwhelming reason was that golf “facilitated a partnership,” which was cited by 71 percent of the respondents. Next, 24 percent claimed that golf “made a sale/sealed a deal,” followed by “got a better deal from a vendor” (22 percent). As to career enhancement, 16 percent noted that playing golf had contributed to a promotion, and 8 percent said that golf helped them land a job. (Multiple answers were allowed.)

If You Could Play Only One Course

We asked: If you could play only one golf course for the rest of your life, which would it be?

Number What Course They Picked
28% Augusta National (GA)
27% Pebble Beach (CA)
24% St. Andrews (Old Course) (Scotland)
5% Pinehurst No. 2 (NC)
4% Carnoustie (Scotland)
“CIO Magazine Golf Networking Survey” May 2008, 394 responses

Nearly two-thirds of respondents agreed that “golf provides networking opportunities not found elsewhere,” while 44 percent say golf is an essential business tool.

Munsch says a round of golf allows her to learn more about her colleagues. “I can know what their backup style is, what things are going to frustrate them,” she says. “I can observe their personal style and approach, and a lot of that does carry through to the office from the golf course. If they’re willing to cheat on the course, I always keep that in mind in the business environment as well.”

It should be noted that the majority of respondents to the survey fell in the 35-year-old to 54-year-old range: 73 percent of respondents were from that age range, while just 16 percent were in the “under 35” group. That might be significant because, as Kris Brady, North America IT director of business systems at real estate developer Taylor Morrison, points out, the younger generation of workers who are growing up with social networking may feel that they need fewer “in person” networking activities, like a round of golf.

“When I was thinking that I needed to play golf to develop relationships, LinkedIn didn’t exist,” Brady says. She tried golfing early in her career and she says “it bored me to tears.” So she stopped. Brady has noticed that among her younger staffers networking isn’t just about schmoozing with vendors and bigwigs; they’re out on the Internet, interacting in blogs and chat rooms and using social networking sites to solve IT problems.

And that’s why the perception that golf is just for “old people and suits” might become more pervasive with generations to come. (Which might, incidentally, explain some of the decline in U.S. interest and participation in golf during the last decade, though there is debate about just how much decline there actually is.)

Who Pays for Your Golf?

59 percent of respondents had played in corporate-related golf outings. So who picks up the tab?

Number What They Said
55% Whoever is hosting
29% My company
16% Me personally
“CIO Magazine Golf Networking Survey” May 2008, 394 responses

More evidence of golf’s waning importance in business can be seen in the fact that just one in five of all respondents said they were under pressure to play golf for business reasons, and only 18 percent say management at their company expects its executives to play golf. In addition, nearly three-quarters of the respondents (67 percent) said that a fellow golfer’s skills and adeptness on the course does not affect their professional opinion of him.

“I may have been very fortunate,” Brady says, “because where I’ve worked is an environment where performance got you to where you wanted to be. That’s not the case for everybody. Sometimes the relationship-building that goes on on the golf course, even if it turns it into a schmooze fest, is necessary. And some people do see it as a requirement. But I don’t think it’s necessary in today’s environment.”

Plus, in this post-Enron era “taking those favors or gifts from vendors, suppliers or trade partners is frowned upon more now than it used to be,” Brady says. “I think more people are saying no.”

More “CIO Magazine Golf Networking Survey” Results

Just how often do they golf and how good of golfers are our respondents?

Number What They Said
11 Average number of rounds played a year
18 Average handicap
56% / 44% Prefer to golf with cart / Prefer to walk the course
“CIO Magazine Golf Networking Survey” May 2008, 394 responses

In addition, the economic downturn and everyone’s time seems more pressed than decades ago, and a full day away from the office to meet with vendors or consultants might not be the best use of their time.

Some of the survey respondents, like Christopher Calvin, an IT manager with Charter Communications who took the survey, don’t have the time. He golfed growing up but hasn’t picked up a club in years. And when he does get a chance to get some fresh air and exercise, he doesn’t want to have to think about work. “If I was playing golf for business-related reasons,” he says, “that’s still not separating me from the other things consuming my [work] life.”

Still, Calvin “fully expects” to eventually return to the course once the demands of his work and personal life allows him to do so. He sees some value in the networking aspect, though not so much for climbing the corporate ladder. “I don’t think [staying off the golf course] has had a negative effect on my career,” Calvin says, “but I think there are things I might have missed out on, for sure.”