My first summer as a seasonal camp director was SO exciting! I was jazzed that I had actually gotten the job, I had so many ideas and plans and lists, and I was thrilled that my assistant camp director was someone who I had worked with before as a counsellor, and was someone who I liked and respected. I knew it was going to be an amazing summer.
Unfortunately it wasn’t as good as it could have been. Things went wrong. Mistakes were made, and it got hard. Now, not all of the mistakes were mine – but those are the only ones I’ll talk about because those were the only ones I had any control over, and while I can learn (and have learned) from other people’s mistakes, it’s not my place to point them out or discuss them openly. So here are the things I wish I’d done differently when working with my ACD my first summer as a camp director.
I didn’t have a full understanding of what my role was in relation to my ACD.
My ACD was very talented, fun, and full of good ideas, we had about the same level of experience but neither of us had been in our positions before so we were trying to map our way as we went. This was a bad decision, I should have asked for more feedback from my supervisor (who was offsite) and made sure that I had a full understanding of both of our job descriptions so that there was no overlap or confusion.
We sat down and decided what each of us would do… and part of that decision was that during meetings I would always be the one to discuss the “hard” stuff. Bad choice. As a camp director we need to be comfortable having difficult discussions (ok, maybe “comfortable” is too strong a word, but we need to be willing to have them) but that doesn’t mean that we have to have EVERY difficult conversation! If a topic falls into someone else’s jurisdiction, then it makes sense for them to discuss it. We should be available to support them, coach them, and step in if necessary – but the program director should be talking about programming issues, not the camp director.
Always being the “bad guy” takes a toll, it’s exhausting, and it’s not effective!
As a camp director we want to be able to connect with our staff, to have fun and be silly with them, the last thing we want is for them to groan, roll their eyes or avoid us because we’re always the bearer of bad news. As I said, there are times when we need to have those hard conversations but there are also times when we should switch hats and laugh and play with them – which actually makes the hard stuff easier.
I let personal relationships get in the way
Oh man, did I ever. As a leader we need to have good relationships with our staff because it builds trust, it motivates them to work harder, and it makes work more pleasant BUT we walk a fine line between “friendly” and “friend”. I spent my entire first summer either being the bad guy or the buddy. Neither are where you want to be on the leadership spectrum. If you’re the “buddy” then it changes the counsellors expectations of you, if you must have a difficult conversation with them (which, remember, I had lots of) then they’re no longer receiving it as their supervisor giving them feedback, they’re perceiving it as their friend being mean to them. That changes things.
When my ACD and I would disagree on something, it wasn’t a professional differing of opinion, it was two friends fighting, feelings were hurt, sides were taken.
Not only did I let my own personal relationships get in the way, but I let other people’s relationships get in the way too.
There was drama. Sigh. The drama.
There was crying, anger, words, gossip, drama from the ACD to the counsellors. And it was all avoidable, all I had to do was step up and stop it but I couldn’t because I had let myself get dragged into it. Total rookie mistake.
I let myself get overwhelmed
It became too much, there was so much drama, so many relationships to juggle, so many times I had to be the bad guy and hurt my “friends” feelings… I became overwhelmed. I started hiding from conflict and the tough stuff, literally and figuratively (I will admit, on more than one occasion I ate a grilled cheese sandwich under my desk because I was totally overwhelmed and just needed a minute. I’m not proud of it, but it’s sort of funny, looking back).
I spent too much time in the office doing work that could have been done faster or at a different time because there was so much to deal with and it was a way of avoiding the hard stuff (without actually crawling under the desk). I didn’t feel like I could ask for help because I thought I was supposed to have all the answers, I was in charge after all, someone had trusted me to lead this team and this camp and admitting that I was in over my head would have let everyone down.
So what happened?
The good news is that this was all happening internally, at least the campers and their families had no idea that the staff team was imploding, and neither did my supervisor… until the ACD went to her with concerns. At the time I felt betrayed and hurt, but looking back it was the best thing that could have happened because my supervisor stepped in and helped. She talked me through some of the relationship stuff and gave me tips on how to deal with it all.
It took a long time to heal the relationship between my ACD and I, we never worked together again and didn’t talk for a long time… but then we both… grew up. We were in our early 20’s when we were directing that camp, we were leading people who were only a few years younger than us, or the same age and I don’t think either of us were really ready for the roles we had. I realized later that the ACD was going through some pretty serious personal stuff that I just didn’t understand and didn’t know how to support. So, even though we went through a rough patch I still like and respect my former ACD, we’re still in touch and even though we’ve never talked about that summer again – I think we both learned a lot from it.
So, if I could do it over here’s what I would do differently.
1. I would make sure I had a full understanding of everyone’s job description. Actually, I would make sure that EVERYONE had a full understanding of everyone’s job description. I would work together to assign tasks based on those job descriptions AND based on strengths. I still think it’s ok to move things around a bit based on interest and strengths, not because of some arbitrary belief that all constructive feedback has to come from one source.
2. I would take a step back and recognize that some relationships are inappropriate in a work environment, especially if there’s a supervisor/ staff component. The director or ACD having close relationships with staff complicates things in a way that is very detrimental to the rest of the team.
I would also work hard to prevent staff drama, which would be easier because I would also be working hard to stay out of it!
3. I would deal with the hard stuff. That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a camp director, deal with the hard stuff head on. Problem solve. Have those difficult conversations (when it’s necessary). Don’t avoid it – it just gets worse.
I’ve also learned to work out my anger, frustration, sadness, stress (or whatever other non positive feeling) and move on. Those feelings don’t go away, I’ve just learned to cope better. There are times when I go into my office, shut the door, and stomp my feet, grumble and mumble about how much something is bothering me – but I get it out of my system then I start to problem solve. Then I have a calm, professional conversation with the people involved.
Other times I grab a broom and start cleaning, or a hammer and start fixing things to work through my feelings while still being productive.
I guess the point is that I don’t let the problems completely overwhelm me any more, I keep moving, maybe tackling a different task, but that momentum helps me work through stuff, and keeps me from freezing and ending up underneath my desk.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I still make mistakes after years of directing, I just try not to make the SAME ones twice.
Taking time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t each summer helps, and looking back and learning from mistakes I made early on lets me see how much I’ve grown as a director and as a person.
Have you ever had a difficult working relationship with another staff member? How did you handle it? Would you have done anything differently today? Tell me about it in the comment section below.