Dear Camp Director:

No doubt some of the greatest demands you face are attracting, motivating, and retaining summer staff. Among the challenges are aligning your counselors to mission and helping them to engage with peers and campers. But doing so will maximize you staff's power to positively affect young lives and help you meet your goals for a successful season.

Motivational Interviewing

While this discussion may sound academic and consecutive, it really is neither. To a large extent, each ingredient exists simultaneously in the grand stew that is the creation of masterful camp directors. The march to opening day begins when you interview and hire your first new or returning counselor.

Taking a page from clinical psychology, we can apply a dialogue technique that invites prospective staff members to articulate what they hope to achieve and what changes they want to elicit in their campers (MINT, 2019). Asking open-ended questions about any candidate's motivation for applying to work next summer is likely a practice already in place at your camp. Yet, like so many other things "camp,"intentionality brings it to life and meaning.

Many, if not most, of your counselors belong to Generation Z (GenZ or iGen) — those born between 1995 and 2010, with the oldest being 24 years of age. Understanding the makeup of this cohort will allow you to refine your management practices in ways that meet both your needs and theirs.

Understanding Gen Z

It is fair to say that your staff is digitally connected. Indeed, the first smartphone was introduced when they were infants, thus they have literally grown up attached to screens (phones, televisions, laptops, desktops, pods, and pads). So, figuring out your camp's approach with regard to the use of technology is good practice.

Also important is recognizing that, while this group is predisposed to digital proficiency, they may be the first to raise concerns about their own usage. And they tend to place a high value on personal, offline relationships. That's good news for your camp and your campers.

Ethnic diversity is also a hallmark of Gen Z. In fact, almost half of them (48 percent) are non-Caucasian. They are further defined by privacy, cautiousness (they grew up in a time of economic recession), practicality, and thoughts of the future. Interestingly, they are said to more closely resemble their grandparents than the Millennials who immediately preceded them (Manning-Schaffel, 2018).

Finally and essentially, Gen Zers work hard (when incentivized) and place a premium on skill development, self-improvement, and face-to-face interaction (CSP, 2019). They are imminently coachable and will probably look to you for guidance.

Managers as Coaches

Now that you know whom you'll be hiring and working with, consider what type of manager you would like to be. Here a coaching paradigm pays dividends. Generally, most people would rather be "coached"than "managed."Even the most talented athletes on the planet have coaches!

There is no shortage of effective coaching/ leadership characteristics to consider. Here is a curated list of just some.

In his June 2019 Inc. magazine article "If You Don't Do These 5 Things for Your Employees, It's Time to Rethink the Way You Lead,"speaker and author Scott Mautz reminds us, "The worst leaders are remembered for what they did to their people, the best for what they did for their people."He says, "As a leader it's easy to focus solely on tending to the business and your career, forgetting that tending to your people first will take care of both.”

Mautz advocates for building a trustbased relationship with staff (he calls it a "MOAT"— managing on absolute trust); delivering "insightful, actionable, even brave, feedback"that articulates what they do great (and should do more of ) and what might be holding them back; caring as much about your employees' careers as your own; getting "skeletons out of their closet by explaining what they know they need to work on but may be afraid to admit”; and teaching them in teachable moments (Mautz, 2019).

Effective leaders (or coaches) also bring their whole selves to work, play for the team, seek to serve, believe in their people, and facilitate a shared purpose. Marcel Schwantes, founder and chief human officer of Leadership From the Core, calls these "rare habits"(Schwantes, 2018).

Last but not least, Shana Dressler, in her article "Ten Human Skills for the Future of Work,"focuses on empathy (including listening, appreciation, self-awareness, judgment, and presence) and growth mindsets, emotional intelligence, effective communication (such as intention, organization, and affirmation), curiosity and instigation, strategic analysis and analytical thinking, complex problem-solving, conflict resolution, and negotiation/persuasion (Dressler, 2019).

Organizational Dynamics

The pioneering work of George Labovitz, PhD, a former Boston University business professor, founder of Organizational Dynamics, Inc., and co-author of the book The Power of Alignment, provides some valuable advice on how best to advance the work of your staff and your camp. I recently had an opportunity to sit down with him to talk about alignment and engagement. Here is what I learned.

The Power of Alignment

You can take three important steps to promote alignment of your counselors to your mission:

  1. Delineate the "main thing.”
  2. Develop organizational competence.
  3. Acquire the tools and skills to execute strategy.

Delineating the "Main Thing”

Delineation implies a process of sifting and sorting through the many goals you may have for your summer camp. This is a critical exercise that, hopefully, will allow you to identify and articulate a simple yet important overarching theme against which you can measure the importance of any particular initiative or task. For example, Labovitz told me that the United States Department of Food and Agriculture stated its main thing as "end hunger.”

It's hard to be more precise than that.

Other organizations may have their main thing as their name, such as Save the Children.

For a summer camp, the main thing may revolve around camper safety, fun, and personal growth. Seeds of it may be in your mission statement, but not necessarily. Whatever your main thing is, or turns out to be, share it so that your counselors, customers, and families will know what you stand for. Next, as long as it remains viable, stick to it! Or as a former colleague liked to tell staff during orientation, "It's important to keep the main thing the main thing!”

What is the American Camp Association's main thing? "Enriching Lives, Changing the World"(ACA, 2019).

Developing Organizational Competence

Competence drives outcomes — and a big part of attaining competence lies in the development of strategy. As the implementation arm of the main thing, your strategic plan drives decision-making and, quite literally, informs what you and your staff will do every day.

To be effective, strategies should be clearly defined and capable of being rapidly deployed.

Of course, strategies can and should change over time. This natural evolution reflects growth in organizations and refined ways of meeting the needs of employees and customers. This is called continuous process improvement (CPI).

"CPI isn't a one-time initiative. You don't just optimize a certain process once, pat yourself on the back, and call it a day. Once you succeed with a process improvement initiative, you need to periodically look back and see whether there are any changes you could make …"(Tallyfy, 2019).

As an example, Labovitz offers that, at FedEx, competence, or strategy, was defined as "People, Service, Profit,"with profit being the dependent variable, or the value that is determined by the other (independent) variables.

Finally, your employees must be familiar with the strategy. "If only ten percent of the workforce knows the strategy, the result is misalignment,"Labovitz adds.

ACA's strategy is reflected in how it defines its work: "As a leading authority for summer camps and youth development, ACA works to preserve, promote, and improve the camp experience. ACA is a comprehensive resource for parents and families, residential camps, day camps, and travel camps, summer camp staff, and after-school and out-of-school programs"(Seobility, 2019).

Acquiring the Tools and Skills to Execute Strategy

Strategies are executed at the bottom, not the top. That is another reason to be certain that the rank and file have a good handle on your main thing and the strategy to pursue it. The tools and skills needed overlap with the 21st-century thinking we all talk about — specifically critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity — which correlate highly with the leadership traits previously discussed.

Alignment, Labovitz says, exists both vertically, such as in the military and healthcare, where the price of misalignment is too high (I would submit that the same is true for camp), and horizontally, which ensures your organization is customer centric. (Do you understand your customer requirements and feed them across departments?)

As I pointed out in Part 1 of this series, collaboration does not necessarily come naturally, as people in different groups may hold suspicions about those in other groups. That is why, during staff training, it is helpful to transform "groups"into "teams."How does that happen? According to social psychology, there are two types of groups: small groups and primary groups. "Small group has the criterion of small size such that there is face-to-face communication among all members of the group. Primary group is a small group with the additional criteria that there is a comradeship, loyalty, and common sense of values among members. An example of primary group is family . . . All primary groups are small groups but not all small groups are primary groups"(Rao, 2019).

Fortunately for us, work groups can be primary groups as well. Which brings us back to teamwork.

According to Brian Gast of Quadrant, an executive coaching firm, "There is a clear and compelling difference between group dynamics and team dynamics. Knowing the difference may determine your effectiveness as a leader.

"A group is merely a 'community' of people who have something in common, leaving individual members to muddle along as best they can. A team, on the other hand, shares a common goal toward which all members strive, creating a dynamic of dependency toward success — and perhaps reward, as well . . .

"The differences inherent in the two are fundamental, while the difference in performance can be huge and consequential to the success of your team or organization. "How do you know whether you're leading a team or a group?"The answer lies within such constructs as trust, communication, conflict, clarity, competition, creativity, accountability, and retention (Gast, 2015).

A Cautionary Tale

For those of you who make traditional team-building exercises a part of staff training, I'll share some words of guidance from a July 2019 article from The Conversation. It says, "Many of us can recall team-building exercises that seemed like a waste of time. One problem is overcoming the natural human tendency to hang out with those people we already feel comfortable with . . . . We suggest there is a better team-building approach. It doesn't involve bicycles or obstacle courses or whitewater rafting. It doesn't even necessarily involve your whole team.

"It's about understanding that teams are social networks built on connections between individuals. It involves deep one-on-one conversations, designed to get people out of their comfort zones . . . .

"Research suggests psychological safety is crucial in the work environment. There is much more to team success than simply focusing on the task at hand. Team members need to talk regularly and be comfortable raising difficult issues. Feeling able to make a mistake and express oneself freely improves team performance and the ability to innovate"(Pollack & Matous, 2019).

The Power of Engagment

Once you have alignment accounted for, you can more easily move your counselors toward engagement. One logically follows the other. "You can be engaged but not aligned, or not doing the right thing,"says Labovitz. Here again, some psychological theory may prove helpful.

Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs . . . Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization"(McLeod, 2018).

In contrast, Frederick Herzberg developed the "hygiene-motivation"or "two-factor"theory. Herzberg aimed to dissect employees' attitudes to their jobs, and to discover what prompted these attitudes and what impact they had on the person and their motivation to work. Subjects were asked what pleased and displeased them about their jobs. From their responses, Herzberg concluded that man has two sets of needs:

  • Lower-level needs as an animal to avoid pain and deprivation
  • Higher-level needs as a human being to grow psychologically

"Some factors in the workplace meet the first set of needs but not the second and vice versa. The first group of factors he called 'hygiene factors' and the second, 'motivators.'

"Herzberg also coined the term 'job enrichment,' a technique which grew out of the hygiene-motivation theory. Job enrichment involved including motivators in the design of jobs"(British Library, 2019).

The bottom line: motivating engagement has a lot to do with job satisfaction or the absence of dissatisfaction. It's important to keep tabs on how summer staff are feeling about their work at your camp. Labovitz suggests that a "participative"style of management permits people to design systems that influence outcomes. Or, as Donna Karlin, an executive coach from Ottawa, Canada, wrote in an article for FastCompany magazine, "It's about engagement, enthusiasm, the idea that 'I'm a part of this and I'm going to do my best to make it succeed.' How powerful would it be if you could engage the staff to that depth of and passion for what they do?"She also notes, "People tend to support what they help to build . . ."(Karlin, 2007).

For his part, Labovitz recounts stories of Bill Marriott asking kitchen workers in his hotels what they could be doing better — a great example of "management by wandering around"— and encourages us to inquire of employees what they like about their jobs (e.g., achievement, advancement, responsibility) and what they don't like about their jobs (e.g., monotony, bad pay, bad bosses, bad working conditions). He also reminds us that two factors appear regularly in measures of job satisfaction: when employees agree with the statements "My boss really cares about me as a person"and "I'm helping to move the organization in a positive direction.”

In short, be a driving force in motivating your staff to engage, not a restraining one!

Beginning With the End in Mind

Starting camp with clearly defined goals as to what you want to have accomplished by closing day is a good way to meet your expectations — ones that can be shaped by true alignment and engagement of staff, unleashing the power of them.



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  • Pollack, J. & Matous, P. (2019). Team-building exercises can be a waste of time. You achieve more by getting personal. The Conversation. Retrieved from
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  • Schwantes, M. (2018, April 28). How can you be sure someone has true leadership skills? Look for these 2 rare signs. Inc. Retrieved from how-can-you-be-sure-someone-has-trueleadership- skills-look-for-these-2-rare-signs.html
  • Seobility. (2019). SEO Checker. Retrieved from
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Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, is president/ director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing favorable youth outcomes and reducing risk. He is a consultant to camps on staff training and teen leadership programming and has broad experience as a camp director, school psychologist, and adolescent/family counselor. Stephen is a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at, NBC News Learn, and WebMD. He is also an expert partner at Risk Assistance Network & Exchange (RANE) and was national chairman and chief executive officer at SADD for more than 15 years. Additional information about Stephen's work can be found at

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Photo courtesy of Alford Lake Camp, Hope, Maine.