Hi Bob!
I am new to camp life, specifically as a new camp director. I have inherited an administrative staff that grew up at camp and spent many years working with the former director. They all have a serious attachment to the former director, and I do not get the respect of my staff. I will be re-interviewing everyone soon, and was wondering if you had some feedback? I have been feeling the need to clean house and get new staff.

Thanks so much!

Dear Destiny,
You are raising an issue that I hear frequently — new director inherits a staff with an allegiance to the former director. You did not mention the circumstances under which the former director left. For example, was she forced out or did she retire? Was she healthy or sick? Will she have some ongoing involvement with camp or is she going to be totally absent? These conditions will probably have some impact on your move into the director's position; even without knowing those details, there are some basic practices I can suggest that can make a significant difference in your transition.

First, I notice in your e-mail to me that you refer to the attachment of the staff to the former director as "serious." By that I assume you mean "strong" or "well developed." My response to that is, "Well, I would hope so!" After all they have experienced at camp and with the former director, there would have to be something terribly wrong if they didn't have such an attachment!

Understandably, you may be intimidated by the strength of the connection the key staff have to the former director, and rather than acknowledging and validating that attachment, you may be giving them the impression that they have to hide their feelings when they are around you. This is dangerous. Feelings that go underground and that are not expressed in an appropriate and open way create conspiracies. By appearing or acting threatened, you may be unwittingly encouraging a mindset where members of the administrative staff feel they have to make an artificial "choice" that might sound something like, "Either we love and remain loyal to the former director, or we betray her by accepting this new director." This is a common, but counter-productive and needless way of thinking. The best way to prevent this "choice" is for you to acknowledge the strengths of the former director and not just allow, but invite members of the staff to tell you what they admired about the former director and what they will miss about her!

Meet Individually With Staff

I would meet individually with each key staff member to talk about their personal history with camp and their experience with the former director. I would honor and appreciate how long they've been at camp, the true feeling they have for the place, and the way they understand its value (which, after all, is the value we all hope to continue to have for successive crops of new campers!). I would ask their opinion about what they thought needed to stay the same and, if this were a perfect world, what changes or improvements they would like to see and why. I would ask them about their personal goals for the summer and bring out in the open what it is they will miss about the former director. It is important to be a good listener in these meetings.

Once you allow people the chance to talk about their feelings openly, those feelings become less potentially subversive. By meeting with each person individually you not only get more honesty from them, but you also begin to form your own relationship with this staff. In these individual meetings, which should be done face-to-face as much as humanly possible, it would also be important after you have talked about the points I mentioned to remind each staff member that you are, of course, not the former director and could never do things the way she did. To reiterate that you are your own person with your own style and strengths and weaknesses may sound like common sense, but it is the timing of your remarks that is important, coming, as I said, after you have had a chance to get each staff member to talk to you first about their experience and feelings.

Meet With Entire Staff

After that, I would have a group meeting where I would bring up the former director. Invite your staff to talk about what they will miss about her: what worked well, what didn't work well, and what traditions or rituals she started or embellished. If possible, all this should be done well before pre-camp, such as over a weekend in April or May. Then set a few new goals and have your team introduce new program ideas that everyone can rally behind. Tell your staff that you will be evaluating each one of them based on their performance and ability to meet the personal and group goals they have set with you. If the camp doesn't already do end-of-the-summer evaluations, plan on starting that practice and let everyone know about it at this meeting. (I firmly believe every camp ought to have an end-of-the-summer evaluation for all staff.) Keep the meeting simple and stay focused on your two biggest objectives: 1) building credibility and establishing more trust with your staff; and 2) beginning to introduce your own agenda and working style.

Build Trust

Building trust usually takes approximately three years, but getting the correct balance is important. By that I mean it is just as important to address poor performance and insubordination directly and as soon as you see it in an effort to build trust and credibility. (In fact, doing so is a critical way to let your staff know you are also a force to be taken seriously!)

Remember, too, that even with all your efforts to reach out to and cultivate relationships with the staff you inherited, some people will simply elect to leave when there is a change at the top. Some people will be so identified with the outgoing director they simply cannot tolerate the change. This is a natural process, so if people leave before you come on board or after one summer, reassure yourself that it is probably for the best.

Also, while you may eventually need to "clean house," being able to retain some former staff members can help you hold onto customs and rituals at camp that have become part of its history and tradition. On the other hand, you may wish to start a new tradition. In that case, develop as many older campers and younger staff members as you can as they will become your loyal supporters of the future.

I also suggest that you bring in at least one "right hand person" with you so you're not alone. This should be someone you've worked closely with before who is an ally. This person should be introduced to the other administrative staff early and should be included in that first meeting in April or May.

Good luck in your new camp adventure!

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. 

Originally published in the 2010 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.