Features 08.12.2016Want to be a Talent Magnet? Be more ‘Camp’

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Talent magnets are rare. Chris Reichhelm talks about one of the most powerful ones he's come across, and what we can learn from it.

You’re unlikely to have heard of Dingman’s Ferry, Pennsylvania. It’s a small town nestled in the hills of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. Think beautiful forest, lakes, rivers and wildlife. It’s also home to one of the most impressive talent magnets I’ve ever come across.

Camp Speers is a YMCA organisation that’s been around for more than 70 years. It’s principally a summer camp, a place where I spent six of the happiest summers of my life.  It instilled in me a love of nature, hiking and British 80s rock bands.  It taught me about living your values, the importance of being yourself and the incredible things people can do when they work together. It was, and is, an extraordinarily special place.

When I worked there, the pay was minimum wage. The working day was 16+ hours long, with 1 day off every 2 weeks. Accommodation was a decrepit old hut, complete with mice, drafts, broken screens on the windows and no locks. Toilets looked like set pieces from a Japanese horror film. Food was average, despite the best intentions of the cooks. Resources were barely adequate and budgets were tight. The role was intensely customer facing. Day & night, you were ‘on’, with responsibility for the well-being of campers, whose fickle and capricious nature challenged even the most patient amongst us.

And yet despite such conditions, staff loved it. I don’t have exact figures but I reckon that at least 60% returned each summer. This may not sound particularly impressive but bear in mind that team members weren’t drawn from neighboring towns. They came from other states, as well as England, Scotland, Spain, Sweden and Australia. People came from far and wide to be a part of this camp experience, and returned year after year.

What’s more, these were talented, educated individuals, people who today are academics, bankers, doctors, entrepreneurs, lawyers, psychologists, researchers, social workers and teachers. These were individuals with choice; and they chose to spend many of their summers (in some cases, 10+) working at this little camp in the backwater of Pennsylvania, complete with Halloween-inspired restrooms and minimum wage.

Why?

Love. People LOVED the place and they still do. Camp Speers excels at producing raving fans.

The secret lies not just in the beautiful surroundings or camp activities. Both are great, but not exceptional by US standards. It’s certainly not the pay. So how was it able to consistently recruit and retain such great staff?

For me, it was culture. The culture of Camp Speers was, and still is, the lure that draws people back every year.  To say it is powerful is an understatement. In my experience, it captures the hearts and minds of people in a way that few organisations ever do.

How does it do this? And what, if anything, can young, innovative businesses learn from it?

In my view, it was down to the following:

  1. Success was everything.While leadership might not have expressed it in these terms, from what I observed, the creation of an outstanding camp experience for each and every camper was of paramount importance. Everyone in the team had to be focused on success. Failure to produce an outstanding experience was simply not an option.
  2. Safety was the foundation. This refers mainly to physical safety but it was just as much about psychological safety too. There could be no outstanding experience without ensuring a safe environment for everyone, campers and staff. This meant that open communications and trust amongst the team were crucial.
  3. Accountability was essential. We held responsibility for extremely precious assets – children – and we never forgot it.  With forest, lakes and rough terrain, the potential for something going wrong was ever-present. As such, every team member had to be on her/his game at all times.
  4. Teaming was the focus. The ability to work well with others, regardless of who they were, was crucial. This could be challenging given the diverse backgrounds of the staff. There were lots of different views about how to do things and people didn’t always see eye to eye. But it forced everyone to up their game and work well with everyone, not just a couple of people.
  5. Values were alive. Staff, particularly the leadership teams, lived by the values all day, every day, representing them in different ways. This meant values were more than just part of a bland mission statement. They were alive and inspiring. This created alignment and excitement about the kinds of things that were possible in this environment.
  6. Fun was sacred. The boundaries of fun were always pushed. Mundane activities were transformed into side-splitting events, throwing off memories that lasted a lifetime. I recall one rainy evening when 80+ kids had to be entertained and there was no evening programme. Normally, a series of indoor activities would take place – not particularly inspiring, but perfectly capable of doing the trick. A few staffers, however, decided to raise the bar higher and produce a Euro-trash game show, complete with television sets (fake), TV cameras (fake), production crew (fake) and ridiculous dance music (sadly, real) into which these activities would be enacted. It became one of the most memorable events. This type of out-of-the-box thinking and extreme creativity intensified the experience and strengthened the bonds between people.
  7. Narrative was cultivated. Camp’s rich collection of experiences and anecdotes over many years provided romance and a deep sense of connection, giving us an appreciation of its history and our place within it. It was, and remains, a powerful draw of the place.

Each of these qualities on its own was not enough to make Camp Speers the talent magnet that it is. Rather, it was these qualities working in concert that enabled this small charity in the mountains of Pennsylvania to recruit outstanding talent, year after year, for more than 70 years.

Now I appreciate the differences between summer work and full-time jobs. The benefits bestowed by a camp environment are difficult to replicate in more traditional work settings. Furthermore, the time of life when many people enjoy a camp experience is different from life in later years where responsibilities change. But both are work environments. Both are resource constrained and entrepreneurial. Both demand creativity, teamwork and boundless energy.

Those at Camp Speers didn’t return for the pay.  Instead, they were motivated to be a part of something special – to be a version of themselves that most inspired them; to connect with others; to work together to create an unforgettable experience; to experience ‘extreme fun’; and to be a part of something greater than themselves. This was, and remains, the secret to camp’s magic.

This is highly relevant for young technology businesses. Attracting and retaining great talent is about more than just giving someone a job. Being a talent magnet is about creating an unforgettable experience, one that allows people to be the very best version of themselves and connect with other like-minded individuals. It’s about holding them fully accountable, while enabling them to experience teaming and extreme fun. It’s about creating an environment that is connected to a purpose, whilst delivering an outstanding experience for customers.

Becoming a talent magnet isn’t easy. But the rewards include an organisation that does exactly what it is designed to do, year after year. For the most ambitious, that’s a price worth paying.