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Motivation Lessons from Summer Camp

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If you can tap into what motivates your team, you can have people doing more work than you've assigned, gladly and without hesitation. In a start-up, that kind of dedication can be invaluable. I got some special insights into motivation at summer camp. Behind the campfires, muddy shoes and early-morning lake swims are valuable lessons in how to motivate a team.

This topic is very fresh in my mind. I'm just back from my yearly vacation working at America's Camp, a special camp where the kids have one thing in common – they all lost a parent on September 11th, 2001, or in the line of duty. Rather than being a 'grief camp,' it is a very happy place. Credit for this positive and motivated atmosphere goes to the staff and directors. From directors to counselors, everyone except a year-round executive director is a volunteer, and the camp space is donated. (Hard costs are paid for by the camp foundation.)

There are huge projects accomplished overnight, camp-style. Imagine new stage sets created and new songs written, which are performed the next day. People stay up till ridiculous hours to make sure things are taken care of.

At camp, one of the counselors asked me if she could help taking some pictures of the campers in her spare time. I asked her when she had spare time and she told me 'Well, I have a bunk, and I have activities at these times, and I'm also working on one of the week's special events. But, I'm going to carry a camera and whenever I can, I'll take a  shots and bring them in.' And then she followed through.

Jay Toporoff , Director of Camp Danbee for Girls, and one of the three co-directors of America's Camp, told me 'Whatever we do is done with an incredible amount of intention, so what you observed is not an accident.'

Toporoff noted three key steps to getting motivated staff. They are 1) giving people a reason to participate by passing on your passion 2)managing expectations, and 3) being a role model. Sounds a lot like advice for starting a company to me.

"You have to start from the very beginning," he continued. "When we interview staff, we give them an impassioned mission.  It's bigger than them, and it's something they can buy into. They're making a difference and making themselves better in the process.  They understand that being involved will help them help kids, make them better people, and finally be a great boost on their resume.'

You have to manage expectations, so that nothing that you're asking for is a surprise.  'If you've done that, when staff are asked to do more, that aspect was clear from the beginning.  Make sure that gap between expectation and reality is as small as possible. They remember that this was the deal, and they'll dig deep to get the work done.'

Finally, there's being a role model. 'As directors we do things first that we wouldn't ask others to do without us, from picking up trash to moving a sound system or carrying boxes – and suddenly everyone is running over to help.'

My experience with start-ups that work well is that they take many of these same lessons. The teammates seem more like a group on a mission than employees. They expect to work crazy hours, potentially with lower pay than an established company, but they have rewards, incentives and clear goals to help them move forward.

Multi-time entrepreneur Jeff Stewart, CEO of Urgent Career, adds '"I think the key to having an exciting work environment is to hire very smart people and then attack a technically challenging and important problem.' For even more motivation, make sure they're great people. 'Great people attract more great people.'

Toporoff cautions against taking your people for granted. 'Make sure that people don't feel like a renewable resource - they are the most important resource. People want to be part of a great team, and part of something bigger than themselves.'  What helps motivate your team? Share in the comments.

Last updated: Aug 27, 2010




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