Last week I told you about the recent American Camp Association Virginias conference on risk management. And earlier this year I told you about a presentation our family gave together at a national ACA conference about owning a camp as a family business.
So now I’m going to tell you about my first venture into solo presenting with a talk I gave at this month’s conference titled “Turning lemons into lemonade.”
Expect the unexpected
Thanks to the success of our blog, the conference approached me to do a presentation on “keeping a positive attitude during trying times.”
Because our staff and campers were so stellar during the derecho storm that hit this past summer, and I had written about their can-do-ism, the conference organizers thought other camps might like to hear more about management level operating strategies that focus on morale in the face of the unexpected.
All businesses, schools and camps included, face unexpected events. It’s just life. And after 91 years in operation, we too have faced unexpected and even trying occasions from time-to-time. Thankfully, it’s not the norm.
Risk management is all about being able to anticipate these trying events so that when something out of the ordinary happens — an odd summer flu, a rare outbreak of lice, a bad fit for a camper or staff member, an unexpectedly bad storm, etc. — you and your staff are ready to face it, making it easier to cope with.
Keep on the sunny side
Even in my five years as Assistant Director at Camp Alleghany, I’ve faced some of these events.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a naturally cheery person. So I try to bring that attitude to my leadership at camp, modeling by example how to deal with anything unexpected — from the everyday unexpected to what might feel like a crisis — with a realistic yet upbeat, “we can do this” approach.
What I tried to emphasize with my presentation is that it takes both leading by example and forging very strong relationships with your staff to be successful. This makes all the difference in getting buy-in from everyone to approach the unexpected with similarly high morale.
A shared business culture
Of course that begins with hiring the right people. But it also includes the kind of meaningful training you give your staff not only in how to do their job, but in how to work as a team, model your brand values at all times, and work through all things with respect and consideration. I used the following slide to illustrate what needs to happen in advance of camp to both be prepared and work together as the best possible team:
This is an ongoing effort throughout the camp season. It’s important to provide incentives to staff, and to provide rewards, as well as being generous with the thank yous when counselors step up and show extraordinary leadership in any unexpected “situation” whether small or seemingly large.
There are ways to support the staff, too, that comes with the territory of administrative level leadership. Most of all this means that a director is always, ALWAYS, on-site, engaged, and visible in the event of a crisis. This gives much needed reassurance to campers and counselors, and it keeps the director informed on the front lines. Then, keep the staff informed and the campers informed — each to the level necessary for their needs. Clear communication always keeps things running more smoothly.
Similarly, another director must man the office in case any kind of crisis needs external communication or, as in the case of the derecho, when concerned calls are coming in, those queries are handled in a timely, authoritative manner.
Communication is key, so use all available channels if a crisis is so big that it needs outside explanations (such as an extraordinarily major storm).
Keep on camping on
The other key thing is to keep all things possible running smoothly and regularly. In other words, camp doesn’t stop. Most “crises” are manageable (all of them that we’ve dealt with clearly were manageable) and so day-to-day activities and events must continue to the extent possible, with minor adjustments if necessary. You can rotate staff to deal with this in a way that doesn’t tax morale — for example, if one area is severely impacted and another is not, mix staff up so that the area impacted feels supported and doesn’t carry an unfair burden.
Laughter is the best medicine
Finally, to truly turn lemons into lemonade you’ve got to find things to laugh at. Finding the humor in a situation can lead to all kinds of in-jokes and camp-centric “memes” that bring the event down to earth, showing us that it is manageable. This isn’t about not taking the situation seriously. It’s just that at some point there’s bound to be something funny to indulge in, and it goes a long way to shoring up morale. I mean, do you really want to address a crisis with added grumpiness? Never!
And that laughter makes it a whole lot easier to CELEBRATE when the crisis is finally over. Nothing bonds like a “we did it” party. This not only sends the message that “we’re past the worst of it” but it creates a concrete sense of moving forward. It’s crucial to feel some closure.
As you can imagine there’s so much more that I covered with this talk — and I really enjoyed it. But I just wanted to give you a taste of the kinds of proactive approaches we take at our camp — and in the professional camp community — to provide our campers with the highest level of care and enjoyment while at our camps.
–Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Assistant Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls