Creating a Leadership Team Is Like Making a Cake

Greg Cronin, MPA, CCD, CPRP
March 2004

One of the biggest challenges camp professionals face is hiring, orienting, and training staff. It seems like an impossible task given the limitations of time, starting dates, school requirements, and logistics. Complicating this process is the daunting task of communicating — in a matter of days — the vast amount of information needed to ensure a quality camp experience for both staff and campers. While the philosophy of each camp is different, all orientations should include written goals that reflect a desire to assemble a staff whose collective ability will ensure a safe, happy, and rewarding summer for all campers.

Creating a Culture

In addition to these duties, directors also have the responsibility to create a culture that is conducive to maintaining a committed, motivated, and dedicated staff. After all, these special people are ultimately the ones who are going to make your mission a practical reality for campers. This is a difficult problem given the complexity of today's camp programs. With all the duties required to run a successful program, the time leading up to and including orientation is often overlooked for staff development. It is this concept that begins to separate the camps with a high rate of returning staff from those who struggle for a high percent of staff retention.

In speaking to directors from all over the Mid-Atlantic region about orientation and its purpose, it is clear that some camps are using it just to transfer basic information. Interestingly, some of these same programs expressed concern that they had too much staff turnover from one year to the next. While its hard to point to one reason for this trend, it is critical for directors to begin to think of orientation as a step in the staff maturation process and not just a necessary part of getting the summer started.

When I reviewed my own staff retention statistics, I found a consistent retention percentage somewhere in the high 60s. Given the time and effort that goes into staff hiring, this rate needed to be improved. After a careful examination of procedure followed by changing how staff are hired and trained, our retention over the past couple of years has been in the high 80s and low 90s. While each camp has its own system of hiring, one thing is clear — camps who have big staff turnovers need to redefine how their leadership teams are created.

Make Your Favorite Cake

So what does this have to do with cakes? To make your favorite cake, you first must start with a recipe that outlines the process and lists the ingredients that will ultimately lead to a tangible, final product you know to be good. If someone else has never tried this cake, then the degree of their eagerness to sample it is generally based on somebody's recommendation. This outcome-based objective is very similar to the process of recruiting and training camp staff. Because camp professionals are the ones with the best conceptual model depicting the type of experience being created, they must decipher what techniques are relevant to get that message across. Each camp, and their respective culture, is as different as types of cakes and everyone has their favorite kind.

Since each owner/director has a very specific type of experience in mind for his or her campers, it is important that staff are considered or retained on the basis of character and purpose as well as suitability and certifications. While you can often arrange for staff to attend various trainings, which are critical necessities to the camp program, you can't as easily generate predictable results from staff who have not had time to become a part of camp culture.

Read the Recipe
Getting prospective staff to understand how the mission is to be carried out is difficult because each applicant does not yet understand the vision. While it is not always possible to spend time with each staff member prior to orientation, it is possible to give them avenues to understand the part of your program not described in your brochure. On the top of the ingredient list should be finding a way to help staff establish contact with each other prior to orientation. Pay careful attention and group those with similar personality characteristics, same types of jobs, or who are about the same age. Holding conference calls, inviting groups to get together, or having pre-orientation days will help them to build a base of confidence.

Remember, as camp approaches and the "things-to-do list" seems never ending, so does the list for many of your staff. Most staff are really working hard to meet the demands of getting to camp and often feel unprepared for what they are about to do. Taking time to help them through this transition helps establish a working relationship that will consistently pay personal dividends all summer.

Allowing for this pre-orientation communication to transpire shows them they are the camp's number one resource. What a tremendous impression it leaves on a newly hired staff when camp leaders take time out to personally speak to them about their camp questions. By doing this, directors are demonstrating that their thoughts and feelings are important and their input is valued.

Gather all Ingredients
To begin the process of acquiring or retaining quality staff which will most effectively possess the specific ingredients necessary to create your camp culture, you must first recognize that effective staff development is a year-round process. If camp professionals are truly in the business of leadership development, it is critical to universally treat each staff member (returning, new, or prospective) as a potential ingredient to our mission recipe. The goal is ultimately to acquire the finest collection of staff possible who, through a careful process of measuring and sifting, will interpret your camp's ideals to campers.

Mix the Ingredients
The fundamental problem is that quality staff orientations are, by themselves, not sufficient enough to accomplish the long-term goal. Giving staff the necessary information needed to properly do their immediate job on the first day of camp may neglect the critical transfer of ownership in the staff development process. Remember, the cake batter is only as good as the ingredients. So how do you get more out of orientation if your time is already maximized?

The preparation — or mixing — of ingredients needs to begin long before orientation. Do not wait until the start of orientation to begin the process of incorporating staff into program development. To train staff so their actions will lead toward a predictable outcome, or type of cake, you must first hire people who, by fundamental character, will possess the ability to be leaders.

So what are you seeking, and how are you going to know when you find it?

  • First, decide exactly what qualities are desired and develop a set of questions and scenarios that will help determine the resourcefulness and character of each applicant.
  • Then, design your interviews and tours to evaluate the potential leadership of each applicant given the camp's specific criteria.
  • Here is where the magic begins. Hire a cross-section of people who represent each stage of development in terms of maturity, ability, and potential. Have a full understanding of age and gender differences prior to developing the final criteria.
  • Make sure interview questions have been carefully designed to illicit the specific responses necessary to complement your returning staff's existing skills.

Avoid hiring all self-proclaimed superstars. These ingredients, which often do not blend together, will alter the outcome of your cake. To be effective in leadership development, hire people who have, or show the potential for, working together for a common goal. Staff will be more cohesive if they are hired for a pre-determined set of character traits that best reflect the recipe. Help the cause by looking for staff who show distinct leadership characteristics. For example, does the applicant:

  • appear to cope with daily complexities or do they enact change?
  • do what is told or are they involved in what they do?
  • perform expectations or create expectations?
  • seem to be hard working and analytical or visualize a purpose?

In younger staff, search for characteristics or statements that best reflect the camp's core program values (small ingredients). If staff requirements include attributes such as solid values, good character, articulate speech, or the ability to listen, then directors need to develop a standard series of simple questions that will produce the desired information. Note any indications of multilevel thinking or thought patterns that are advanced for their age group.

For lead counselors and supervisors (main ingredients), develop an interview process that allows them to convey the type of leadership qualities they already possess. Questions should be directed toward determining the inherent abilities of what is considered to be important. If current questions do not CLEARLY reveal attributes such as good communication skills, being personable, coping with stress, having a positive attitude, being creative, showing initiative, having a strong work ethic, relating to campers with special needs, demanding excellence, or possessing good problem- solving skills, then revamp the interview.

Interviewers may know in five minutes whether an applicant is wanted, but don't expect the applicants to be as skilled at picking a camp. Spending time with prospective staff is important. Take the opportunity to inform them of camp philosophy, and make sure they leave with enough information to make a good decision. It is critical that staff feel like they can be a part of something special, and this needs to start the first time they meet or talk to any director.

To do this properly, you must set aside a lot of time! Preheat your oven. Most interviews should be somewhere around an hour. No, I'm not kidding. Take notes. Show prospective staff what they say is important. Remember that as a camp director or interviewer modeling a two-way communication process will eventually be the ingredient that helps the cake to rise. Creating a meaningful working relationship now, will result in staff who appreciate the attention and will likely return the dedication when it is needed most — such as providing extra attention to campers on hot days or being energetic during late summer special events. During the summer everyone gets tired, but staff will try harder now because they have gained respect for the relationships directors have cultivated. By the time orientation arrives, the vast majority of staff are informed, included, and motivated to learn.

Bake the Cake
When all the ingredients are mixed and each staff position is filled, don't forget to bake the cake. Senior staff have the advantage of controlling the atmosphere or oven temperature. This is the time to make adjustments in orientation content. Successful camps purposely include a variety of training methods that are specifically designed to relate to all staff. Remember, orientation happens prior to camp. Training does not really begin until the campers arrive. So what can be done to produce a more effective orientation?

Do not present standard information the same way each year. For the cake to properly rise, ask orientation directors to be creative teachers. Instruct them to make the most of this opportunity by modeling inventive ways to communicate camp policies. Use the process of orientation as a learning metaphor so gained practical knowledge will reflect the actual camp experience. To help do this effectively, have veteran staff help as mentors, tour guides, demonstrators, and controlled procedure interpreters. Let them demonstrate to new and junior staff that learning is best understood experientially using innovative teaching techniques. Require veteran staff to work with new staff to present ideas, role play, or update existing procedures. This allows for the communication of fresh ideas with culture-enhanced insight to be a concept — not just talked about, but fostered and implemented.

Take the idea one step further and choose several activities or special events for staff to plan. Make them small enough so staff have a high success rate and let them independently work on it. Give a little guidance, and let them run with it. Don't choose something that will significantly alter your program! Promoting this type of staff interaction serves three immediate purposes:

  1. It will generate common interests between new and returning staff.
  2. By working together, new staff will creatively learn how certain procedures are done.
  3. It will ensure each staff member has a vested interest in the program.

Doing this periodically throughout the summer keeps the staff actively engaged in the program. The buzz surrounding each of these activities is self-generating because it's coming from the staff to the staff.

Remember the Icing
Before the cake is finished, it must have icing. If considerable time has been spent hiring, preparing, and putting staff through a creative orientation, what else can be done? Define where owners, directors, or supervisors fit into this process. Camps that consistently generate unified quality staff have one or several key directors who have mastered the art of staff communication. Because staff come from all over the world and are of different ages and experience, this ability is rare. If the director does not inherently possess this ability, someone else on staff must.

To be a leader other people want to be around — and therefore follow — one must exhibit the necessary character traits staff should imitate. This parallel process between directors and staff is a critical component of leadership development. If actions by camp leaders unconditionally lead toward a philosophy that is consistent and fair, the camp will be successful.

  • Take the time and evaluate each director's leadership style from the staff's perspective.
  • Define what attributes make an effective trainer given the mission and camper population.
  • Examine characteristics such as approachability, presence, timing, energy, stamina, consistent behavior, and disposition. These characteristics make staff want to be a part of the team. By the way, aren't these same traits wanted in the staff?

Is This Cake for You?

In deciding what aspects of this model may be applicable to your program, keep in mind the most important goal is to develop a process that creates a better staff leadership team. If you use pre-orientation time to develop working relationships by setting up meetings, the foundation for program ownership will be established. Begin by developing character criteria for staff hiring. Specifically look for people who have these traits and then take the time to establish a solid working relationship. Make sure they are team players who fundamentally understand what needs to be accomplished during the summer.

Use orientation as a leadership model by having staff plan and complete small program exercises. Have them demonstrate creative teaching methods when presenting their ideas so staff can receive multilayered benefits from each activity. Be sure trainers are showing the leadership skills necessary to actively engage staff in a two-way communication process.

The payoff for changing your camp's approach to orientation is that staff will be able to communicate the camp's vision as well as you can. They will be dedicated and motivated once they have been through this process. This model empowers your staff to understand the fundamental rewards of character development, decision making, and teamwork. Your cake, which initially had a nondescript taste, will now be the universal flavor that your whole camp community enjoys.

Greg Cronin, C.C.D., is camp director for Congressional Day Camp in Falls Church, Virginia. You may contact him via e-mail,

Originally published in the 2004 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.