Running the best possible camp with staff members of different ability levels

What is the optimal staff make-up, and how do we achieve it?

In his hugely popular podcast series Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell spends an entire episode talking about "strong-link" systems and "weak-link" systems. He talks about research done on professional soccer teams, finding that frequently the worst player on each respective team has a bigger impact than the star players. The thought being that scoring in soccer is hard - it requires a series of intricate passing and quick decision making, followed by an extremely difficult goal scoring chance if everything goes right. If any link in that chain is weak, the ball is turned over to the other team, and the chance is ruined. Weak-link systems are defined as those that are most dependent on their weakest links.

Gladwell and his guests go on to compare this to basketball, where superstar players have been able to carry subpar rosters to the very highest levels of success. Basketball players can grab a rebound and dribble the ball all the way to the other side and score. They can individually stop other teams on defense. Basketball is a strong-link system, then, because the strongest players tend to impact the outcome far more than the weak ones.

Since you're reading this on Go Camp Pro, you probably can guess that I've got a take on this for summer camp. I'll turn it to you, though - in your experience, do you think camps are weak-link systems, strong-link systems, or something in-between?

Have you ever hired a true "Dream Staff?"

Having worked with a number of camps in a professional capacity, I'll say that by and large every summer camp has a pretty significant skill gap between their strongest counselors and their weakest counselors. While I've encountered some pretty notable exceptions (unsurprisingly, these tend to be the very most successful camps), I've found that this holds mostly true.

And it's interesting. When I talk to camp directors about their biggest struggles from prior summers, they frequently revolve around the mistakes made or drama caused by their weakest counselors. In spite of this pattern developing, most camps wind up with some non-zero number of subpar counselors from summer to summer. How does this happen?

Is it an issue with interviewing? Checking references? Is it time management? Are we simply so overburdened by our other tasks that we wind up accepting "decent" staff instead of continuing to search for "great" staff?

I'm honestly not sure. It's probably a combination of all of those things. If you're wondering, this is not a problem that I've personally been able to conquer. When I transitioned from running a camp with 100 staff to a camp with 25 staff, I pictured that staff being made up with 25 all-stars. It never quite worked out that way.

So it's an issue we're aware of, it causes significant problems, and yet it persists year after year. It's truly a puzzle to me. I wish this post were about sure-fire ways to solve this problem, but I can't really help you there. I'll say that the 1 camp I've seen seemingly conquer this issue invests at least 2 full time staff members on a year round basis to travel the world and fill their camp staff. They have 400+ applications every year, and hire something like 60 staff. I'm not sure we can all invest that level of time and attention to the issue of cutting out our weakest links, though, so this article is more about putting into perspective what we can do in light of the fact that we'll very likely have some staff members that are 10/10s, and some that are more like 4/10s.

And it might surprise you, but I actually think we have a lot of control as to the influence our weakest staff members have on camp's success. Ooh, now you're intrigued! At least I hope you are. I'll dive in.

The impact that our weakest staff really have

I'll start by saying that I think there are 3 general classes of weak staff members.

1) The staff that are just sort of there. They don't really help out a ton, but they keep an eye on their kids. The "warm bodies" you hire when you're scrambling to hire your last male (or female!) staff before camp starts.

2) The staff that do a poor job with kids. They don't really pay attention to them, and are very ineffective at dealing with camper issues. They often have short tempers when they do pay attention, but are frequently just inattentive. They tend to be the counselors for campers who have the biggest issues (bullying, homesickness, etc).

3) The staff that cause a toxic environment among staff. They gossip. They rarely pull their weight in community spaces. They are way more focused on the non-camp aspects of camp (parties, hook-ups) than camp itself. They are the source of most of the camp drama.

Clearly, staff members #2 and #3 (and staff can certainly blend all of these traits as well) are more detrimental than staff member #1. I suspect we'll all wind up with a couple of #1s this summer, and #1s are certainly a better alternative than having fewer kids to come back to camp or not having enough counselors of a certain gender to staff enough cabins or whatever.

But I really want to talk about how to use staff members #2 and #3, and what to make of the reality that we might wind up with some of these types of staff members this summer.

I'll start by saying that I think that, by and large, there is no way to properly deploy staff members that create a toxic environment for other staff members at camp. They decrease the productivity of everyone around them, they can cause big issues with staff retention, and can quickly turn your camp into a big-time weak-link system. Picture the following soccer players:

1) Someone who tries their best and is good. 2) Someone who tries their best and is bad. 3) Someone who sits down and texts throughout the whole game, ignoring everyone else. 4) Someone who actively trips their own teammates, or kicks the ball in the wrong goal.

Staff members who create a toxic interpersonal environment are like player #4. They are WAY worse for the team than someone who simply pays no attention at all. The only surefire way to not get hired back if you work for me at camp is if you are creating a toxic environment for others. It actually doesn't even matter if you are great with the kids - if you are awful to work with or actively unkind, there is no role for you at camp.

Tirade over!

I do think it's interesting to think about how to intentionally deploy our weak but not actively awful staff, though, so I'll write about that now.

Are you setting your camp up to be a strong-link system, or a weak-link system?

28903825473_15fb646ac3_z
28903825473_15fb646ac3_z

This is really the crux of it to me. In soccer and basketball, coaches and general managers need to construct their rosters and position their players in accordance with a pre-defined set of rules. A basketball team with 4 great players can't petition the league to have just 4 players play at a time, and a soccer team with a bad goalie can't make it so no one can play with goalies.

But at summer camps, we actually can change the rules of how we deploy our staff members. I'll give some examples from two different camps I've helped run and the various ways they deployed their weakest staff.

Small-group camping environments I grew up in a small group camping environment, where 2-3 counselors would partner up and look after 10-12 kids in a residential environment for 1-3 weeks. We had about 200 kids at camp each week, and about 50-60 of our 100 staff would be "in unit" as active camp counselors, while the rest were in some manner of support or programmatic role.

When this worked well, it worked phenomenally well. My first camp counselor, Gavin, was (and is) a hero to me. He was a camp legend who replicated this experience dozens of time in his lengthy tenure at camp. I'd guess that the average camp has a staff comprised of 10% Gavins. So who counsels everyone else?

My second counselor, let's call him Derek (a fake name), was more like a type 1 problem counselor. He wasn't actively bad, but he pretty much ignored us. We had serious bullying issues in our unit that ultimately came to a head with 1 camper getting sent home and another who left and never came back. The week wound up being so bad that many of the kids didn't come back the following year.

Now picture if my two years were reversed. If I don't get lucky and get Gavin in my first camp experience, I'm almost certainly not writing this article today. Small-group camping, or family-group camping, is a weak-link system. If you have all Gavins (or at least all great counselors), you're almost certainly in great shape. If you have some mix of Gavins, merely good counselors, Dereks, and actively bad counselors, the kids who come to camp get a wildly variable experience.

It also creates a problematic feedback loop. The people who keep coming back to camp and who ultimately work at camp are far more likely to be the people who had great counselors. They are unlikely to see the problems that exist at camp because they didn't experience the problems. They eventually become part of your leadership team, and are equally confused by when things don't go well.

"Camp worked out great for me, I don't get why anyone wouldn't want to come back!"

If you were in a small group camping environment and feel that way, chances are good that you had more Gavins than Dereks, or your camp was one of the lucky ones to have super strong staff members from top to bottom. Probability suggests it's probably the former.

Open-group camping environmentsAfter working exclusively in small group camping for 13 years I became the director of a camp that historically had a more open programming model. While kids had "their counselors," they were able to meet in a central location and set their own schedule each day at camp. They could pick not just the activities they enjoyed, but they could also pick activities with their favorite counselors on that basis alone.

In my first summer running camp this way, I was the most worried about this staff than any staff I had ever employed before. I started working at that camp on March 1st, and there were 0 staff members hired (as well as no camper weeks registered). I had a lot of work ahead of me, and several staff positions were filled with something between "warm bodies" and "actively bad" counselors (though of course I didn't know it at the time). I prioritized being able to run camp with a less than stellar group instead of not run it at all, and mostly just crossed my fingers.

It's very strange to enter a summer with less than total confidence in your summer staff, but it's where I found myself, and it wound up totally changing how I'd go on to run camp forever.

When I broke it down, I saw that I had several good staff members, and three staff members in particular who seemed absolutely amazing. To not offend anyone, we'll call them Jake, Sarah, and Carl.

Jake, Sarah, and Carl would be all-stars at ANY camp. They knew this camp culture, were well-loved by the kids, and were totally on board with me as a new director. My mission became clear: I need to get as many kids to experience these 3 as humanly possible. We let them run activities whenever activities were going off, let them sit at different tables during meals, and made sure everyone had a chance to get to know them.

We wound up retaining a higher % of campers from that summer than I ever had in any year of running camp prior, in spite of having some absolutely catastrophic counselors sprinkled into the mix. Why? Well, let's compare what happened that summer with what would have happened in a small group camping environment.

Jake, Sarah, and Carl made up 15% of our camp staff. In a small group camping environment, roughly 15% of the campers would have really gotten to know them during a given week at camp. Now those 15% would have REALLY gotten to know them, and probably had transcendent, life-changing experiences camps are famous for.

But what about the other 85% of campers? They would have had a mix of my good counselors (probably 50%), and then 35% would have had my warm body/very bad counselors. This would likely have been a disaster.

I remember Sarah's performance in particular. We retained literally every single camper whom she "directly" counseled that week. While those campers didn't hang out with her all day, every day, they still got her during free time, and bed time, and the time between activities. They also followed her to many activities because she was so much fun. They didn't really miss out on getting to know her, but they didn't get exclusive access to her. They still had a great experience, but everyone else who got to know Sarah a little bit got to benefit from her being at camp as well. A win-win-win-win!

In effect, we had turned our camp into a strong-link system out of necessity. And our retention numbers thanked us for it.

Deploying our weaker links more effectively

I've noticed that most camps do this naturally, but it's worth pointing out here. There are a lot of great people who will work for us at camp who simply aren't going to be our top 10% counselors. This doesn't mean they are bad people, but it also doesn't mean they need to be solely responsible for the great time of 10-12 people. I personally prefer a mix of having them partially with campers (perhaps sleeping in a cabin, helping with bed time and free time) and then facilitating more hands-off programming.

Have a responsible and mature but socially awkward candidate? She's great at the archery range, where her attention to detail will help with safety.

Have a jovial counselor who loses focus from time to time?

He's great in small bursts, running activities that he's personally interested in and are high energy. Maybe he doesn't sleep in a cabin, though, since he won't notice if bullying starts to crop up.

There are a lot of creative ways to spread responsibilities around so that staff feel like they are all chipping in, but are doing so in ways that cater to their strengths rather than their weaknesses. I believe the successful camps of the future will creative flexibly defined roles that speak to each individual candidate, rather than a big board that says "counselors" with a line down the middle separating males from females. If you've got 50 people working for you at camp, chances are good that not every single one of them should be working the exact same job.

Deciding whether you should run a strong-link or weak-link camp

This will vary for every single camp out there, and I won't pretend that our approach is a silver bullet for everyone. But I do think it would benefit basically every camp to look honestly at itself and determine the impact that our strongest and weakest staff members are having on our camps.

Are our strongest staff members having the maximum impact for the maximum number of kids? Are our weakest staff members having the minimum possible impact on the experience of the kids who come to camp? Are we leveraging everyone's skills so that regardless of their talent or training, they are adding the most that they can possibly add to camp this summer?

I'm not saying that we should settle for less than a team of all-stars this summer. By all means, if you have the motivation and the opportunity to have fist-pump worthy options up and down your staff roster, you should. But the reality is that many of us are going to finish staff training and honestly believe some staff will better realize the camp's vision and mission than others.

I'm hoping that you're prepared for that moment, and ready to have a rocking summer whether you wind up with your best staff ever, or something less than that.