The Myth of Middle Management

Sara Huffman and Stephanie "Ruby" Compton
September 2017

There’s an interesting trend happening in the camp profession: If your program director, assistant director, or other full-time middle management employee has not recently left your organization, they may soon, leaving a large staffing hole to fill. Likely, this wasn’t something that you were planning to devote your time and energy toward over the next few months or years. What a waste! These individuals came into these middle management jobs prepared for the long haul, and now they are burned out and want to move on. Why?

Many in this group are making the decision to leave the camp profession behind, opting instead for greener pastures with (hopefully) better hours and better pay. They likely have degrees from universities and colleges and even have some previous work experience outside of the industry that they bring to the table. Choosing camp was not an impulsive decision — it was a deliberate choice to change their lifestyle.

By now, these people have probably finally settled into the year-round routine of camp. Parents and campers know who they are and vice versa. They are the only ones who know where the sparklers for July fourth are stored and how many pizzas you’ll need to order if the power goes out in the kitchen. They are the ones who understand the rhythm of the administrative team when it finally hits its stride. According to John Boudreau, author and professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations, “We have to remember that people are what we call an ‘appreciating asset.’ The longer we stay with an organization the more productive we get — we learn the systems, we learn the products, and we learn how to work together” (2014).

Why Are These Skillful Leaders Stepping Down?

Why are camps unable to keep these skillful leaders around? Yes, the grass is always greener somewhere else, but these individuals aren’t leaving because they don’t want to do their jobs at camp anymore — they desperately want to do their jobs. They just aren’t being set up for success to do so the way we set up campers and staff members for success from June through August.

Think for a moment about the past five middle management employees who have come and gone from your organization. What did they have in common? How long were they at camp before they left? Were they married or single? And what spurred their decision to leave? If we had to guess, only one of your five most recent employees stayed for more than five years, and they all looked very similar on paper.

Here’s a theory: Middle management personnel have been hired for the past 25 to 30 years under the assumption that they will leave within three to six years, on average. Furthermore, it is assumed that they will be easily replaceable with another person — usually a camp alumni — with the same job responsibility expectations. Perhaps in some of these circumstances, the middle management team members only considered their job at camp a temporary stop before moving on. It’s also likely that working at camp was their first full-time job after of college. Few people begin a year-round job at camp with intentions to leave in the very near future. The problem is this: If people are treated like they are going to leave soon, then they will leave, and soon indeed.

If the employers and decision-makers at the top of a camp’s organizational chart have never had someone who wanted to stay for more than the average three to five years, it makes sense that they will not be familiar with the needs of an employee who has outlasted that time frame. The employees themselves might not even know what to ask for. And it is imperative to recognize that the needs of employees and leaders today are slightly different than the needs of employees ten or more years ago.

The current hiring practice seems to be to promise young people the world to get them to take a year-round job at camp. When new employees start, they are eager to learn, to catch up, and to put in extra hours to prove they are qualified for the job to earn more trust from their supervisors. Then as time goes by, they request more freedom to have a sustainable work-life balance. But camp owners and directors hire a team so that they, too, can do less and have more of a life. Keep in mind that many of the middle management employees may not have their families with them on campus or might be actively trying to create a family. If it becomes apparent that they will not be given the same lifestyle considerations as their employers and supervisors, middle management folks start to back off their efforts at work to give their lives more balance. As they back off, upper management trusts them less and gives them less autonomy, making the middle management feel less a part of the organization. This eventually leads to valued program directors and other middle management personnel seeking opportunities elsewhere. It appears to be a vicious circle.

Understanding Millennials

Many of these middle management staff members are considered part of the Millennial generation. This inevitably suggests the common stereotypes for this demographic: individuals who are lazy, entitled, and prone to not stay in one full-time position for very long. While it’s true that many of the individuals currently in these positions are classified as millennials (the authors not excluded), what is untrue is their perceived indifference toward how and where they choose to spend their time.

As stated in a recent article in The Guardian in March 2016, “Millennials naturally see things slightly differently. Presenteeism doesn’t make sense to people used to working on the move. Why be anchored to your desk for eight hours when you can reply to those emails and start drafting notes during your commute into work, or even in a cafe? That’s not laziness, that’s just working smarter, as millennials may see it” (Gani, 2016).

Among the list of shared characteristics between members of this generation, one positive stereotype is often overlooked: Millennials want their daily efforts to matter, to make a difference. That’s why they left their jobs at banks or marketing firms to live in the woods for months. Furthermore, with filtered images on Instagram and hashtags of “#blessed” being omnipresent in their lives, there is abundant exposure to the idea that the grass is greener elsewhere, whether that is working for an organization that clearly states their values or one that lets them bring their dog to work each day.

“‘The millennials I know are not willing to settle for mediocre careers – they’re working hard to find work that they are passionate about, even if it means doing a boring low-paid job on the side,’ said Sofia Niazi, 29 . . . . She says the fact that work doesn’t pay as well as it used to and no longer guarantees much in the way of security means millennials feel it should at least be fulfilling or it simply isn’t worth it” (Gani, 2016).

Why Keep Them?

You’re probably wondering, “Why should a camp try to keep their middle management staffers for more than three to five years? Because they will save you money and because they will make money. On average, hiring a new employee costs an organization one-fifth of that person’s salary. This covers the cost of the search and interview process, the time and profit lost during the interim without someone filling that position, training, and money lost during the transitional period when the new employee is not working at the same caliber as the former employee (Boushey & Glynn, 2012).

At camp, there is a case for change versus no change. Sometimes camps must ask themselves why they maintain a process or tradition to ensure that the answer is mission- or camper-focused. If it’s not, then change is most likely a positive decision that will lead to a stronger program. At the same time, camps thrive when their programs are the same year in and year out; camper and staff retention is dependent on the guarantee that returning to camp will mean an experience just as good — if not better — than their last experience. Consistency is key. This includes consistency with the administrative staff with whom parents, campers, and other staff interact.

The effects of a consistent face and voice in an organization are exponential, and a subconscious level of doubt grows when an organization experiences turnover of their most visible staff. In an informal survey of parents in 2015, the majority of participants stated that the number one reason they decided not to send their children to camp was because they didn’t trust the camp staff and administrators. Parents feel they can trust an organization more when they know staff members personally and have developed relationships over a number of years. That trust results in positive testimonials that are spread through word of mouth, leading to increased enrollment and a boosted reputation (aka more dollars).

How to Retain Middle Management

So how can you keep your middle management folks from leaving? Here are some suggestions.

Autonomy

One of the most harmful things you can do to the team dynamic is to give a person a huge amount of autonomy, decide it doesn’t work for you, and then take it away. This results in a situation where the employee feels punished for only doing what was asked — or rather not asked — of them. Delegation empowers employees and gives them purpose. On a recent Productivityist Podcast, guest Chris Ducker made the statement, “Only do the things that only you can do” (2017).

Leaders hire good people so they can delegate and lighten their own workload. There will be frustration from your employees if autonomy is not maintained once it is offered. Talk with your middle management staff and ask them which aspects of camp they feel they can take responsibility for and discuss your comfort level in letting go of those tasks or responsibilities. When an employee feels as if they have no autonomy, they will seek it elsewhere.

Pay

It could be just a matter of dollars and cents, a disconnect between generations about what it actually costs to live in this country. In 2010, the average income after tax for a single 25- to 29-year-old living alone in the United States was $27,757, 9 percent lower than the national average. The equivalent figure in 1979, adjusted for inflation, was $29,638.10 (Malik, Barr, & Oltermann, 2016). The average cost of living in 2016 was $28,458. This particular generation is literally being undervalued. As Niazi alluded to in The Guardian interview, if the pay isn’t great and they don’t like what they’re doing, these employees have very few concrete reasons to stay (Gani, 2016).

The solution might be simpler than you think. A report by the Center for American Progress says that “high quit rates are often due to workplace policies.” Offering workers low-cost benefits, such as sick days and a little flexibility, can significantly lower turnover (Boushey & Glynn, 2012).

Personal Support/Professional Development

“The characterization of Generation Y (millennials) as needy employees who crave constant positive feedback may not be far from the truth . . . of those millennials who said they planned to leave their company in the next two years, 71 percent said it was because their ‘leadership skills were not being fully developed’” (Gani, 2016). Camp is a small world, and in many organizations, there is a threshold for promotion within the business. But as we now know, millennials seek challenges and growth opportunities, which is what often results in job hopping. How can employers set up their middle management for success to acquire these needs?

Fortunately, the camp industry offers an abundance of resources for professional development from ACA and others. Encourage employees to look outside of the camp industry as well for opportunities to learn. Consider a conference on child psychology or a course on financial planning for your team. Not only do these opportunities provide outlets for personal growth, but they also create situations for natural community-building and networking among peers. An Academy of Management article on retaining talent said, “Employees with numerous links to others in their organization and community, who fit better with their organization and community, and who would have to sacrifice more by leaving are more embedded and more likely to stay” (Allen, Bryant, & Vardaman, 2010).

Work/Life Integration vs. Work/Life Balance

It’s time to re-think what a middle management position looks like. If you intend to keep your program director or assistant director for the long-term, then you must say good-bye to the idea of that person being physically available 24 hours a day and seven days a week, even during the summer months. That includes email. It’s not a realistic expectation for anyone, let alone a person with a family or someone who wants human interactions outside of work.

Yes, this generation prefers to spread out their work throughout their day as they deal with life, but it will be healthier for both employees and employers alike to agree to set aside specific times when they will be unreachable. Consider the option to work remotely or being at home at night during the summer rather than attending every evening program. Consider the option for that person to not live on campus and setting up realistic expectations from the beginning for being flexible and on call.

The Stay Interview

When an employee leaves, it is common practice to conduct an exit interview — but why do we wait until an employee is leaving to hear his or her frank assessment of the role? As part of your annual review process with your year-round employees, consider asking, “What do you need to stay in your job?” You may be surprised that their requests are not too hard to fulfill.

Of course, every employee is replaceable with another. They must be, otherwise an organization would fail with the loss of one person. But, if you find an employee who fits your organization, proves his or her commitment, and demonstrates long-term dedication to your organization, a person in whom you have invested time and energy and organizational stability, do yourself a favor: Don’t let him or her go.

References

Allen, D., Bryant, P., & Vardaman, J. (2010, May 1). Retaining talent: Replacing misconceptions with evidence-based strategies. Academy of Management. Retrieved from http://amp.aom.org/content/24/2/48.abstract

Boudreau, J. (2014, March 26). Why employee turnover hits the bottom line. CFO. Retrieved from http://ww2.cfo.com/workplace-issues/2014/03/employee-turnover-hits-bottom-line/

Boushey, H., & Glynn, S.H. (2012, November 16). There are significant business costs to replacing employees. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from americanprogress.org/issues/labor/report/2012/11/16/44464/there-are-significant-business-costs-to-replacing-employees/

Ducker, C. (2017, January 23). Fostering your inner youpreneur with Chris Ducker. The Productivityist Podcast. Retrieved from https://productivityist.simplecast.fm/129

Gani, A. (2016, March 15). Millennials at work: Five stereotypes — and why they are (mostly) wrong. The Guardian. Retrieved from theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/15/millennials-work-five-stereotypes-generation-y-jobs

Malik, S., Barr, C., & Oltermann, P. (2016, March 8). Young single people bear the brunt of Generation Y’s economic woes. The Guardian. Retrieved from theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/08/young-single-people-bear-the-brunt-of-generation-ys-economic-woes


Sara Huffman serves as the administrative director for Green River Preserve and is the leader of the ACA EPIC group in Western North Carolina. She is an active board member for Camplify in Hendersonville, NC, and regularly volunteers at ACA events.

Stephanie “Ruby” Compton currently works as the WNC program director for Muddy Sneakers, a science education nonprofit that partners with public schools in the Carolinas. Ruby can also be heard on a free podcast for camp professionals, Camp Code, talking about best practices for camp staff training.