A Lens for Supervisor Success: Meaningful Influence

Jenn Bender
January 2014

I spent my later teenage summers working at Camp Friendship, where hundreds of guests — adults and children with special needs — enjoy recreational activities. After serving as a junior counselor and counselor, I was excited to be offered supervisor jobs; I had the chance to lead cabin counseling teams, coordinate programs and dozens of program staff, and support client needs by being the go-to person for scores of counselors and hundreds of our guests’ families and caregivers. All this before I was twenty years old. I don’t know exactly what Chet (Laurie “Chet” Tschetter, the program director at Friendship Ventures and former president of American Camp Association [ACA], Northland) saw in me, but I’ll always be grateful to her for these opportunities.

There are so many reasons being a camp supervisor is a great opportunity — it enables dedicated staff to expand their impact on campers, shows professional growth and commitment on a resume, and provides skills in youth development and leadership, to name a few. Yet, I believe many camp supervisors face a shared challenge — the ability to have influence without authority. When this challenge is addressed through training and support, it provides one of the greatest professional development opportunities around.

Why Influence?

Let’s take this apart. Influence is about achieving shared goals through working with others. Some people equate inf luence with persuasion or power, but these definitions can get muddled with images of manipulation and corporate hierarchy. Inf luence requires neither of these. My favorite definition of leadership, from Babson College (n.d.), calls out the value of influence: “Leadership is the ability to influence others to obtain goals and objectives without incurring hostility.” Authority can refer to being “in charge” or other visible role-defined power.

This matters because, at camp, it is common for supervisors to be counselors’ peers. Often they’re the same age or classmates in school, and very commonly they were cabin co-counselors just the year before. In my case at Camp Friendship, I often supervised small and large groups of staff who were older and more experienced than I was. Many of our international staff had extraordinary life experiences; many counseling staff were far more knowledgeable about specific aspects of supporting people with special needs; and program staff were nearly unanimously far more creative in programs than I could imagine being. And while perhaps it shouldn’t have mattered, it did matter from my viewpoint that I was a physically small, young woman. Of course, I didn’t think about these factors when I was there, but I did think about how I could get my job done the best way possible.

Camp supervisors often face a range of challenges that mismatch with traditional forms of authority, even when they officially have the authority that comes with the title and job of supervisor. To be successful, supervisors need to align their staff to work toward shared goals. They must use influence in order to maximize staff performance, increase staff engagement, and ensure staff are teaming together in ways that put safety first.

Using influence without authority, therefore, is highly relevant for supervisor success. Fortunately, influence is a critical professional skill at all levels — we use influence to build networks and get informational interviews, to gain input from busy colleagues who are not directly responsible to us, and to get support from our supervisors. Camp supervisors can and should get a “leg up” on developing influence skills; it helps them succeed at camp and beyond.

Influence at Camp

One of my favorite ACA standards is HR-19, “Supervisor Training” (2012). It’s so challenging to do this well, and whenever I visit a camp, I hear a new and creative approach. But I also hear that, as a field, while we’re good at teaching about campers’ safety and learning, activity policies and goals, and camp norms, teaching effective supervision skills can be outside our comfort zone. Thinking and talking about influence can help; after all, supervisors should interact with staff to achieve shared goals, and stronger formal authority isn’t the solution. Here are a few opportunities for influence:

  • Supervisors provide feedback that maximizes staff performance (not just a written evaluation, but meaningful, growth-focused feedback that staff want to implement). This translates to performance improvement, which translates to (a) campers being more safe and successful, and (b) staff being more successful (gaining skills, chances for promotion, and recommendations). Supervisors and staff share these goals.
  • If staff are showing evidence of burnout or disengagement, supervisors can inspire, motivate, or reengage staff, which translates to better camper and staff experiences — again, shared goals.
  • When staff are experiencing conflict, supervisors can motivate harmony with a focus on shared goals — the campers’ experience.

The examples above are just a few of the many opportunities that can be hard for supervisors to react to, and therefore often get a “band-aid” approach or less. But they shouldn’t. We can do more for our camps, campers, and staff. Applying strong interpersonal skills informed by influence skills can help.

Building Blocks of Influence

It all starts with being nice. Really, it’s true. Experts Cuddy, Kohut, and Neffinger (2013) share in Harvard Business Review that first and foremost, effective influence skills start with people’s perceptions of our likability and competence, or warmth and strength. And of these, warmth comes first — it is the characteristic judged first in interactions. The authors share that “warmth is the conduit of influence” upon which people then apply perceptions of our strength, or competence. So what does this mean at camp? Supervisors should be genuine and likable, people-focused, and demonstrate a positive attitude. Fortunately, camp professionals screen for these characteristics well.

When camp supervisors are already friends with camp staff, there is an added layer of complexity; perceptions of likability are impacted by social interactions outside the camp setting and supervisor relationship. Fortunately, supervisors can demonstrate competence from within the camp setting and supervisor relationship. Younger supervisors are often (neurologically) motivated to “fit in” with peers, and this sometimes translates to a more laidback approach. (Note, I’m not suggesting it leads to lower competence, but rather that it can lead to lower perceived competence if supervisors downplay their skills and roles for the sake of matching their peers.) So, talking explicitly about the role of perceived competence in helping supervisors achieve camp goals is valuable. Competence is easy to demonstrate in common ways — standing up straight, speaking in a confident voice, and moving in meaningful (not fidgety) ways. As camp leaders, it is important to build the confidence of supervisors (after all, you hired them because you are confident in them) because when they feel confident, they look confident.

Influence as Reciprocity: Targeted Opportunities for Building Influence

Demonstrating warmth and strength is a proactive foundation for inf luence. In important and chal lenging situations, supervisors may employ a more targeted approach. Cohen and Bradford’s (2013) Influence Model offers a structured approach. It relies on a few key concepts:

  1. We’re most likely to be successful in working toward shared goals when we assume (and believe) that others are allies or potential allies. (If a camp supervisor believes staff aren’t allies in meeting camp goals and camper needs, there’s a problem!)
  2. Knowing your own goals and priorities enables success. (There’s no use working to improve the performance of a challenging staff member until you know what success looks like.)
  3. Perspectives matter — understanding (or at least hypothesizing) others’ viewpoints and motivations strengthens our interactions.
  4. People maintain figurative “banks” in their conceptions of others. If your “account” has a “credit” (i.e. if someone feels really positively about you), he or she is more likely to partner with you, work really hard if you ask, or go out of his or her way for you. Note that this is not about doing favors for others or having a good reputation. Rather, this is about building trust and goodwill on a thoughtful, individual basis. This principle of reciprocity — that “one good turn deserves another” — is a central tenet.

So the question becomes, “How can supervisors build credit with staff?” It depends. Most people are motivated by money, the traditional form of currency. But in addition, each of us values other currencies. According to Cohen and Bradford’s (2013) Influence Model, there are five common types of currencies.

  • Inspiration-related currencies, such as vision and excellence, are common at camp; after all, these values are related to doing well for the greater good. Appealing to a counselor’s focus on equitable treatment of campers may open him up to engaging in the difficult process of accepting and applying critical feedback.
  • Task-related currencies include getting learning, assistance, or information, often through transactional experiences. A wise supervisor might find time to work side-by-side with the program leader who values gaining assistance, and thereby create both positive feelings and an opportunity to have an open, solution-focused discussion about her apparent frustration with some counselors.
  • Position-related currencies, such as recognition and visibility, appeal to many staff. Highlighting positive staff performance is always a good practice, but this is especially true for those who value these currencies. (This is really important if staff feel passed-over for the opportunity to serve as a supervisor.) Of course, staff should never be highlighted without truly strong performance, and supervisors should never highlight one person so much that others feel bad. A little recognition can go a long way. For example, if a supervisor asks a boating instructor to give a waterfront safety presentation at a staff meeting, that recognition might be what inspires the instructor to happily and diligently complete his daily maintenance checks — a chore he owes to the supervisor.
  • Relationship-related currencies include feeling understood and accepted. We all know supervisors should get to know staff individually, following up after weekends and time off about important events, using small talk to build rapport, and addressing individual goals. These strategies become especially important for staff motivated by relationships.
  • Personal-related currencies include gratitude and ownership of projects. Unlike those motivated by position-related currencies, these staff do not necessarily look for public recognition, but rather for personal engagement. A supervisor might spend one-on-one time with a counselor to thank her for a job well done with a challenging camper and to ask for her assistance (i.e. ownership) in advising that camper’s next cabin team.

Of course, people are motivated by many different values. This list is not all-inclusive or meant to be diagnostic of a single value per person; instead, it’s a framework for trading in currencies that matter to people. If you watch and listen closely, you can usually make a good guess about which currencies motivate particular staff members. The counselor who describes working at camp as a commitment to children of all backgrounds having environmental stewardship experiences likely values inspiration-related currencies. The program leader who always volunteers to share a proud moment at staff meetings probably values position-related currencies. The lifeguard who spends a lot of time catching up with all her peers (not just her friends) at the start of each camp session probably values relationship-related currencies. Supervisors can consider staff members’ context and perspective to give something in a currency that matters to staff. It’s an art, not a science.


While the concepts of influence and reciprocity may strike some people as overly deliberate, the reality is that the greater good of camp deserves great deliberateness. When I was twenty and supervising people who had more skill, experience, and knowledge than me, I learned that supervision isn’t about being in charge (which was the image that I grew up believing). Instead, supervision is about helping staff make camp the best place it can be. And that’s what influence is for — achieving shared goals.


ACA. (2012). Accreditation process guide. Monterey, CA: Healthy Learning.

Babson College. (n.d.). Joint management consulting field experience. Retrieved from http://educationabroad.babson.edu/_customtags/ct_FileRetrieve.cfm?File_ID=06047B4804700407020D0D071A0701040E14770B060B1C7F77750903027473027202717D077607

Cuddy, A., Kohut, M., and Neffinger, J. (2013, July-August). Connect then lead. Harvard Business Review.

Cohen, A.R., and Bradford, D.L. (2005). The influence model: Using reciprocity and exchange to get what you need. Journal of Organizational Excellence. Retrieved from www.influencewithoutauthority.com

Jenn Bender is CEO of New Sector Alliance, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening communities by providing experiential training that helps people persist and thrive as social sector professionals. Jenn serves on the Board of Directors of the American Camp Association and the Seven Generations Board of City Year Boston. Reach out to Jenn at jbender@newsector.org.

Originally published in the 2014 January/February Camping Magazine