Survivor, the long-running CBS reality show, has captivated audiences for 45 seasons — but like with so many other forms of entertainment, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the series to a halt for 17 months following its landmark 40th season.
Upon the launch of season 41, Jeff Probst, the show’s host — and dare I say “camp director” — noted the new season would represent the dawn of a "new era of Survivor." It was evident that the global landscape had shifted, and Survivor needed to evolve to resonate with changing times and demographics.
Embracing this transformative spirit has proven successful, with Survivor experiencing an impressive 83 percent increase in viewership, as reported by Variety.
Reflecting on the idea of evolving into a new era, I draw parallels to my experience at Jeff Lake Camp, where I serve as an assistant director. Established in 1958, the camp faced its first COVID-19 pandemic summer in 2020. I view the period from 1958 to 2019 as our inaugural era and consider the present time as the commencement of a new era in camping. This mindset has enabled me to approach the evolving landscape of staff hiring, facilitation, mentoring, and management with resilience and adaptability.
By embracing the reality that the camp industry no longer mirrors its first 100+ years, I am better equipped to navigate change and cater to the needs of a new generation of staff that joins us each year. According to findings from MY VA360 Research, the trajectory for success in most businesses typically emerges after seven to 10 years, with the initial phase primarily focused on finding direction and solidifying the business as a viable entity. Although 1958-2019 is 61 years, in many ways, this parallels our journey in redefining our staffing models now that our direction and business model is crystallized.
As it relates to staffing, adapting to new challenges has forced me to embrace an approach I call "the Kumbaya balance." This relates to the delicate equilibrium required to manage and engage Gen Z during the summer. This balancing act presents a complex paradox: giving to our staff wholeheartedly but not excessively, fostering closeness with staff without overstepping, and empowering staff and campers to contribute without relinquishing authority. Here are some of the ways in which I've implemented this new philosophy.
1. Identify for your staff the difference between a “job requirement” and a “job injustice.”
Gen Z sometimes has trouble identifying when it is appropriate to speak up. They are an incredibly vocal generation, which has so many benefits. They stand up to global issues in ways that generations before them did not.
That being said, they are now taking this into the workplace and not managing their professional relationships well. For example, if you tell a staff member in their contract that they will have a half hour break every day and you don’t give them that break, that is an injustice. If you walk past soccer and they are sitting on the side in the shade and you ask them to get up, that is not an injustice — that is simply a job requirement. Teach them this distinction at staff orientation.
2. Over-explain your staff requirements and camp structure at orientation.
Some Gen-Z staff members will not hesitate to call you out if you didn’t fully prepare them for what is in store for them during the summer months. Over-explain the roles of your admin team, their job requirements, the structure of the day, and more. This will set you up for success when you may need to have a challenging follow-up. You can point to something that was covered in orientation as during evaluations, and arm yourself with evidence. Gen Z likes process.
3. Give staff a safe space for growth instead of setting goals.
While goal-setting is a common practice during staff training, this can actually come with a lot of anxiety and failure. Let’s say at orientation you ask a staff member what their goal is for the first week of camp, and they say that they want to know their camper’s names by the end of the first day. Then if they don’t know everyone’s names the morning of day two, it feels like they have already failed in the first 24 hours. Instead, using this example, teach them the transferable skills of getting to know their campers’ names quickly without attaching a deadline to it.
4. Hire a person to be in charge of staff engagement during the summer that makes sense for your camp culture and engagement needs.
It shouldn’t be an “adult” director that they don’t often hear from or communicate with. Make it someone their age that understands the language they are speaking, the music they are listening to, the shows they are binge watching, and more. Have this person check in with new staff members, create programming to facilitate staff socialization, keep your camp on the pulse of what’s current, and more. Your staff will appreciate and respect your camp’s brand for giving them a leader that makes sense. This also allows your more “senior leadership” to remain in that role. If the person who does the firing also does the fun staff engagement, it can be perceived as a mixed message.
This is my favorite part of the Kumbaya balance and something that took me four summers to really nail down.
5. Be a camp director first . . . that your staff also happens to like — not someone that your counselors like who also happens to be their camp director.
When we were first learning about how to newly engage staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a huge emphasis on staff appreciation and satisfaction. It took me four years to realize we swung the pendulum too far. If we focus too much on staff appreciation at the expense of actually getting what we need from our staff, we will have no grounds to stand on when we need to provide critical feedback. If we do a great job as camp directors, they should like us (or want to do great work for us) naturally.
Find the right Kumbaya balance of making sure your camp administration isn’t trying to be their friend first and their boss second. For me, embracing the Kumbaya balance has proven instrumental in navigating the complexities of managing and engaging Gen-Z staff. This approach serves as a guiding principle in fostering a dynamic and harmonious camp environment. Just as Survivor has embraced change and emerged stronger (wouldn’t we all faint if we had an enrollment growth rate of 83 percent?), adapting to the unique demands of the present era will empower us to thrive and evolve in the ever-changing landscape of the camp industry.
This blog was written on behalf of Project Real Job whose purpose is to support camps in the their efforts to recruit, hire, and retain staff.
Adam Baranker is an assistant director of Jeff Lake Camp, the youth engagement coordinator for Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a Zoom trivia challenge and virtual escape room host, and a creator of memories. At Jeff Lake, he oversees the middle school boys program, the staff hiring, and the social media and marking. Similarly, at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, Adam oversees the 8th–12th grade teen programming and assists in the 3rd–7th grade engagement activities. The combined skills from the camp and youth group industries lend themselves to a successful Zoom hosting experience, where he provides trivia challenges, game show-style competitions, virtual escape rooms, and a variety of other engaging content. His facilitation abilities foster high energy, exciting sessions perfect for corporate events, kid or adult birthdays, family game nights, bar-bat mitzvahs, or whatever other celebrations or new experiences might be in order. Adam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Ramapo for Children in Rhinebeck, New York.