It's Not Too Early: Thinking About Staffing Issues Now

by Bob Ditter

Lori, not her real name, has been directing an all girls' resident camp in the southeastern United States for over twenty years. While visiting her camp in late May this year to help with staff training, she mentioned to me that as many as a dozen new staff hires did not show for orientation week. "Bob, they never called, and most never even e-mailed. When I contacted one who we had hired to be our archery counselor, she e-mailed us back claiming she had sent us an e-mail months ago stating her plans had changed. Bob, we never got that e-mail."

Lori's tale of "no-show" staff is echoed by scores of camp directors I've spoken to across the country. "Young people today just don't take the commitment they make in a staff contract seriously," a day camp director in the Midwest tells me. "If something better or last minute comes along, they simply make a change in their plans and think nothing of the fact that we are counting on them. We hire extra counselors to work into spots that are left open because of the drop-out or no-show rate."

While the problem of staff not showing up has been a perennial one for camps, the current generation of young adults is more likely to commit to a job offer later and to ignore a commitment they may have made in a signed contract or agreement then previous generations. This trend has been building for some time. One contributing factor has been the Internet. Given the wealth of information and choices available to young people on the Web — a medium with which they have grown up — they are accustomed to "comparison shopping." They wait until the very last minute before making a decision — regardless of whether that decision is to take an apartment, purchase a pair of shoes online, take a job they've seen on Craigslist.com, or go out for the night.

In addition, many young people today came "of age" with Instant Messaging and texting — which are both forms of communication that allow one to avoid more personal communication — like an appropriate phone call when there is a potentially embarrassing situation to deal with, such as getting out of a commitment or asking to "hook up." In his essay on "Modern Love" ("Let's Not Get to Know Each Other Better," The New York Sunday Times, June 8, 2008), twenty-one-year- old Joel Walkowski notes that romantic relationships among the young pointedly avoid commitment. "Casual is sexy. Caring is creepy," he writes. "We've grown up in an age of rampant divorce and the accompanying tumult. The idea that two people can be happy together, maturing along side each other seems as false as a fairy tale. So when a relationship ends, it isn't seen as bad. It's held as evidence that it was never any good to begin with." One wonders if this hesitancy to commit is a general condition in the world of Millennials.

Making the Cyber Connection

So what is a camp director to do? Aside from the long-standing practice of hiring extra staff to cover the drop-outs and no-shows, some directors have created a special staff section on their camp Web sites where newly hired staff are featured, along with their contact information, once they sign a contract. (The staff page is often password protected so campers can not access the personal contact information of staff). The goal is to help new staff "connect" with other staff members and promote a kind of cyber-based "peer group" or community that doesn't need camp to begin forming.

Once a staff member has signed on for the summer, the camp gets permission to post that person's photograph and some information about him or her along with the new hire's position at camp. Since most young people have a social networking profile, such as on Myspace.com or Facebook.com, they are already accustomed to communicating this way. Veteran staff are urged to connect with new staff ("friend them," as the social networking parlance has it), thus developing what is hoped to be a stronger commitment to the camp. "One reason new staff members don't take their commitment seriously," says one savvy camp director in the West, "is because they don't yet have a true connection to anyone at camp. Camp isn't ‘real' yet, so they think nothing of dropping out and moving on if something better comes their way between the time they sign a contract and the time they come to camp. If we can get staff to connect somewhat before camp, we're hoping it will increase the chances they actually show up!"

Some camps have followed the lead of their constituents and have created their own camp staff page on Facebook.com or Myspace.com. By simply "friending" new camp staff through their already-existing profiles (it is estimated that there are 75 million users on Myspace.com and 35 million users on Facebook.com as of September 2007, according to the Teen Research Unlimited Web site, www.teenresearch. com, in Northbrook, Illinois), the camp accomplishes two goals: 1) the connection of all staff in a cybercommunity and 2) the ability to peruse the profiles of staff and make recommendations about content that might not be in keeping with camp values. Questionable content can then be placed under "privacy" settings or eliminated altogether. Camps that have created such a user page assign a trusted, dedicated key staff member to administer and monitor the site both to promote ongoing staff communication as well as to ensure that postings are appropriate and consistent with camp values.

Setting up or updating a camp staff profile page is best done immediately after camp has finished the season when the key staff has had a chance to sit down and evaluate the performance of counselors. Several camps have a long-standing practice of gathering the supervisory staff for a few hours after camp (before everyone scatters and gets caught up in their post camp lives!) to compare notes and decide who they want from among the staff to ask back. Each staff gets rated by this leadership team and choices for whom to invite back are made from this list. High performing staff members who are asked back are "refreshed" on the camp's staff social networking site and are also encouraged to think of friends whom they think would perform well at camp. Many camps have discovered that strong performers who develop a high positive regard for camp (those who have a true heart connection to camp!) are very selective about whom they recommend. Since they know firsthand what it takes to be successful at camp, they are more likely to size up their friends before suggesting they come to camp. Several directors I have worked with over the years tell me that having a high performing counselor refer a friend is their best way of finding other strong counselors.

Developing the Teamwork Factor

A lot has been written about the traits of the so-called Millennial Generation — that generation of people born after 1982 who have "come of age" since the turn of this century. While it is easy to over-generalize about any generation, and, as a result, lose the differing characteristics between people of different races, classes, or cultural backgrounds, there are some characteristics camp professionals have noted in their own experiences with this age group that are worth noting.

In her insightful book, Generation Me, Jean Twenge notes that because of the great amount of individualized attention children of this generation have received — the result of a perceptible movement to increase the self-esteem of children that began in the 1980's — the young adults who become staff members at summer camps around the country are often self-absorbed and not the team players of their predecessors (Twenge 2006). She refers to the belief that many Millennials have that they can (and are expected to) be anything they want — a kind of "army of one." As a result, many young staff who are new to camp are not the team players their cohorts from previous generations were. Once they get to camp the idea of working together with a co-counselor with a group of campers or on a team with various other activity counselors doesn't come naturally to them.

To counter this trend, many camps are once again inviting staff to camp for orientation earlier in order to put them through a team-building regimen. Camp Alpine for Boys in Mentone, Alabama, has done this for the past four years. Their staff participates in a two-day intensive challenge course/ team building program that utilizes low and high ropes course elements along with special workshops designed to develop trust and teamwork among staff. I have witnessed firsthand the profound impact this training has on the level of openness among Alpine staff. The focus shifts perceptively away from an individual perspective to a supportive team mentality where the men feel more comfortable to ask for and accept help, admit vulnerability, speak up in front of others, and generally support one another. It takes an experience to create an environment where the above named behaviors flourish, which is why Alpine uses the ropes and challenge course as part of the team building program. According to Glenn Breazeale, Alpine's director, the time and investment in the two outside facilitators more than pays for itself in terms of the payoff in staff performance.

Retaining Mid-Level Supervisors

Another staff-related issue for camps has to do with retaining middle-level management — unit and program directors or division leaders. Many directors tell me that finding competent, dependable young adults to fill key staff positions is one of the most challenging aspects of staffing. One camp director friend of mine from New York said to me once, "People who are school teachers or coaches often want their summers free. If they come to camp they often have families, which (at resident camp) require housing. And young people who work their way up to a management position are often limited in the number of years they can give camp. You put all that time in developing them and then they take it all with them when they leave!"

Indeed, what was once pressure for high school students to "build their portfolios" as a way to gain more acceptances to colleges and undergraduate education opportunities has evolved into pressure for college students to find internships as a way of enhancing their application to graduate or business school or of landing a better entry level position in a company. As a result, key staff are less and less interested in remaining at camp for fear of "falling behind" in a highly competitive market.

One answer, clearly employed by Jay Jacobs at Timber Lake Camps (TLC) in New York, is a robust professional development program. For the past several years, Jay has assembled the key staff members of all the TLC camps in the spring and has outside trainers provide specific, practical professional development around communication with staff, campers, and parents; staff evaluations; motivating staff; and so on. His key staff not only learn skills they can apply at camp, but leave these trainings with life skills. Many tell me they use the same techniques in their jobs at school or at work or even at home.

What key staff also need is a new peer group at camp — one they can count on for support and ongoing mentoring, since they will need to distinguish themselves in some ways from the peer group they will now be supervising. Too many camps overlook this reality and fail to provide the support to new or young key staff members, then wonder why they struggle in their attempts to supervise their friends. Again, the ideal time to begin forming a key staff peer group is in the fall when there is more time for key staff to develop the trust they need to be open and mutually supportive, and while incidents from the previous summer are still fresh and can be "debriefed."

If staff are a camp's most valuable resource, then key staff are even more valuable. Learning how to identify them, groom them, and then help them perform at a high level are all steps toward any good camp achieving its mission with campers and families. The stakes are too high not to invest in your staff.

The Short List of Leadership Essential Skills
Many key staff attain their position by "coming up through the ranks"— that is, by first performing well as counselors or in other staff positions, then being promoted to a division leader or unit director. Nothing in their camp or life experience up to that point has given them the skills they need to manage other people, especially people who may be the same folks they socialized with in previous seasons.

Having conducted professional development for many camps, I can attest to its effectiveness. I have also formed my "short list" of essential skills that most managers, whether at camp or otherwise, need to learn or improve on. They are as follows:

  1. Early identification of problems. Camp is short. If problems are not identified and addressed early, they can develop into bigger problems or simply dominate too large a part of the summer. Most supervisors wait too long before making an intervention, either because they don't feel skilled or they are apprehensive about confronting unacceptable performance, especially if that performance is coming from former camp friends. Supervisors must be good observers and intervene early enough so that performance issues can be addressed while there is time to make a difference. Problems not addressed also lead to poor morale on the part of staff who are performing well and watch as some cohort is doing a poor job.
  2. Validation. Many key staff members don't know how to properly validate the people they oversee, a skill that is especially important when confronting poor performance. One can validate someone in many ways, as follows:
    1. Feelings ("I can see how frustrated you are with your campers!")
    2. Experience ("I know it can be tough being new here, as there are so many things to learn at once. It can be overwhelming!")
    3. A person's situation ("I can see that having cabin duties and having to leave early to set up your activity area for the day is pulling you in two directions.")
    4. Legitimate attempts to perform ("I can see you're trying, and I appreciate that!")
    5. A person's positive intentions ("I know that when you kept your campers up past bed time you were only trying to get them to come together better as a group.")
    6. Your contribution to the problem ("I should have addressed this with you earlier, and that's my problem for which I take full responsibility.")

By validating others, we reinforce whatever positive aspects of their performance we can, thus setting a more positive tone to the entire conversation. We also prepare them for the concerns that may follow, increasing the chance that they might actually listen less defensively and take in what we have to say. In this regard, validation is a master skill, one that enhances other skills.

  1. Skillful confrontation. Many supervisors avoid confrontation out of a fear of "making things worse." What they don't know how to do is
    1. Express a performance issue as a concern ("I am concerned that you aren't being as successful as we all know you can be!")
    2. Hook a concern to a compliment ("I can see you really have a lot of energy with your campers! That's great! My concern is that you channel it in ways that are productive so they don't get so excited that they become harder to manage!")
    3. Ask whether what we observe is something they have observed. ("Have you noticed what it is I am describing to you?")
  2. Defining performance in behavioral terms. One of the most frequent mistakes supervisors make with staff is not using clear language that describes behavior. Too often we give feedback in overly general terms without giving specific examples of what people do and say that we want to address.
  3. Scripting key points. Do this before heading into a conversation. Too often supervisors provide feedback without clearly organizing their thoughts. The conversation, especially if it addresses sensitive issues, may then become muddled and tangential. Scripting out major points or key phrases beforehand helps ensure that the conversation stays on track, even if things get emotional.

References
Walkowski, J. (2008). "Let's Not Get to Know Each Other Better," The New York Sunday Times. June 8, 2008.
Twenge, J. (2006). Generation Me. Free Press, New York.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information abut the author, visit www.BobDitter.com.

Originally published in the 2008 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.

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