So many times a new director has lists upon lists of things they want to accomplish or get done during their time at camp. And, so many times they feel as though that they are not accomplishing nearly the amount of things that they want or feel that they are the only voice trying to be heard on what needs to be done.
Wouldn’t it be easier if the entire staff was committed to achieving excellence and completing all the ideas and projects to better the camp? How do we create a staff team that will welcome new ideas and try anything… a team that will pursue the vision of the camp with passion?
What is your organization’s culture? Is it a place where all new ideas are welcome and tried? Does everyone brainstorm new ideas and ways of accomplishing them together? Is there a support system in place that you can call on for assistance? Do people ask your opinion and offer help? Do you know that you can talk to your supervisor at any time? Is there an effort by the senior staff to see to it that everyone is involved, or at least informed, about what’s happening around camp? Does it sound too good to be true?
The process to change a camp’s work environment or culture starts with the director. Your attitude, your willingness to change and your practices will determine success or failure.
This is a hard road to follow. Five years ago it would have been impossible for me to try it. It took a desire to really be better at my job, to actually let go and trust people more than ever before, and to work every day at being a living example of what and how I wanted them to be and work.
I had to stop giving orders and saying things like, “Because I said so.” The most important change I made in myself was to truly listen to the ideas around me and provide resources to try those ideas out.
Five years ago I thought about the perfect work environment, or the work environment which would make me happy, and allow a place to grow. Two years ago I decided to try the experiment.
As the new director of a YMCA camp I began on my very first day. At my introduction meeting with the staff I informed them that it was my goal to be the one of the best camps in the country in reputation, customer service, facilities, staff training and program quality. The looks I got initially were to be expected. New guy with big ideas! Yeah, right…
So, I met with every staff member individually over the next 10 days. And that means all of the staff! Whether it was housekeeping, maintenance, food service, program staff, outdoor educators, and so on, I met with them.
In each one-on-one meeting I listened. I asked what their favorite part of the job was. What needed to happen to make them feel better about their work? What did they want children, staff and parents to say about their work? What obstacles were in their way?
At the end of the meeting I told them that the camp would now operate under a Children and Guest First philosophy and that there would be more to come on actually making that happen.
After meeting with everyone on the staff, an all-staff meeting and a series of staff retreats were held. The goal was to take the information discovered in the one-on-one meetings and share it. The next step was to share the changes in camp that were being made with the goal of correcting the common problems.
During the discussions with the staff members I kept notes based on certain categories. I listed the headings Communication, Environment, Obstacles, Positives and lastly, Miscellaneous.
After combining all of the individual meeting notes into complete lists under each heading I was able to see the pattern of situations underlying each. This, in turn, led to a starting point in solving the issues.
Communication was a common issue mentioned by everyone. After the all-staff meeting, all meetings were now open. Anyone was welcome to come to any board, staff or program meeting. There were no longer any hidden agendas to worry about.
A staff newsletter was created and department heads were required to share information of program meetings with all staff with in two days of the meeting or policy change.
In addition, all staff was to operate under an open door policy, including leaving office doors open unless disciplinary action was being taken or if a staff member needed confidentiality.
It was amazing to see how people tested the open door policy. At first some staff would tentatively come by my office. I would stop what I was doing and give them my full attention. In some cases I would explain that I needed to complete something and then I would schedule a time to meet. Over time a feeling of comfort was achieved.
Next, ownership was a common theme. Staff didn’t feel empowered or that their voices were being heard. All department directors were re-trained in budget management and then given control of their budget.
In addition, program directors were responsible to create their budgets, keep receipt ledgers, turn in variance reports and meet formally at least twice a month on their budget.
Housekeeping was given a monthly budget for supplies. Along with the new budget training and logistics came a requirement for department heads to hold department meetings. Open forum and brainstorming sessions were the focus. This allowed for staff to share their thoughts and feelings.
Lastly, four all-staff retreats a year were created. The retreats focused on mission creation, department mission creation, and brainstorming about how to attain the goals of each department’s vision and mission as it related to the overall camp mission and philosophy.
Specifically, this year I met with the maintenance and housekeeping staff. The known issues as realized from the individual meetings were shared and then the department brainstormed what was needed to create a better place to work with meaning.
One of the dominant needs in the department was a need to feel appreciated and a need to know that their work made a difference.
We spoke a lot about what facility care means to children and guests. We changed the program evaluations to have specific questions about the grounds and buildings. These forms were then shared with all maintenance and housekeeping staff to see what their contribution meant to the guests.
A continuous stage in this plan was adding fun to the environment, along with appreciation. Staff needed to be told how they were doing. There is no such thing as a small thank-you.
I started giving Great Job awards to staff. Simple certificates were given recognizing staff for their work and effort. It is amazing to see how a little recognition changes a person’s morale and attitude.
Thank-you cards and certificates were written every week. A noticeable change began to take place in how people worked and their approach to each day.
In an attempt to broaden this, fun was added to the workplace. We encouraged people to share ideas and try them, and to cross train in other areas. Staff events were held and funny story sharing was added to meetings. A staff member enjoying their job will result in guests having fun with them. Staff is encouraged to have fun with the guests. Make their experience great!
Lastly, you must start the process in the very beginning with new staff, even during pre-employment interviews. It’s simply not enough to have prospective staff members read and sign our commitment-to-excellence promise, but they must review it in our formal interviews and after being hired must attend our two-day orientation, which focuses on expectations of team members and a complete understanding of our operating philosophy, organizational mission and each department mission as it relates to the camp mission.
After their initial two-day training staff spend three more days orientating to their new department and specific responsibilities.
The better trained your staff is in their duties, the more comfortable they will be in carrying out their job. The result is that the guest gets the best you have to offer as a team and as an individual.
As mentioned earlier in the article this is a constant experiment. To date we have seen a dramatic increase in staff retention (from 50 percent to around 85 percent) and an increase in camper and group retention.
Evaluations have changed to include more comments about the friendliness of the staff and the overall feeling that the group and our guest felt important while they were here.
We want people to come here and experience the magic of camping. That magic — that special something that campers, guests and alumni get — is created by a great staff. A staff that realizes the camp is their home. When you have a group of people improving their home everyday, you can not help but succeed in everything your team wants to accomplish. Good luck.
Jeff Merhige is the executive director of YMCA Camp Kern, Dayton YMCA, Dayton, Ohio.