Letting Go

I’m about to give some bad news to a multi-year summer staff member: “It’s time to move on.”

Saying no: A camp director's toughest job.

I will say it better, with more grace and love, but that’s the bottom line: “It’s time to move on from summer camp.”

One of the most demanding tasks of a camp director over the next few weeks is the selection and elimination of staff applicants.

This undertaking is difficult for so many reasons:

• You’ve known them.

• You’ve mentored them as a counselor-in-training.

• The campers love them.

• The staff look up to them.

And yet, as a leader, we are constantly faced with the challenge--no, the opportunity--of elimination.

I’d like to tell you a story.

By the early ‘90s, legendary singer Johnny Cash had been all but forgotten by the music industry. This bothered music producer Rick Rubin, who suggested that he and Cash work together. Rubin set up a microphone and asked Cash to play the guitar and sing whatever songs he wanted to.

A man, a guitar, and a microphone.

After doing this for a while, Rubin suggested that Cash play a solo acoustic show at the The Viper Room in Los Angeles. Just him and his guitar, alone on stage. Rubin stripped away the other instruments and musicians, the staging and trappings, that Cash had learned to rely on over the years. And in the process, he discovered a voice that had been there all along.

Rubin later reflected: “People who were there that night still talk about it as one of the greatest things they’ve ever seen.”

Great artists know that it isn’t just about what you add: Sometimes, the most important work is knowing what to take away.

And this is the test that faces camp staff who are in charge of selecting and eliminating. It’s an unpleasant experience for you and for the applicant. But great artists know it has to be done.

Here is a beautiful example of how to handle this kind of disappointment, from Andrew Mason, founder and CEO of Groupon:

People of Groupon,

After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding--I was fired today. If you’re wondering why … you haven’t been paying attention. From controversial metrics in our S1 to our material weakness to two quarters of missing our own expectations and a stock price that’s hovering around one quarter of our listing price, the events of the last year and a half speak for themselves. As CEO, I am accountable.

If there’s one piece of wisdom that this simple pilgrim would like to impart upon you: Have the courage to start with the customer. My biggest regrets are the moments that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what’s best for our customers. This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness--don’t waste the opportunity!

I will miss you terribly.

Love, Andrew

As camp directors, we must have the courage to start with the campers and do what’s best for them.

In spite of the example Andrew Mason shows us here, sometimes staff members do not gracefully step out of the way. They may have become comfortable, complacent, passionless, and uncreative. And when that happens, we must have courage clothed in grace and tell them: “It’s time to move on.”

Cory Harrison has directed resident camp programs for more than 10 years with The Salvation Army and the YMCA. Currently, he is the Director of the YMCA Camp Benson in Northwest, IL. He is a life-long camper, an avid reader, and daily cereal eater. Reach him via Facebook: www.facebook.com/coryharrisoncampdirector