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Where Do Indispensable Summer Camp Staff Come From?

March 8th, 2010 · 10 Comments · Books, Linchpin

This post is part of a digital book club of summer camp directors and recreation professionals reading Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin. To see all the posts in the series go to our linchpin start page. You are welcome to join in at any time.

Week 2: Thinking About Your Choice & Indoctrination: How We Got Here
Pages 28 – 48

What role can camp serve in teaching campers and staff to be remarkable?

I started my tenure as a camp director and was a bit too involved in every decision. As the camp I ran got bigger, necessity forced me to learn to delegate. I discovered that made for a better camp and a stronger staff. I often fight the tendency to have things run perfectly rather than have them run in a way that provides the most growth. In Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? Seth Godin says that when encouraging people to take initiative, someone might get upset in the process. I was immediately reminded of one of my staff members who had great initiative. Martin (not pictured on left) was young but took the lead. He was running one of the camps that had extra room and a parent inquired on registering her camper but since it was half-way through a session the parent wanted the price pro-rated. Martin said no problem, since his camp had room, and he arranged the registration. As any camp director knows, each camp has their own policy on prorating registration and late registration. Ours was not to pro-rate camp. For logistical and safety reasons, we just can’t manage it. Martin didn’t know because he worked in the leadership camp. His camp was small and he felt he could handle the extra camper. At that moment I knew his long term growth was more important than me getting upset about some policy. His willingness to take initiative in the future at camp was dependent on how I handled his first try at it. I thanked him for working with the parent to get it all taken care of and at a later meeting that week, I explained to him that typically we don’t pro-rate and why that policy came to be. Timing is everything. I can’t commend him in one breath and correct him in another. It was important to me that he knew how much I appreciated him taking the initiative. It was in fact a new skill for him to be working in an admin capacity and he was so proud that he brought in another camper.

How I Encourage Initiative at Camp

  1. Set up the goals for the task and let the staff determine the best ways to meet the goals. This works a lot better than setting the goals and micromanaging the way they get there.
  2. Give people opportunities to make decisions and plans. Let them work the plans and make corrections along the way. Those plans are often related to the goals and standards we all have agreed upon. Don’t jump in when they are mid plan unless they ask for help. Of course if safety or customer service is in jeopardy, I would offer support.
  3. Help staff determine what their strengths are. I think we are often the most remarkable in the area of our strengths – that which invigorates us, not that which we do well. This is based on much of the work by Marcus Buckingham.

Despite doing this, staff are always in a state of development. I recall one morning when a staff member came to tell me there was some vomit on the floor in the hallway by the building. He had coned it off but a bio-hazard kit was needed to clean it up. He had kids waiting for him for class so either needed his class covered or someone to clean it. I would guess over 25 staff had walked passed that spill and this first year staff member was the only one to report it. There was even a building clerk about 20 feet away. We all know the studies of people being less likely to report or call for help when there are more bystanders. I am sure most people who passed it thought someone had already handled it. It goes back to Seth’s illustration on page 34 asking, “Who has the job of installing the second can in the restroom?” We need to empower the staff to speak up, notice problems, and apply solutions. When staff feel like what they say matters, when they see the results of their suggestions in action, they are more likely to speak up in the future. I try to let staff carry out their ideas when they feel passionate about something, even if I think it won’t work. It is far more important for them to get the experience taking initiative and problem solving than it is for me to be right or remind then that we tried it that way 5 yrs ago. This could be the time their fix works.

Do You Really Want Indispensable Employees?
At camp we all know people come and go. I remember the first time I lost a linchpin. I wondered how camp would run without them. As I saw the cycle repeated year after year, I realized that if I got better creating linchpins, when one left I could train-up a new one. It was not so scary to lose key players. The show goes on. It is the Win-Win as Seth describes it. Sure, camp is different than in most workplaces. Other workplaces train linchpins to stay, we train linchpins to leave. It starts with hiring. “Letting people in the organization use their best judgments turns out to be faster and cheaper – but only if you hire the right people and reward them for having the right attitude.” page 37

What did these two chapters bring up for you?

With this being interview season for many camps, what questions do you ask that helps you assess linchpin qualities?

Like me, do you have behaviors that can squelch linchpin development if left unchecked?

Featured Book Club Member

This week we feature Michael Staires. Michael has been reading Linchpin and has a fabulous blog.  A few highlights that relate to our topic are : The Clock is Ticking and I want to give you my art.

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  • jessicaGTI

    As the director of a summer conference (very camp-like in many ways) that is focused on substance abuse prevention, I really like the small, but powerful section on “Will You Still Be Loved?” (31) Many of our high school and college aged staff struggle with being the “leader” to their “friends” … and struggle with if they'll still be liked by their peers if they make the hard, right choices – whether it be to remain alcohol, tobacco and other drug free or to get them to a session on time at our program. We try to communicate the message that “either those people will come around, or they never loved you in the first place” (31), but that's a TOUGH lesson for a 15 year old (and sometimes a 30 year old…). We're using the book to prepare for this summer's program, and we'll definitely highlight this passage as it relates to both being indispensable and making the “hard choices” to be a good leader.

    I also LOVE the section on “Not My Job” (33) … if all of our program staff become those who do the things that “aren't their jobs” we will be in good shape. It reminds me of the “BTCOD” activity from Michael Brandwein's training materials. (A favorite of ours!)

    Finally, I wanted to admit that I struggle with the difference between wanting our staff to be obedient and wanting them to be “artistic, motivated, connected, aware, passionate and genuine” (34). Sometimes it's hard to let go of that control…but I know it's for the best. I WANT our organization and our program to be “an organization of indispensable people doing important work” so that we are “remarkable, profitable, and indispensable in and of [our]sel[ves]” (36).

  • You comment about staff being obedient as well as indispensable resonated with me. I always jokes that TEAM meant “a lot of people doing things my way.” It can feel so much more expedient to just tell people what to do and have them do it. It is more efficient in the short term for both kids and staff. Unfortunately, kids and staff sometimes even like it – that is the world they come from in school. It is hard to make their own decisions and be responsible for them. Once their world is opened to that style of supervision, it is hard for them to go back.

    My old boss, Jim Thompson said, “Having the power to get things done My Way, the captain’s way, can be exhilarating, and seductive. It is also terribly limiting. It limits the team to being the reflection of the one in charge.”

    From his book: Shooting in the Dark

  • jessicaGTI

    I love the quote – thanks for sharing!

    I think, for some of us who have “grown up” with our camp (I was a participant in our program, worked my way up the staff ladder and now run it), we think that we know best because we've been “in it” so long. It's been a hard, but valuable lesson for me to learn to give the power back to our staff. Amazing things have happened as I've “let go”.

    Also, we are finding so often these days that our adult staff are just as likely as our youth staff to operate under the “tell us what to do” mindset. We're working on how to transition them smoothly…especially since some of them go back to that kind of environment.

  • DavidBetz

    Seth Godin lists artists on page 29 and reminds us that these linchpins were not products of school. The great Muddy Waters was included in that list. No, Muddy didn't graduate from Blues School. But he did have a blues mentor in Son House. As we think about how school can limit students, we need to also think about how mentors launch creativity. Who mentored us? How can we deliberately choose to mentor others?

  • What should camp teach? What does camp teach? Camp taught me basically the same two things that Godin says that school should teach: 1. Solve interesting problems 2. Lead. When I think about my camp experience from being a camper to being a camp director – these are the two things that I have learned and the two things that I can take with me anywhere I go – be it a camp job or any job.

    I have a distinct memory of an interesting problem that we had to solve when I was a young staff member. The theme of the week was the Wizard of Oz. Program was planned around the yellow brick road, the witches, the munchkins – everything Wizard of Oz. But what to do for the opening night campfire to signify that we weren't in Kansas anymore? What we needed was a tornado. An old programmer had drilled into us the thought that you should program by first figuring out what you wanted and then making it happen (rather than the other way around – looking at what you have and deciding what you can do with what you have).

    So a group of us decided that what we would need was a tornado. Our maintenance crew constructed the frame of an outhouse with an old toilet inside but nothing covering the walls – just the 2X4 frame (all the better to see who was inside). We would then attach a rope doubled over on itself to the top of the frame and then over a branch and then we lifted the outhouse off the ground and twisted it – coiling the rope. The plan was to have Dorthy go into the outhouse then have two or three guys pull on the end of the rope – lifting the outhouse off the ground allowing for the rope to uncoil – twisting the outhouse and making it look like a tornado.

    Great idea in theory.

    As with most camp activities we did not get it completed in time to try it out before the big show – campfire time came. We had really wound up the rope on the outhouse. When all the campers where at campfire and the introduction skit was in full swing – Dorthy steps into the outhouse with her stuffed Toto. Three of us big guys pull on the other end of the rope – lifting the outhouse off the ground. I don't think anyone was ready for what happened next.

    The outhouse lifted about 6 feet in the air and started spinning right away. The scream from Dorthy was very real – she had never been on this ride. We didn't have time for a practice run. The sight of Dorthy screaming was only made more real when suddenly the stuffed Toto flew out of the outhouse and sailed out over the campfire. When the spinning slowed everyone could see a very relieved Dorthy gripping the 2×4 frame with white knuckles. No one had told the rope pullers to set it back down – the outhouse started to unwind in the opposite direction, leading to an entirely new, very realistic scream by Dorthy. The Camp Director – who had not been in on the plan – was sitting with her jaw on the ground – which was pretty much the same look on all the campers and staff's faces.

    We let the outhouse touch back down and then the skit went on – Munchkins appeared, a Witch was dead under the outhouse – but Dorthy could say nothing for the rest of the night.

    That was using the skill of solving interesting problems,which lead to creatively explaining what we were thinking before it had happened to our camp director – sounded like a good idea at the time.

    I love the idea that schools can change but Godin did not go into how they could change – to teach solving problems, to teach leadership – it would be interesting for Godin to dedicate a book on reforming the education system…

    I loved this final thought from this section: “Leading is a skill, not a gift. You’re not born with it, you learn how. And schools can teach leadership as easily as they figured out how to teach compliance. Schools can teach us to be socially smart, to be open to connection, to understand the elements that build a tribe. While schools provide outlets for natural-born leaders, they don’t teach it. And leadership is now worth far more than compliance is.”

    This stuck with me because is this not what we teach at camp? Camp is where I learned to lead.

  • Joe,

    I completely agree with the quote “1. Solve interesting problems 2. ‘Lead” in a summer camp setting.

    This made me think of my leadership team during the summer. For a while I was frustrated every few years when a new members would come on the team and try to re-invent the wheel with how we run certain programs. These linchpins were simply trying to take the initative with a problem they saw.

    I had to bite my lip with these frustrations and air my concerns in a way that would help to these passionate staff. The last thing I wanted to do was come off not supportive. I wanted to help them succeed in a way new to me.

  • “When your organization becomes more human, more remarkable, faster on its feet, and more likely to connect directly with customers, it becomes indispensable.” (36)

    I really think this quote is the key between running a good summer camp and a great summer camp. I think the more human you can be with your campers, families, and staff the better. It takes you being honest when you have a problem, solving it fast and in a way that is appropriate, and communicating that to everyone. This happens on every level of running a camp – a counselor handling a problem with a camper or a cabin, an unit leader scheduling her/his counselors, camp director or registrar getting back to a parent.

  • I'm also one of those people that has been at their camp for quite a long time (14th summer coming up!). For me, it's incredible to sit down with the 16 year old CITs and talk about how they are the future of the camp. I explain how one day they could have my job. This talk goes into how they need to take ownership of the camp and be the leaders they are.

    Godin wrote about confidence in this week's reading. He wrote “the confidence to make a different in your organization and to do work that matters.” (35) I love giving camp staff the confidence they need to do their job through coaching and recognition.

  • h2lifesaver

    This gets back to the idea which Jenn proposed last week…that it may be just fine to have some staff who are just good. I think about the needs of a lifeguard to be their best. In that role, even a linchpin counselor really does need to fit a specific standard of performance which is (or at least should be IMO) cookie-cutter reproducable. A lifeguard as linchpin is the staff member who can subordinate themselves to elevate the standard of keeping kids from drowning. But that behavior must be replicated every minute of every day by every other lifeguard to ensure that the goal (no drownings) happens predictably rather than by luck (which is where most non-drownings exist I think…good luck).
    So, I think it is fair to have expectations which are non-negotiable AND still have linchpins; I just think that it takes great leadership to help staff learn when creative and artistic is more valued over compliance. AND it's valuable to consider that what camps see as spontenaity in program, we often have planned the program intentionally to make it so that great staff can be artists and the program maintains its integrity in the process – I used to call it “planned spontenaity”
    Sorry for the ramble…I”ll get better at it

  • renadein

    I thought the first 50 pages were a lot of repetition – could have been boiled down to to 10 max. Main points about the educational system and factory worker mentality. And a big pep talk about our capacity to be amazing… I was okay with the info but really was hoping for more than a pep talk or a sermon. Now with the next section (p. 50 – 75) we are delving into what he means when he talks about being a linch pin and examples of the concepts. This is getting into the meat of the subject and I am appreciating it more.