How treating work like summer camp can improve your team’s performance

A former camp counselor reflects on what she learned from the job that she consistently left out of her résumé.

How treating work like summer camp can improve your team’s performance
[Photo: Liam Macleod/Unsplash]

I’ve had many jobs in my life, but the one that I consistently omit from my résumé is camp counselor. I spent seven summers, from age 15 to 22, working with children at various camps. When the time came for me to apply for corporate jobs, I didn’t include this experience because I didn’t think it was “professional” enough to include. I mean, how relevant are campfires and managing rowdy kids to my current work as a management consultant?

It turns out they’re more relevant than you’d think.

One of the biggest challenges that organizations struggle with is unlocking the true potential of their people to develop high-performing teams that rise to challenges and adapt to change. Research has shown that 70% of business change initiatives fail. This isn’t because the new ideas are bad, or because there isn’t sufficient planning or funding behind the efforts. It’s because there isn’t the buy-in from the people—at various levels across the organizations—needed to make a real change in behavior, even if there is data that illustrates how those changes improve performance.

To be clear, this isn’t because people are lazy or unmotivated. It’s because businesses haven’t designed, nurtured, and sustained a culture that encourages agility. That’s where camp comes in.

Building culture as a camp counselor

What makes camp so special isn’t the country sky full of stars, the baseball diamond, or the lake. Camp is unique because it has its own carefully designed culture. Kids feel like they belong, can take risks, and be a different, better version of themselves. Camp isn’t a place; it’s a feeling. But that feeling doesn’t appear spontaneously—it arises by design.

One of my most memorable experiences as a camp counselor took place on a bus. I was part of a team leading a teen tour for 40 13-year-olds, as we shuttled between campsites and hotels across the West Coast for three weeks. As counselors, we received precise instructions about how to structure our time on the bus. For example, before the trip, we had to create a unique playlist of songs that we were instructed to play—without fail—first thing every morning. We were also encouraged to develop inside jokes and stories within the first week that we could share and repeat throughout the trip. At first, I thought these guidelines were ridiculous, but now I see that they were genius.

What we were doing was building a camp culture, even though we were a bunch of strangers on a tour bus. We were embedding our days with rituals that cued a feeling of possibility, adventure, and family. The rituals that we were instructed to perform helped us build trust with the kids early on and gave us a solid foundation to build a strong culture.

How to apply this in the workplace

The same principles that went into building that camp-on-a-bus culture can go into crafting a workplace that encourages people to embody the qualities that will optimize teamwork and performance. Creating a culture of agility and achievement isn’t about rewards and punishments. It’s about structuring rituals and stories into each day to build a sense of shared purpose, identity, and—dare I say it—fun and adventure.

I’m not saying that every company needs to buy a Ping-Pong table or force employees to attend company social events. What I am encouraging is for leaders to think creatively about how they can build a sense of camaraderie. Can you find ways to celebrate company milestones and achievements (however small), so that employees find a sense of ownership in their work? Can you schedule team catch-ups in an informal setting once a week to encourage them to share their ideas they might have kept to themselves?

By deliberately building and maintaining the right work culture, you can make an environment where—like at camp—anything can happen, and team members can adapt, innovate, and excel. Creating office rituals can go a long way toward cultivating that kind of environment.

Elissa Gurman is a management consultant based in Toronto, specializing in change management and organizational culture.