Motivating Young People in the Workplace

An Interview with Bruce Tulgan

The latest business dilemma facing organizations across the country is the leadership crisis. On the one hand, aging workers will be retiring in large numbers over the next ten years, leaving behind a growing number of leadership vacancies. On the other hand, fewer talented young workers are willing to follow the old-fashioned career paths that guaranteed leadership succession in the workplace of the past. This same dilemma faces the camp profession.

How do your perspectives on the current leadership crisis and approach to preparing young people for leadership relate to the camp profession?

Let’s take the leadership crisis first. Our ongoing research shows that too many of those in leadership positions — at all levels — are disengaged from their direct reports on a day-to-day basis. In other words, too many leaders, managers, and supervisors are failing to lead, manage, and supervise. Is this as true in the camp profession as it is in other industries? I would say, "Yes and no."

On the one hand, camp lends itself to a high degree of orderliness — the population is broken down into manageable units with a very clear chain of command. It is highly scheduled around basic routines and so there are numerous standard operating procedures, which are generally followed by most people most of the time.

On the other hand, I don’t think it is the case that those in positions of supervisory responsibility are always highly engaged with their direct reports on a day-to-day basis. Leaders are "under-managing" if they fail to talk with every direct report, at least once a week, to go over that team member’s basic tasks/responsibilities/projects and providing reminders about:

  • Performance requirements and standard operating procedures.
  • Defined parameters, measurable goals, and concrete deadlines for work assignments. Accurate monitoring, evaluation, and documentation of work performance.
  • Specific feedback with guidance for improvement.
  • Rewards and detriments distributed fairly.

Of course, that’s a tall order for many, and we have found that most leaders are not doing the basics with every direct report at least once a week.

What are the consequences in a camp setting? Problems occur that could have been avoided; problems get out of control that could have been solved easily; resources are squandered; and counselors/staff end up doing work that was unnecessary while neglecting work that needed to be done. Some counselors/staff slack off and get away with it; some work too hard and never get rewarded for it; and many start to feel that the camp leadership is not sufficiently aware and engaged with day-to-day activities. Ultimately, morale, productivity, and fun will be diminished, as well as counselor/staff and also camper retention.

Of course, it is obvious that most leaders in a camp setting struggle to balance their management responsibilities with their own job tasks, putting a strain on the limited amount of time managers are able to devote to management responsibilities. Camp leaders have a growing list of administrative duties and paperwork related to management, which takes up time. Meanwhile everyone is working with tight budgets, and there is limited flexibility with financial and non-financial resources.

As well, many camp leaders, maybe even more than leaders in other industries, have what I consider to be a fundamental misunderstanding of "empowerment" that keeps them from acknowledging, asserting, and enforcing their management authority. I call these leaders "false nice guys" because they refuse to accept responsibility for the authority and influence that comes with their position. They resist making clear statements about performance requirements, standard operating procedures, direction, feedback on performance (praise or criticism), guidance for improvement, or the distribution of rewards and detriments.

On top of all this, some leaders are afraid that if they take a more engaged/directive approach to management and become more hands on, that their counselors/staff might be angry, insulted, annoyed; engage in difficult conversations; or even make requests and demands of their own.

Of course, the biggest problem with many leaders in the private sector — a lack of skill in dealing with people — is not usually the key problem with camp leaders. Indeed, most camp leaders are highly skilled in interpersonal communication and don’t need to focus on developing techniques for engaging counselors/staff but rather simply must develop the habit of spending a lot more time in one-on-one time with direct reports.

The camp workplace is different. How can your strategies apply in the camp setting?

Every workplace is different. And within each setting there are pressures and constraints. So what should you do? Do your best to follow the most effective practices and be the best leader you can be.

  • Become extremely knowledgeable about every direct report and the work they are doing. That means knowing the details of their work — enough to know what can be done every day and what cannot be done; what resources will be necessary; what problems may occur; what expectations are reasonable; what goals and deadlines are sufficiently ambitious — and enough to fairly and accurately monitor and measure success and failure.
  • Provide direction and guidance on a regular basis, but also support and coaching. Help identify resource needs and help fulfill them. Help identify potential problems and help solve them. Monitor and measure the workload of each person. Help determine when tasks, responsibilities, and projects are a good fit or a bad fit. Figure out when a direct report is having a bad day — or a good day. Know when a direct report needs advice, motivation, inspiration, or counsel.
  • Spend time with every direct report in regular coaching sessions to remind direct reports about overall performance requirements and standard operating procedures, as well as spelling out concrete expectations, and clarifying goals, deadlines, and parameters. Take charge and offer clear direction, but it is also important to get input from direct reports throughout the process. Try to reach a mutual agreement about what is reasonable, anticipate problems and resource needs together, strategize together about how to reach ambitious targets, and give direct reports some ownership and complicity in the goal-setting process.
  • Be in a position to judge the cause of successes as well as failures — to determine when successes and failures result from a direct report’s attention, care, judgment, or effort. And you must be able to document that judgment. We recommend organizing and keeping a "manager’s notebook," in which you make all of your running notes about your management relationship with each direct report. Organize the notebook as a tracking system, both chronologically and by person.

In recruiting staff, camp directors state that a camp job provides a resume for life, reflects leadership, problem solving, community building, and teaching creativity. Can you add to this? Do you have any additional messages for recruiting?

Recruiting is just like sales. The first step is developing a "sales" message compelling enough to attract a large applicant pool. Brand yourself as employer. Take the example of the United States Marine Corps, which is the only branch of service in the United States military that has consistently met its recruiting and retention goals. How do they do that? The Marine Corps is a great brand — Join the Marine Corps and it will transform you head to toe. That happens to be the case with every branch of the service; it’s just the Marines who have managed to convey that message effectively in the marketplace for talent.

For many employers, the biggest problem with their "brand" in the marketplace for talent is that they are still offering the same long-term career opportunities they’ve been offering for decades and so their recruiting sales message is all about the traditional rewards of the old-fashioned career path. If all you have to sell are rewards that don’t vest until several years into the future, then your recruiting sales message will not be compelling. People in today’s workforce want to know what you have to offer them today, tomorrow, next week, and next month in return for their added value.

There are eight factors (seven nonfinancial) that workers of the future look for in offers of employment:

  1. Performance-based compensation — The amount of financial compensation must be in line with the amounts available in the marketplace. But much more important than amount, those in greatest demand today want to know that their compensation is not limited by any factor other than their own performance. People want to be assured that if they work harder and better they will be rewarded in direct proportion to the value they add.
  2. Flexible schedules — As long as they are meeting goals and deadlines, people want to know that they will have some control over their own schedules. The more control, the better.
  3. Flexible location — Again, as long as they are meeting goals and deadlines, people want to know that they will have some control over where they work. To the extent that working in a particular space in a particular building is required, they want to know that they will have some power to define their own space (arrange furniture, computers, art work, lighting, etc., to their liking).
  4. Marketable skills — People are looking for formal and informal training opportunities and want to be assured that they will be building skills and knowledge faster than they become obsolete.
  5. Access to decision-makers — Those among today’s workforce don’t want to wait until they climb the ladder to build relationships with important leaders, managers, clients, customers, vendors, or coworkers. They want access right away.
  6. Personal credit for results achieved — Nobody anymore wants to work hard to make somebody else look good. People want to put their own names on the tangible results they produce.
  7. A clear area of responsibility — People want to know that they will have 100 percent control of something, anything, so they can use that area of responsibility as their personal proving ground.
  8. The chance for creative expression — People want to have a clear picture of all the guidelines and parameters that will constrain their creativity so they can imagine the terrain in which they will have freedom to do things their own way.

The key is to build your brand and then create a compelling recruiting message by answering the fundamental question people want answered — What’s the deal? "Exactly what do you want me to do today, tomorrow, next week, and this month — and exactly what do you have to offer me in the form of financial and non-financial rewards today, tomorrow, next week, and this month?"

What are your thoughts about training/retaining camp staff — considering the uniqueness of the profession, limited salaries, amount of work, volatile emotional maturity of young people in these roles?

Here’s what every experienced leader in every organization in every industry will tell you: "In our industry, it’s different." I promise you, I’ve been told that by people who run supermarkets and nuclear weapons labs — and everybody in between. I understand that camps have particularly young workers charged with a very high level set of responsibilities (child-care, coaching, facilitation, teaching, psychology, problem solving, conflict resolution, etc.), and that the resources are limited.

For me, this simply underlines the critical nature of the recruiting process — your best recruits are going to be former campers, as everyone in the industry knows. But how do you attract more former campers to that track? How do you select? How do you train? How do you reward? How do you retain?

  • Recruiting — see my answer to the earlier question.
  • Selection — My view is you should first try to scare away every potential applicant by telling them how hard the job is going to be and how few rewards there are . . . and everyone who is left should be tested, using leading industry instruments if they exist and if not then using customized instruments focused on personality (a key factor in this industry), as well as basic abilities, skills, and motivational profile. The more selective you are up front, the more effective you’ll be afterward.
  • Training — I believe in high-intensity, boot-camp-style training, especially for this kind of work. Beyond that initial training, with whatever resources you can get your hands on, create a just-in-time learning infrastructure to support your own ongoing, as-needed learning, and the learning needs of anyone whom you manage. Remember, low-tech or high-tech or somewhere in the middle, if it anticipates skill and knowledge gaps and makes the right information available to fill those gaps as needed, it’s just-in-time learning. Just do whatever you can to capture the knowledge as it’s being shared.
  • Rewards — Here’s my approach. Make a short-term, pay-for-performance deal with every employee on every project (the way most sales divisions compensate employees). Pay for results delivered by specific deadlines, instead of by the hour, and cash employees out when they deliver. Go beyond salaries, hourly wages, and traditional benefits by expanding your repertoire of financial rewards. Move toward a higher and higher ratio of variable performance-based compensation versus fixed compensation. Consider additional incentive features such as on-the-spot cash awards and equity in appropriate circumstances. Position quasi-financial benefits as part of your compensation plan — such as wellness services (such as athletic resources and classes). Include pure non-financial rewards in your compensation plan: control over one’s work schedule, training opportunities, exposure to decision-makers, personal credit for tangible results achieved, increased responsibility, and the chance for creative expression.
  • Retention — The number one factor in retention of employees in this category will be whether or not this job fits in their life plans next year. Number two will be whether they had an enriching experience. Number three will be whether they feel they were fairly and effectively treated by the organization and, in particular, by their immediate supervisor/manager/leader.

How did your camp experience influence life/career?

I went to Camp Becket, a YMCA camp, for four summers from the time I was nine through twelve. It was one of the most powerful experiences in my life, and I learned so much in such a formative way that I’m not sure where to begin and where to end here. But let me say I know I learned the basics of human relations. I cannot say that I always succeed in living up to what I learned at Becket, but I spent a long time thinking about the ideals I learned there. And this is my best effort to summarize what I took away from those four years:

  • Be a model of trust. Take personal responsibility for everything you say and do, hold yourself accountable, and never make excuses when you make a mistake (just apologize and make every effort to fix it).
  • Remove your ego. Don’t take yourself too seriously, but always take your obligations seriously. Extend personal vulnerability, but never undermine your own credibility.
  • Listen carefully. Never interrupt when others are speaking and don’t let your mind wander. Stay focused on what the other person is saying.
  • Empathize. Try to imagine yourself in the other person’s position. Ask yourself what thoughts and feelings you might have if you were in that position. Then behave in a way and say the kinds of things that you would appreciate under the same circumstances.
  • Exhibit respect and kindness. Take courtesy the extra mile. If you think the other person is pressed for time, be brief. If you think something might be wrong, ask if there is anything you can do to help (but don’t be pushy). Never share observations that might be insulting and never hesitate to share a compliment.
  • Speak up and make yourself understood. If you don’t say what’s on your mind, you’ll have virtually no chance of connecting with people, getting others to share your interests, influencing their thoughts, or persuading them to do things your way. Of course, sometimes it helps to take a quiet moment and clarify, for yourself, what really is on your mind. If it’s something that ought to be shared, take an extra moment to think about the most effective words and actions to get your message across.
  • Be a motivator. Visualize positive results. Be enthusiastic and share your positive vision. Never speak of a problem unless you have thought of at least one potential solution.
  • Celebrate the success of others. Always give people credit for their achievements, no matter how small. And go out of your way to catch people doing things right.

Originally published in the 2005 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.