At the recent American Camp Association National Conference I was again privileged with the opportunity to be a presenter. And since I had already been working on communicating aspects of staff development, I decided to develop out this theme even more.
My presentation, Strengthening Staff Relationships, gave me a forum for discussing how central I find not only skill, creativity, responsibility, and experience among my staff members and in their various roles, but also the crucial X factor of how we all work together to make a great camp and a great camp experience.
Be the change
Ghandi is famous for his saying, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” No matter your aim, this is a very true example to follow. Expecting good work, behavior, communication, and mutual support begins with modeling that behavior yourself. Myself.
For me, that camp Alleghany is a family-run business means that first of all I want to cultivate excellent family relationships. Fortunately, I had a wonderful example to follow in my grandparents and parents, and am blessed to deepen these primary relationships, and pass them on to my son, within both the family and the work context.
So it begins at the top, and my parents and I take this to heart, working productively together to creative a meaningful and visible sign of good working relationships.
But we can’t expect modeling to be enough.
Cultivating a strong staff, united in their specific jobs and tasks but also united as a, well, unit, with shared values and mission takes conscious, concerted work. It has to be a part of our industry, or any given camp, if we want to truly compete on the basis of having the best offering. When we all do this, we lift our industry as a whole.
For me this means setting aside specific times and sessions in trainings to not only go over our missions and values, but to practice exercises and challenges that allow staff members to “discover” for themselves what our mission means in a real sense.
It also means for this particular generation of staffers, many of whom have grown up immersed in a social media world where they get to have “their say,” that we allow them that process of voicing their take on things. Then, as staff leaders and directors we channel that into the shared expectations of jobs, roles, teams, mission, and our brand as a whole.
It’s a delicate balancing act, but one well worth focusing on.
Nuts and bolts
As a director, what this means for me is dotting every i and crossing every t.
I always comb over my resources (past and present), draw on what works, keep myself very organized, and make sure I’ve touched base with everyone.
Getting allies on board is crucial — having top staff and leadership teams know and model back the expectations means that I can rely on a tight group of supporters who are the eyes and ears throughout camp, continuing to uphold the most important aspects of staff expectations, and guiding younger staff into the mission in a supportive and nurturing way.
It’s all about communication — from using social media tools to having pre-camp get togethers, to making sure everyone has AND HAS READ staff rules and resources, means we’re already halfway there.
Life on the ground
That said, whenever any group of people get together there are bound to be issues and concerns that arise. It’s tough to anticipate every situation, however much we might try. One way I try to nip any “immersion situation” in the bud is to go over and GO OVER AGAIN our “No Gossip” policy. The best way to ensure that the staff stays focused on what they are really there for — the campers and the camp experience — is to ensure that there is no misunderstanding about how seriously we take the no gossip paradigm.
This doesn’t mean we can control everyone’s behavior, or that issues don’t come up. But being proactive sets the groundwork, and builds a CULTURE of values that takes on a life of its own, making it at least a bit easier to continue cultivating those qualities we seek in staff and that we seek to offer our campers.
We all have needs
All this said, I also want to emphasize that being a camp staffer is a unique job in that we’re taking on work in a remote location away from friends, loved ones, and our communities. Therefore it’s important to always make staff morale a part of your role as a director or top administrative staff.
Camp workers don’t get much time “off,” and when they do, it’s not enough time to race back to a familiar locale. Isolation from personal support systems and lack of privacy are real issues. Sensitivity to that is only natural and helps build a kindred spirit. Jokes and laughter go a long way here, as does any bonding that supports the group experience.
Daily meetings are also crucial, particularly to diffuse any tensions or struggles that might be pressing on the staff. Last year’s derecho is a great example. While our staff was stellar in dealing with the challenges, as a director, I had to acknowledge that it WAS asking more out of them. Yes, they rose to the challenge. But a little affirmation that they were dealing with the unexpected BIG TIME is only fair, wise, and good.
The bottom line is that constant communication, openness, and support are crucial. At the same time, we have to captain our ships and set limits, ask more, and expect everyone to be on board.
It’s a bit of a dance, but by being aware and taking the time, we can all build quality staffs that are worthy of our good names, helping to support the entire camp industry for all that we do.
–Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Assistant Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls