The Big Missteps in Camp Leadership Transition

Bob Ditter
November 2019

I remember the call clearly. It was in September about 10 years ago when my longtime camp friend and colleague, Dave Tager, called about the transition of leadership at the camp he and his wife, Shelley, had run for almost 25 years. Over the course of that time, Dave and Shelley had built their coed resident camp, now called Camp IHC, into a successful and highly reputable camp. After 25 years of being ultimately responsible for thousands of other people's children, Dave was ready to turn the reigns over to a talented young couple. As Dave said to me, "I love camp! I just don't like waking up in the middle of the night panicking about some situation that at 3:00 in the morning seems bigger than I am!"

The Tagers had become very close to Joel Rutkowski, a young man who over the years had grown up with the camp and taken on increasing amounts of responsibility and authority. Now that Joel had found a mate in Lauren, Dave and Shelley wanted to pass the directorship over to them. The line that both Dave and I now joke about in a good-natured way came on that same call when Dave said, "We're mostly all on the same page. I just think we need a little tweaking!" That "little tweaking" lasted for more than five years.

Therein lies the first misstep most camp professionals make regarding the transition of camp leadership: they sorely underestimate the time it takes to navigate that transition well, and they wait too long to start the process. In the past 10 years, I have helped many camps with their leadership transitions. Over that time, it has become clearer and clearer to me that most camp professionals don't fully grasp the complexity of leadership transition and, consequently, make many mistakes that make the process more challenging and less successful. What do I mean by "less successful?" From my personal experience, "less successful" means when:

  • Family members disown one another.
  • The transition fails and new directors give up and leave.
  • The culture at camp suffers and enrollment drops.
  • Longtime, talented senior leaders who have been extremely loyal to the camp over the years leave because the environment during transition has become so acrimonious or destructive.
  • In nonprofit agencies, longtime staff members of the camp refuse to embrace the new director and resist changes, even if their practices are detrimental to the children who attend.
  • A new director can't change a corrosive culture quick enough because they don't have allies on the staff and a camp gets hurt in some way.
  • The camp shutters its gates and stops operating.

The point of my writing is to lay out some of the challenges that come with the transition of camp leadership so that camps everywhere can approach leadership change in a more thoughtful and organized way — one that will lead to less drama and better outcomes.

Given that agency camps have a totally different set of variables that affect leadership change, most of my observations will be related to private camps, some family-held and some not; some for-profit and some board-run. However, all camps can benefit from learning about the pitfalls of leadership succession.

Misstep 1: Waiting Too Long

As Dave, Shelley, Joel, and Lauren can attest, managing the issues that come up in the transition of a camp's leadership takes time — more time than most camps imagine or plan for. First of all, camp is a consuming profession. Most directors live in a fish bowl during the summer, where their family life spills into their professional life and the awesome demands of taking on the responsibility of other people's children creates an intensity that shapes one's identity. Camp people don't just run their camps. They are shaped by and identify intensely with their work. If, as the saying goes, you are what you eat, then eventually you become what you do. Camp gives people a sense of purpose and meaning to their lives that can be hard to let go of and even more difficult to replace — which is exactly what has to happen before the leadership of any camp can be passed on. In my experience, plans for leadership transition at family-held, private camps takes conservatively between three and five years. The people taking over the leadership roles need to create relationships with parents, staff, senior staff, vendors, and other stakeholders who were the personal domain of the previous director. Building trust, winning people over, and creating new habits takes time. For example, parents who had for years called Dave or Shelley about their children continued to want to reach out to them even after the reins had been passed to Joel and Lauren. Trust and well-established habits go hand-in-hand, and changing those neural pathways takes time.

Misstep 2: Assuming Everyone Is Ready at the Same Time

One of the most frequent issues I have encountered in my work facilitating camp leadership change is the fact that the principals are not always ready at the same time. When couples run a camp together, one typically is ready before the other. Whoever has more of the "relationship side" of the work at camp — speaking with parents, cultivating donors, engaging directly with campers and staff — is usually the one who has a harder time letting go of those relationships and, consequently, camp. Again, this is not because of stubbornness or an inability to make room for new leaders. It is because those relationships create a deep sense of meaning and purpose for that director. Letting those personal relationships go, along with the pride of having had a hand in the "growing up" of so many people, needs to be grieved. It is a part of who you are. And grieving has a time table all its own. The emotional reality of the two co-directors often becomes diametrically opposed. One is tired, ready for relief, and eager to let go. The other is feeling all the things that grief brings: sadness, anger, fear, emptiness, and the like.

Another issue related to not being ready concerns younger family members — a son, daughter, niece, or nephew — who may not be mature enough, experienced enough, or just not at the right point in their own life to take over camp soon enough for the current directors. Allowing a young person who is getting ready to assume the awesome responsibility of camp the time to develop experience and confidence and build the relationships with all the various stakeholders takes time. It also takes a plan, which I will address below.

Misstep 3: Underestimating Family Dynamics

What family dynamics? Here are a few examples from my personal experience working with family-held and private, nonprofit camps:

  • A son-in-law comes into the family business with no camp experience and is given a position that other family members think he can't manage.
  • The rivalry between two siblings means they will never be able to work together unless they can iron out their long-standing grievances and mistrust.
  • The directors' son or daughter has felt neglected and, from their perspective, took a backseat to the camp their parents were running and had to share their parents with hundreds of other people's children.
  • A young man realizes he is gay and doesn't want the scrutiny of his life that camp often brings.
  • A half-brother or sister who has never been interested in camp finally sees the assets or possibilities they've been missing out on.
  • The tension and acrimony between a father and a son interferes with any practical planning for succession at camp.

Family dynamics that have been simmering below the surface for years tend to come out during times of extreme change, which is what camp leadership succession is. Because camp often comes with status and a certain lifestyle as well as the potential for a healthy income, or, in the case of privately owned camps, handsome assets, family rivalries, slights, and grievances are likely to be magnified when it comes time to think about passing the baton. This is why it helps to start the process of succession early. It also helps to have an outside professional facilitate that process — someone who knows both the complexities specific to camp businesses and to family dynamics. The sad truth is that about 70 percent of family-held businesses in the US do not survive leadership succession to the second generation (Fleming, 2000; Kappel, 2019).

Misstep 4: Underestimating Camp "Founder's Syndrome"

Camp Founder's Syndrome is the tendency of a person who has either founded a camp or has run one for seven years or more to hold onto their power or influence even after there has been a succession of leadership and they are no longer formally in charge. Most people who fall into this category are extremely energetic, charismatic, creative folks who bring a high degree of commitment to their camps. Their own concern is that the camp will fall apart without them, or change so dramatically for the worse as to be unrecognizable. After all, who can fill such big shoes? For private, board-run camps, there may even be board members who fear losing the founder's wealth of knowledge, experience, and influence with donors (Muir, 2019). In cases like these, board members need to be involved in the transition planning so they don't inadvertently undermine the process.

Camp Founder's Syndrome comes with all the features found in Misstep 1 in that these folks are so identified with camp that they can't imagine a life that doesn't have camp in it. The aspect I want to highlight here, however, is the charisma and energy they have long brought to their work — an intensity that may not have made much room for others to develop in their shadow. This is especially true for fathers and sons, where the son has lived in his father's shadow for so long that escaping it and forming his own skills, talents, style, and relationships has been stifled. This is again why it is important to start the process of leadership transition early, even if it is just talking about it eight to 10 years out.

With regard to directors who have been intensely involved with their camps for more than 10 years, I have an observation to share. We should not expect that what gives us meaning and substance and a sense of purpose at one time in our lives will give us that same sense of purpose or meaning in another stage of our lives. We all need to re-examine what will be meaningful to us — where our talents and passion can be put to good use in ways that fit our abilities as we age.

Misstep 5: Not Having a Transition or Succession Plan

One of the most important ingredients for a successful transition of leadership in most any kind of camp operation is to have a plan that has been well thought out and established years ahead of when the leadership transition actually takes place (Muir, 2019; Kappel, 2019; Fleming, 2000). I call this plan a "road map," because it outlines, step-by-step, the paths that the incoming director and the outgoing director will simultaneously take over the years of the transition. The road map takes into account the skill areas, experiences, and relationships the incoming director needs to develop. It also details how the current director(s) will pass on certain authority and roles and responsibilities not only to the incoming director, but possibly to nonfamily members or other senior staff. The road map needs to be revisited and updated as the years go by, which means there is a reassessment of the plan each year to see if the time table and the progression of duties and responsibilities still make sense.

One Final Word

Camps are indeed places where many children flourish and get the chance to play in a technology-free environment that is becoming increasingly rare. If anything, the need for children to play and be free of the pressures of tests, performance, and overscheduling is greater today than ever before (Brooks, 2019). Camps are also businesses, even nonprofit agency camps. If the business doesn't survive, the great opportunity that camps provide children will also vanish. Keeping the camp healthy as a business from one generation of leadership to another is to preserve a national treasure for our children for the future. By the way, Joel, Lauren, Dave, and Shelley did their work and Camp IHC is thriving to this day. Dave and Shelley have remained at camp as "directors emeritus" and happily assume the role of camp grandparents. Dave would tell you that Joel and Lauren have taken Camp IHC to another level of even greater excellence.

Author's Note: Dave and Shelley Tager and Joel and Lauren Rutkowski have given me permission to use their names.

References

  • Brooks, K. (2019, August 17). We have ruined childhood. The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2019/08/17/opinion/sunday/childhood-suicide-depression-anxiety.html
  • Fleming, Q. J. (2000). Keep the family baggage out of the family business: Avoiding the seven deadly sins that destroy family businesses. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
  • Kappel, M. (2019, June 27). How to keep the peace in a family business: 5 ways to defeat drama. Forbes. Retrieved from forbes.com/sites/mikekappel/2019/06/27/how-to-keep-thepeace-in-a-family-business-5-ways-to-defeatdrama/#1b9ceab7377f
  • Muir, R. (2019, May 21). How to survive Nonprofit Founder's Syndrome. Bloomerang. Retrieved from bloomerang.co/blog/how-to-survive-nonprofitfounders-syndrome/

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. Bob can be reached at bobditter@gmail.com.