How Do You Spur Culture Change at Camp?

Andy Kimmelman
May 2022
staff smiling

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: your camp is not perfect. It’s run by fallible human beings, just like you, who have blind spots, knowledge gaps, and pet peeves. Your camp might be a hundred years old, but the folks who started it in 1922 were human too. Your executive director is undoubtedly a thoughtful person with lots of experience leading your camp, and while their goal is to create the best camp experience possible, they don’t know everything. So, there are almost certainly areas in which your camp can do better. If you’re noticing something that could use a change, there’s a good chance that others are too. Want to help make that change a reality? Read on.

Start by asking yourself whether you just need to vent or if you’re ready to solve a problem. Venting is OK. Sometimes just talking about a problem helps us feel better about it (and doing so can sometimes spur thinking about a solution, too). Consider, though, to whom you’re venting. Your unit leader or assistant director may not be a great outlet for this: as your supervisor, they have a responsibility to listen to you and help you solve the problem. That might not actually be what you’re looking for at the moment.

Your fellow frontline camp staff might not be the best outlet for venting either, as they need to be able to focus on their work with campers and bring their full selves to their jobs. That said, it can be helpful to get your coworkers on board when you’re ready to work toward a change, so we’ll circle back to them when the time comes.

So to whom can you vent your frustrations? Look for the people whose opinions truly matter to you. Brené Brown calls this your “Square Squad” (Brown, 2018), because you should edit your list down to those who fit in a one-inch square. This might be a friend (outside of camp) or mentor at school, or even your mom. They’ll be ready to listen to you and can help you manage your feelings around the situation until you’re ready to move forward.

How can you shift your attitude from one of venting to one of problem-solving — when you’re ready to do so? I find it’s helpful to reframe my thinking from concern to curiosity. Imagine that a friend approached you and said, “I’m concerned about your new haircut.” How would you react? I’ll bet you’d start feeling pretty defensive, at a minimum. How would you react, instead, if they said, “I’m curious about your new haircut”? That might launch an interesting conversation about your favorite barber and your hair-styling philosophy. While this is a weird, low-stakes example, approaching a problem with an attitude of curiosity can accomplish a lot. First, it puts us on the path of deeper thinking about the problem, sparked by that curiosity. It also can prevent the person we’re expressing that curiosity to (our boss) from getting defensive, allowing them to open up and share their own deep thinking instead.

It’s not enough, though, to just approach the problem with curiosity. You then need to listen empathetically to whoever’s on the receiving end of your curiosity. You’ve decided, for instance, that you want to try and make some change around your camp’s use of Indigenous iconography. You’ve set up a meeting with the executive director, and you’ve said to them, “I’m curious about the history of our logo.” They can probably see the agenda behind your curiosity, and they might still feel defensive. By listening empathetically, you can learn their perspective, which will help you along the way.

In the face of change, people often armor up, because they associate change with loss. In this case, your director might see the situation as a loss of pride (Will our alumni be mad at me if we change the logo?). They could be worried about their own expertise (I don’t know anything about branding; how would we come up with a new logo?).

Even for the most thoughtful leaders, having a frontline employee bring a big potential problem to them can feel like a loss of control. In my own experience as a leader, I do my best to anticipate all the problems that could come up, and it’s tough to have one pointed out to me that I missed. Whatever the change is, it also can often hit people as a loss of valuable time (Just one more thing to add to the to-do list.).

So approach this point as a true conversation, listening to what they have to say and taking in their perspective and potential sense of loss. Then step back and take some time to incorporate their perspective, gather some resources, and build a plan. Say, “Thanks for talking to me about this. I want to think about what you said. Can we have another meeting in a few days so I can share some ideas?”

Think Strategically

Begin by engaging in a little bit of strategic planning. This is what companies large and small (including camps) do all the time, and you can do it too. A good format, called a “before action review,” includes asking yourself these questions:

  1. What’s the intended result, and how do we know/measure if we got there?
  2. What challenges can we anticipate?
  3. What have we or others learned from similar situations?
  4. What will make us successful?

When you’re ready to present your ideas to the boss, having a pathway toward answering those questions will show that you’ve thought deeply about the subject and keep the conversation solution oriented. Note that you should have a pathway to the answers, not necessarily the answers themselves. You may not know (yet) what challenges to anticipate — and that’s how your director can collaborate with you on making change happen. This offers your director agency in the process, potentially reducing the impulse of that sense of a loss of control. You might be familiar with the classic persuasion tool of making someone think that your idea was their idea. That’s basically what you’re doing here. For instance, if you wanted your dining hall to start serving more locally sourced produce, you might say, “I had a good conversation with the chef about menu planning and local farmers we could buy produce from, but I’ve never worked with a budget before. Could you help me understand how this practice would impact camp’s budget?”

You can also approach your desired change from an incremental, micro level. Make it happen with the things that you do have influence over. If you’d like to shake up your camp’s programming with a new activity, for example, plan and try it out first with your own group or cabin. Not only will that help you work out any missteps in your plan, but you’ll also have a case study to demonstrate your idea’s positive impact. From there, with permission, you could try out the same thing with another cabin or a whole camp unit. It’s much easier to make small changes and scale them up over time than to change everything all at once. Plus, you’ll show your boss that the change might be simpler than they initially thought.

Now is a good time to open the conversation with your camp friends and coworkers. They might have ideas or resources you hadn’t thought of — and having more folks on board can build momentum to make the change a reality. Still, be mindful of how you go about this. While it’s illegal for an employer to prohibit you from discussing the terms and conditions of your employment with your coworkers, remember that you’re trying to solve a problem, not vent. Keeping your coworkers in that mindset will keep the process moving forward too. It also may be helpful to bring a few key fellow staff members to the meeting with your director, especially if they have an important area of expertise. Be sure they’re taking the same curious approach as you are, though, as too many people barging into the director’s office with a big idea can feel like an attack.

Be Prepared

Now that you’ve made it this far, I have to share some bad news with you: despite your best efforts, your empathic listening, and your collaborative planning, the answer might still be “No.” Camps have many stakeholders (parents, campers, alumni, board members, donors, etc.) with differing needs, of which you are only one. In the best-case scenario, there could be a stakeholder perspective you aren’t aware of or a big obstacle you didn’t see. You could have a great idea, but the timing isn’t right, or the inertia is too strong to overcome. Assume good will. Be prepared to accept a no graciously and move forward with curiosity and solution-oriented optimism. The powers that be may tell you, “We can’t do that yet, and here’s why . . . ,” appreciating your efforts and including you in an ongoing process of change.

Be prepared, too, for a worst-case scenario: your camp may be so unprepared or unwilling to change that you need to make your own change for yourself. Weigh the costs and benefits of staying, or of returning for another summer, with the costs and benefits of finding a new camp to call home. If you’re making a positive impact with your campers and reaping the rewards of that, putting up with some marginal frustrations to continue to make a difference might be worth the effort. If not, you can move on.

In his book BE 2.0, Jim Collins outlines some questions that leaders can ask when deciding whether to let an employee go, and you can interpolate some of them to determine whether it’s time for you to move on (Collins & Lazier, 2020). Ask yourself:

  • Does this camp align with my values? If not, particularly in how they treat their employees, it may be time to go.
  • Does camp leadership take responsibility for problems or blame others? If they’re blaming others for a problem you’ve identified, it might be time to move on.
  • How would you feel if you left? If the answer is something like “relieved,” that’s a pretty strong indicator.

You’re reading Camping Magazine, and that’s a good sign that you should be working at summer camp. But not every summer camp is a good fit for every person. If you’ve identified a problem at your camp and wholeheartedly made an effort to improve things, you owe it to yourself to find a place that is a good fit for you next summer.

Still, remember the optimism. By listening, learning, and planning, your idea for making staff hiring more inclusive or a logo redesign could be a big hit. Not only are you making a difference in the lives of your campers, but you may also change the trajectory of your camp and positively affect all those who come after you. That’s something you can put on your resume for your next real job.

References

Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead. New York, NY: Random House.

Collins, J., & Lazier, W. (2020). BE 2.0. New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin.

Photo courtesy of Tumbleweed Day Camp, Los Angeles, CA.

Andy Kimmelman is the co-owner and director of Tumbleweed Day Camp in Los Angeles and a Society for Human Resource Management Senior Certified Professional. He’s also an avid volunteer with ACA, serving as the chair of the Southern California/Hawaii Local Council of Leaders and an accreditation visitor, among other roles. Most importantly, he’s a cool dad.


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