You’re Doing It Right

Take steps to empower camp employees

By Andrew Lewis and Michael J. Bradley

“The role of leaders is not to get other people to follow them but to empower others to lead.”
--Bill George, author of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership

Bill George’s statement goes to the root of what makes an administrator effective. Empowering employees is a desirable trait for any leader, but it is of particular importance in the camping field. At a camp, the office is acres large, employees are out of earshot, and daily dramas vary as much as their potential solutions. In this setting, it is fairly obvious to note the administration will not be remedying every situation. In fact, most of these issues will be handled by employees, many of whom are teenagers and college students. It is important that they are empowered enough to confidently make quick decisions without feeling the need to seek permission.

Photo: © Can Stock Photo / diverroy

Photo: © Can Stock Photo / diverroy

Conversely, it is imperative that they aren’t so empowered they feel superior to others or above the rules. Those who feel like this often behave in a way that reflects poorly on the organization as a whole. This could be due to laziness or apathy, not being a team player, flagrant disregard for procedure, negative interactions with clientele, and much more. The issue becomes not how to empower staff members but how to empower members in a way that supports the organization. Appropriate empowerment is hitting the stride between expressing trust and confidence in employees and fostering a healthy respect for authority and procedure. As such, creating an appropriately empowered workforce at camp requires the following:

  • Adequate training

  • Clear communication

  • Insightful utilization of employees’ skills

  • Ensuring room for autonomy.

Adequate Training
Training is incredibly important, especially when considering that the majority of camp employees are seasonal and, more importantly, young. For some, this may be their first job. As such, they may lack even the basic understanding of how a professional team works, and therefore an understanding of how to respond to unexpected situations. If employees are not given the information and resources they need to be successful, then building personal confidence in procedural matters is difficult. A great example is training in emergency procedures, such as a missing child, unidentified individuals on camp property, pool-deck injuries, or severe weather. In these high-stress situations, being able to rely on training allows staff members to handle matters calmly and appropriately, rather than panicking and waiting for someone else to remedy the problem. Adequate training provides employees with the tools they need to do the job without having to ask questions or get permission. This is the first step towards empowerment.

Concurrently, training allows administrators to set expectations and to enforce the consequences for not meeting those expectations. It reminds employees that their actions could lead to being reprimanded or even losing their job, while simultaneously explaining why those consequences are in place. For example, the camp healthcare provider understands he or she is expected to keep an organized log of all campers’ medicines because campers must get the medical care they need. The provider must also understand that if the standard is not met, the consequence is termination due to liability and camper safety.

Clear Communication
Congruent with adequate training is clear communication. If an employee is not given clear instructions on what to do, completing tasks or job requirements becomes more difficult. Administrators need to remain transparent as possible when delegating tasks, enforcing procedures, and setting expectations. This does not mean administrators should give step-by-step instructions to employees, but the final goal should be defined for all parties involved in a task. When employees know exactly what they are supposed to accomplish, they can more confidently address the job without fear of being reprimanded.

Top: © Can Stock Photo / AndreyPopov

Top: © Can Stock Photo / AndreyPopov

Insightful Utilization Of Skills And Room For Autonomy
Employees also will feel empowered if the tasks they are delegated are suited to their skill sets, and they are able to approach them with a certain amount of autonomy. It’s no secret that success is a key to empowering staff, so it is necessary to maximize the instances where they can be successful. For example, allow a camp cook to fix a broken sink. Likewise, if a counselor excels at behind-the-scenes tasks, ask him or her to coordinate events, not to lead skits and songs. Micromanaging administrators send a message they do not trust their employees, which leads to hesitancy on the part of employees. Employers cannot expect employees to excel if they are concerned they are “doing it wrong.” It stifles their ability to grow as leaders. Administrators want the opposite of that. Delegate to employees tasks they are comfortable handling, and empower them to do the tasks confidently. Similarly, allow employees to handle tasks and situations so their own way builds confidence and empowers them to continue finding creative ways to accomplish tasks. Remember, leaders empower others to lead.

Andrew Lewis, M.S., is an Extension Program Assistant for the University of Kentucky’s Clark County Cooperative Extension Office. Reach him at andrew.lewis@uky.edu.

Michael J. Bradley, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor for Eastern Kentucky University’s Department of Recreation and Park Administration. Reach him at michael.bradley@eku.edu.