The camp experience is a very powerful learning process, which is both personal and challenging. It provides children the chance to grow in a protected environment controlled by caring, knowledgeable staff responsible for setting acceptable limits of risk management. Philosophically this is a great premise, but what happens to this construct if staff are inexperienced and not ready to assume the complexities of their job?
While conducting staff trainings, one common theme I notice is the nervous apprehension staff exhibit when they have been promoted; their initial fear of more or different responsibility supersedes their comfort zone from last year. Sometimes it is difficult to understand why you are being asked to accept a new role or change something from the year before. Camp administrators have the advantage of seeing different personalities in the whole camp interact every day, and they promote staff they are confident can take on a new challenge. Being promoted or asked to do a new task is an honor.
But it can also be scary. New responsibilities and increased importance can be extremely hard to manage if you have never done the job before. This is especially true if you are now going to be supervising some of the same people you worked with last summer. How are you supposed to act? What happens to your current staff relationships? What do you stand to lose or gain by accepting a new position? What if you fail? Being asked to accept more responsibility will have a significant impact on your former role in camp. Look at this opportunity in the same way you would ask campers to master new skills.
Skills You Will Need
Preparing for Your New Role Before Camp
The camp wants you to thrive in your new position, so set yourself up for success. Before camp begins, learn what the job responsibilities are and learn about your available resources. Ask your director or hiring manager for help. All camp jobs have competence levels in their descriptions, so be sure to identify how much is needed for you to exceed minimum levels of performance. Each position has nuances that make it unique, so be sure to identify these essential functions and include them in your preparation. For example, counselors should implement specific age-appropriate learning objectives for each division. Find out what the protocol is for each task, and discuss some possible scenarios with your unit leader so you can efficiently address typical camp situations.
Promotions can cause an increased internal anxiety, so embrace this consequence by purposely learning innovative leadership techniques to ease your nervousness. Plan how you will implement the techniques throughout the week or session, and adjust your level of direction as needed during the actual session. You do not have to try this on your own! Quality camps have mentors or supervisors who will help you through this difficult transition, so be sure to ask their advice before and during the session.
Find out how and when others will be informed of your promotion. Make sure to ask the hiring director when your responsibilities go into effect (especially for preseason duties) and where you fall on the organization chart. This way you will know who you report to and who reports to you.
Once You Arrive at Camp
Be professional by establishing a dialog with anyone you are responsible for. This will start a nonconfrontational parallel process of communication. Set up individual or group meetings and discuss goals and how they will be evaluated. Elicit feedback on what they think could be changed to improve the schedule or camper concerns. Research shows that those who believe their organization has a caring climate are more satisfied with their supervisors (Wang, 2012).
Your new position may or may not have been a competition among staff, but know that accepting a promotion may hurt someone’s feelings or inadvertently cause some staff tension. Concentrate on what you can control, and don’t be initially stymied by unflattering comments made by other staff. Don’t compromise your job performance because someone has been there longer or is older. Years of experience do not automatically equal job advancement! Some of the most successful camp professionals in the world had to negotiate this transition, and their leadership ability is often attributed to what they learned because of promotion struggles.
To negotiate your role transition, you will need to establish cultural credibility by making sure your staff or activity assistants know your philosophy for program implementation will be as good as, or better than, the old way of doing things — even if you are replacing a camp legend. This should include a full explanation of policies and procedures, what resources staff can use, your expectations for performance, and the costs of decision making. Do not be intimidated by your job description! Defining your role in a new position is an ongoing process, and initial goals may change during the summer. If you initially lack sufficient knowledge to do the job successfully, be upfront with your supervisor so your inexperience will not cause frustration or a diminished level of self-confidence.
Every business has moments of crisis staffing. Camp is no different, and sometimes an unexpected job vacancy requires the camp to ask someone to immediately step into a new role. When this occurs, one of two things will happen. Either the job will be developed around an existing staff person (evolved job), or it will be created for a staff person (opportunistic hire). This process is called the creation of idiosyncratic jobs, and according to leaders in business, it is a widespread practice in today’s job market (Rousseau, Ho, & Greenberg, 2006). Even if you are thrust into a new position, take the time to negotiate expectations and be sure to get workable parameters established before implementing your new directives.
You will gain respect of other camp staff if you show a consistent desire to achieve excellence, communicate with respect, and demonstrate your abilities by being human. If something goes wrong and you get an undesired response from campers or staff, do not interpret this as a failure. Leadership development is not a one-time pass/fail subject. It is a lengthy progression of experiences that define your ability to help others. Learn from it and realize you are modeling a difficult process, which may take time for others to understand.
Once you get past the initial stages of learning the new job, it is important to remember campers have limited time to be at camp so you need to maximize their experience by empowering other staff to help you. To effectively accomplish this, incorporate these three practices: information sharing, autonomy through boundaries, and team accountability. Information sharing involves providing potentially sensitive information about campers, cost restrictions, or program quality expectations. Be sure to follow HIPAA privacy laws as they pertain to your data. Autonomy through boundaries refers to camp practices that encourage autonomous action in regard to work procedures and areas of responsibility. Team accountability involves the perception that staff of camper groups are the focal point of decision making, but they are supported by individual and specialty area ideas (Seibert, 2004).
Now that you know the skills needed for a smooth job change, ask yourself key question #1: What am I trying to achieve? You want to identify some tangible goals for your job that will allow you to meet the camp’s expectations. These will not likely appear on a job description because camps don’t normally include specific ways for each staff member to accomplish their tasks. Your dilemma is to find out what the motivating factors are for each group (or staff member) and match them to your skills. This may sound like mission impossible, but remember, the camp hired you for a reason. Someone there has evaluated your potential and believes you can do this new job even if you have self-doubt. Do not limit your skills self-assessment to common benchmarks like certifications and education. Be sure to include other leadership traits like honesty, dedication, camp knowledge, approachability, good communication, or listening skills.
Ultimately, you will be respected for who you are and what you produce. Mistakes can be minimized if you create a personal action plan or outline for task implementation. This is not like a homework assignment or term paper, but do not procrastinate in formulating how you are going to do your job. Gather as much information as you can before you speak, and then be very clear with your directives. Camp is an industry where problems occur every day, so you must be ready to make intelligent decisions even if you are not completely comfortable with the new job.
Key question #2: How am I going to be competent in doing my job if I have never done it before? Sometimes you have to fake it to make it. Getting used to a new job takes time, and until you gain enough experience to predict problems, you must rely on what you know. You can reduce the slope of your learning curve and increase your leadership potential by supplementing camp knowledge with management techniques that are self-generated.
Here are ten suggestions for implementing your new role in camp:
- Be intentional with your actions — what internal filters are you checking before decisions are made?
- Know you are being observed and do not regress by disrespecting camp rules.
- Commit to being an active leader. Demonstrate you want the new job by showing you have sweat equity in what you are asking.
- Learn everything you can about the new position and be honest with questions you don’t have an immediate answer to. Make sure you follow through with answers. Not once in a while, but all the time.
- Take command of meetings. Start on time, have an agenda, stick to the topic, keep comments brief, and strive for a resolution or follow up.
- When talking with other staff about important material, be prepared to present it in different ways to reach all personalities and learning styles.
- Model the desired behavior you want to see, and correct others until their actions become habit.
- Provide emotional and substantive support by being involved in all aspects of each activity.
- Take the time to have fun. Show other staff you are still the same person from last summer even though you have a different job.
- During difficult times, deflect negative comments. Do not get caught up in emotional discussions you can’t win. Do an evaluation on how the situation came to be, and do not become swayed by disgruntled followers.
Being promoted gives you more responsibility, but it does not guarantee results. Approach your new position with a motto of “service above self.” This means you will have to make choices for the campers above and beyond your personal desires even if it conflicts with your social agenda. Typical areas where staff struggle include: getting enough sleep, not checking phone messages, ignoring texts and tweets, being separated from a significant other, not getting much down time, covering for other staff, being sensitive to others’ needs when tired, etc.
Recent research behind job design has established mechanisms through which job characteristics affect employee outcomes such as performance and well-being. It goes on to say the relationship between job control and employee satisfaction was mediated by skill utilization (Holman, 2011). The good news for you is camp intentionally promotes staff to stimulate the learning process.
If you understand your former role was a leadership stepping stone, and you embrace your new responsibilities as a challenge to acquire new management techniques, then you will have a better comfort level for being in charge of your former peers. Start as early as possible to establish good communication with your staff, and intentionally decide what you want to achieve. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but have a plan if your initial objective is not met. Set an example of what you want in return by empowering staff to make decisions through information sharing, autonomy, and accountability. Lastly, remember you are going to be evaluated on everything, so think of your job responsibilities before you act on personal desires. Congratulations on your promotion and know your contributions, no matter how difficult, will help campers to learn life lessons through the camp experience.
Holman, D. P. T. (2011). Job design and the employee innovation process: The mediating role of learning strategies. Journal of Business and Psychology, 177-178.
Rousseau, D., Ho, V., Greenberg, J. (2006). I-deals: Idiosyncratic terms in employment relationships. The Academy of Management Review. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.199.5484&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Scott E. Seibert, S. R. (2004). Taking empowerment to the next level: A multiple- level model of empowerment. The Academy of Management Journal, 332-336.
Wang, Y, and Hsieh, H. (2012). Toward a better understanding of the link between ethical climate and job satisfaction: A multilevel analysis. Journal of Business Ethics, 535-545.
Greg Cronin of GC Training Solutions is a certified camp director and staff trainer with over thirty years of staff training experience. For more information on consultant services, trainings, workshops, conferences, or articles, please visit www.GCtrainingsolutions.com. To contact Greg directly, please call 703.395.6661 or e-mail Greg@GCtrainingsolutions.com.
Originally published in the 2014 May/June Camping Magazine
Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts