Creating a Culture of Success: Lessons in Reality

This is the text of the Tedx GuelphU talk I gave.

It is the spring of 1996, I am about to graduate from university – outdoor recreation – studying to be a camp director. An opportunity opens up to interview to be the camp director at a small non-profit camp that serves disadvantaged children. I travel south for the interview and end up getting the job.

It is very exciting as this is what I why I studied Outdoor Recreation – to follow my lifelong passion – summer camp, and work full-time in camping.

To be better prepared for the new position I now get some details – how many returning staff? How is camp run? What is the program? The answers: one returning staff member, entirely new board of directors, run the camp how you see fit, you create the program. This is my dream job – I essentially get to set up and run the summer camp that I have always imagined.

I had no idea what I was getting into that summer: 96 kids arrived the first session of camp on the bus – only 60 were left at the end of the session – I had sent home 36 campers over 14 days –kids attacking staff with baseball bats, bullying, ADHD campers on medicine vacations. Out of the 20 counsellors that were hired, I end up firing 12 of them over the course of the summer. I was not ready for these campers and I had not prepared the staff to be ready for the campers or the summer.

There is one story that epitomizes that summer for me. It is the 3rd last day of camp – two staff get into a fist fight. I fire the one who instigated the altercation. I then call a friend of mine to fill in for a couple of days. At the end of the session we are waving to the camper buses leaving after 14 days at camp. My friend is standing next to me, waving at the buses and telling me how much he had connected to Billy – a difficult camper in the cabin he had covered. He said that he thought that had made a difference. Billy had shared some of his challenges one on one with my friend who gave advice and guidance back to try and help out. Just then we spot Billy in the back seat of one of the buses, my friend gives an extra enthusiastic wave. Billy looks at me. Then Billy looks at my friend. And then Billy gives us the finger.

That is the story that represents the summer of 1996 – “The worst summer of my camping career.” The summer that camp gave me the finger.

That summer shaped the next 20 years of my camping career. It produced the questions that guide me to this day – how do I make sure a summer that unsuccessful never happens again? And how can I create a culture of success at camp that benefits the campers and the staff?

Reflecting on those questions has led me to realize that summer camp is a unique setting which allows for the creation of an independent society that functions with its own set of rules. Summer camp is a place where one can test ideas on how to best create a culture that will lead to continued success. There are very few outside influences to cloud the waters and each summer adjustments can be made to correct issues and challenges from the past summer’s experience.

This is the plan. This is the theory.

The theory of creating a successful summer camp experience and culture seems pretty straight forward. If you bring together the right people, give them a common cause and training to do what needs to be done, then you will create a culture of success that gives the summer campers the most amazing camp experience.

In theory you can create a place at camp where people want to be. The goal is to make a safe, meaningful and somewhat magical place that gives summer campers the most amazing summer experience. We also want to give the staff a place to learn, grow and be successful. You can create a culture of encouragement, a culture of support, and a culture of sharing – all part of that culture of success. In theory this is all possible, to create this utopia where the challenges of the world are easily overcome.

Reality is much, much different, even for a place so far removed from normal society like summer camp. Reality brings people. Reality brings agendas. Reality brings personalities. Reality brings emotions.

Creating a culture of success is a journey. I have been on this journey for the past 20 years – 20 years of creating and recreating the environment that would enable a culture of success to grow and flourish, I have learned many lessons – lessons that not only apply to summer camp but also apply to creating a culture of success anywhere.
Let’s explore three of the key lessons.

I have learned that even when you are not in full control you have the power to affect positive change.

I once worked at a camp where the owner had very different ideas about what success looked like for his camp. There were decisions made that summer that I may not have made if I have final say, but he was the owner – it was his camp – he had his best intentions – they were just not what I would have agreed with. My program director that summer got very worked up about some of these decisions to the point that he wanted to confront the owner and make him change the decisions. Knowing that this course of action would not work and only cause more frustration I asked the program director a few simple question, “Is this your camp?” The answer, of course, was no. “Do these decisions adversely affect camper safety?” The answer again was no. “ Can you live with these decisions?” Not such an easy question to answer… “If you can’t live with them – then you need to quit and find another place to be program director. If you can live with them – then stay and affect positive change where you can.”

This idea, “affect positive change where one can” has helped me to find my place when I didn’t have final say in something. It has become one of my life’s mantras – helping me to realize that I can do something even if I can’t do everything I want to do.

When you do not have control or say in the final decisions – you can still make a difference, you can still affect positive change to help create that culture of success – through your words, your demeanour and your actions.

I have learned that once you see and take part in a culture of success – you are better able to recreate it, to bring that amazing feeling back to life.

My first summer camp directing experience I had the task of helping the camp that I grew up at return to it’s “glory days”. Camp had gone through a few years where it had taken a few steps back. The board of directors wanted a return to the culture that they knew had been successful. Knowing what made camp special for me, knowing what made it successful – it was easy to bring back elements that would help the new staff understand what a successful camp was.

This was highlighted for me that summer – when less than two weeks into my first summer camp directing job – our camp was infected by the Norwalk virus. Over the course of 24 hours we had 75% of our campers and staff get sick and have to leave camp for the rest of the session. As our staff were struggling some old staff – some staff from the “glory days” of camp – offered to come and help. They were amazing. With no direction from me they lead program, created games, entertained the healthy and not so healthy alike and did what needed to be done to give the camper the most amazing summer camp experience – even in the midst of 3 health inspectors, numerous board members and over 150 parents picking up sick campers and staff.

You tend to know when you are part of something amazing – I hope that we all have had the chance to be part of something amazing. Make it one of your life’s goals to bring that amazing to everything you do – strive to recreate it so that others will feel it to.

I have also learned that the theory of creation is different than the reality of creating.

Back to the summer of 1996 – the worst summer of my camp life, the summer that camp gave me the finger. That summer is something I think about daily and has shaped all that I do in the world of camping. That summer was based in theory. The following summer I worked again at that same camp – and had one of the best summers of my camping career because I focused on the reality of creating. I changed the way that I train the staff – focusing on teamwork and community building. I had the staff play together and come together to keep the campers as their first priority. I didn’t fire a single staff member that year. I had one staff member resign because he felt that he had “let the camper down”. I tried to convince him to stay but he would not.

I moved from “theory” to “reality” – from the theory of creation to the reality of creating. I learned that the reality of creating a culture of success, or creating a utopia at summer camp is an ongoing journey where the sands are always sifting – forcing me to reaffirm my values and beliefs and the actions necessary to help people form that successful culture.

Over the past 20 years I have had to redefine again and again what theory has taught me about success and what the reality of creating successful teams, workplaces, and potentially societies, is.

Creating a culture of success is easy on paper, much more challenging and exciting in the real world.

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