Strive For Success

By Carla Theoret

By the time I was 14 and had finished my first summer as a camp leader in training, I knew I wanted to be a camp director. It became one of my major life ambitions.

As I worked my way from counselor through senior-management, my leadership style naturally evolved.

But once I became the director, I realized that allowing leadership to take its natural course wasn’t really sufficient. My laid-back attitude toward my employees did work ... but it wasn’t really serving staff members or the camp in the best way.

Thus began the journey of brainstorming, soul-searching, and attempting to learn from every camp supervisor I had ever encountered.

Did I want to be a “hands-on” director or spend more time in the office? Did I want to be friendly with staff members or keep them at an arm’s length?

No matter what type of director you may want to be ... it’s worth considering the following:

Start Early
How you present yourself during the recruiting process, with the interview and the initial interactions with personnel, will quickly indicate what type of leader you will be.

Disorganization and general unprofessionalism not only set the tone for the summer, but also tend to indicate the type of staff members you are likely to recruit.

A strong, confident, and knowledgeable demeanor will attract similar employees.

Get Serious
Determine exactly what your role will be. Every director does things differently, and may even change his or her approach from season to season.

Take a careful inventory of your skills and weaknesses to gain an interesting insight on how to improve as a leader.

Part of my initial trouble in interacting with the staff was an inability to clearly define my role in the staff-training process. While ensuring that everyone participated in emergency drills and first-aid training, I overlooked how important it was to establish my role.

The more that staff members understand what the director does and how they will be treated, the easier it is on everyone.

After deciding on your role, figure out how to assert it. There has to be a plan of action. What do you want to achieve in staff interactions?

Next, share the plan. Tell staff members of the benefits of this new relationship and what you expect. Employees with this knowledge tend to be more confident and prepared for meetings with superiors, and thus more productive.

Maintain Appropriate Relationships
Sometimes a camp director may feel the need to be thought of as “cool” by the staff, to be accepted as one of the gang, just like during the “glory days” of camp.

It doesn’t work like that, no matter how much one tries; it just can’t, and more importantly--it shouldn’t.

Consider specific encounters with superiors during your own camping career. Did you want them hanging around when you were 17? A huge part of camp is giving staff members a taste of freedom from their parents, and to be generally responsible for themselves.

When directors become too friendly with staff members, their personal values, convictions, and even everyday camp rules can be discarded in an effort to please subordinates. The director is there to enforce the rules, maintain camp values, and act as a positive role model; that can’t happen by acting like a buddy.

Having too frequent, private, or special interactions with staff members can easily be misconstrued as having an alternative purpose. Always be clear about your objectives, and be careful about giving all staff members equal time and attention.

If you need to meet with an employee in private, do so in an area of the camp that can be clearly viewed by others. Always be conscious of protecting yourself and the image of the camp.

Communication Is Key
It may seem excessive, but make it a rule to have informal check-ins with each staff member once every couple of days. Camp directors understand how quickly the camp world changes and these changes can affect teenage staff severely.

Routine check-ins give staff members the opportunity to ask questions and share thoughts as well as to provide a better sense of where they “are at.” Making these meetings a priority not only gives personnel a chance to open up, but goes a long way in terms of reducing or preventing burn-out, interpersonal conflicts, and other negative performance issues.

Forever Young
It is easy to become frustrated with staff members at some point: Steve isn’t involved enough in activities, Jen and Michele keep breaking curfew, Jim is always flirting with the lifeguard during pool time and ignoring his cabin group, etc.

Obviously, these are not great indicators of a satisfactory job performance ... so why don’t they get it? Because they are young!

In many cases, camp counseling is someone’s first employment experience, and many staff members lack the developmental ability and critical-thinking skills needed to predict the outcome of their behavior, or to realize their job performance is undesirable. Hormones and emotional issues override rational thought processes, making it difficult for staff members to see the “big picture” of camp.

As the director, it is important to coach, shape, and influence employees to become not only better members of the camp team, but to build life skills that transfer to the community as a whole. This is not possible unless every effort is made to understand their youth and inexperience, and accept the grandeur of the mistakes they will inevitably make.

We must consider their development level when formulating training and a job-coaching plan, and occasionally try to cut them a little slack.

Directors and other supervisors spend endless amounts of time completing performance evaluations and skill-development plans, while making whole-hearted attempts to provide employees with relevant feedback.

Many camps have great incentives for rewarding a good job performance, aside from the inherent benefits of good work. But rarely is anyone ever evaluating the director!

Set up a system--whether bi-weekly, monthly, or after the summer--to obtain feedback from staff members. Provide a forum where they feel comfortable speaking freely; what they have to say may be a surprise and, in some cases, an inspiration. Being constantly conscious of staff members’ impressions can have a positive impact on the way you function as a director.

It’s All About Participation
Day in and day out, campers are told of the importance of participation. This shouldn’t be any different for a director.

Just because a director has different pressures and responsibilities doesn’t mean that he or she shouldn’t be out and about, involved with the kids, staff members, and the program as much as possible. Participating in regular camp activities keeps you more in tune with what’s happening with staff members, how they perform and, most importantly, what you can do to help them along the way.

The way you interact with staff members has a huge impact on the success of a program, the number of registrations each season, and the quality of the camp experience for everyone. So take the time to have well thought-out staff interactions; they are a bigger deal than you think.

I’m certainly glad I did.

Carla Theoret is the Summer Camp Director for the Lambton United Church Centre in Lambton Shores, Ontario. She can be reached at