THE BLOG

Lessons In Being Human At Sleep Away Camp

What I learned about business from visiting day at summer camp.

08/06/2017 09:39 EDT | Updated 08/07/2017 11:29 EDT

Like so many other New York City parents, my husband Jeff and I recently made our annual trek to visit our son Daniel at sleepaway camp. On the ride up to Maine, the home of Camp Caribou, we kvelled about how much fun he looked like he was having in the photos, laughed about the list of items he had forgotten to pack (like his toothbrush), and wondered whether or not he would want to go to camp next year. So many of our friends’ kids were doing different things this summer—a robotics program, a physics program, specialty sports camps, or traveling—all totally great ways to spend a summer. But camp feels different, and so important. Especially these days.

Enter here!!

Growing up, neither Jeff nor I could afford glitzy summer camps. So when we went to visit them a few years back, we thought they all looked pretty amazing (and we wanted to stay and be campers). Each one had sports galore, outdoor adventure programs, a gorgeous lake with tubing, waterskiing and sailing, woodworking and of course, color war! The hardest part was going to be choosing.

So as good parent-consumers, we did as much research as we could. And when it looked like Camp Caribou was in the lead, we spoke to the Lermans (Caribou’s owners for three generations), as well as parents of current campers, and of course watched the camp video. In the end, we chose it because something felt different. What stood out more than anything was not its sports facilities, food, or bunks – it was its culture and values. One of the things the folks in charge often say is, It’s cool to be nice at Camp Caribou. And it’s true!

As we pulled into camp this year, I noticed something that may have always been there, but it caught my attention this time (maybe because I am writing a book about culture and values?!). Attached to the trees that flank the long windy road into the camp are flags flying for each of the camp’s values: kindness, fun, friendship, sportsmanship, and spirit.

And I said to myself, hmmmmm….

I thought of all the businesses I talk to and work with and how much help they need bringing their human to work. And I thought, they sure could benefit from some good old-fashioned camp values.

So here goes:

Campers learn a value that goes a long way in the business world: kindness.

Kindness. Who wants to work in a company where people are not kind? Certainly not me. Workplace incivility is linked to higher turnover, employee burnout, psychological distress, and decreased productivity. At Caribou, kindness starts at the top with Bill and Martha Lerman and their children. They “walk the walk” and even celebrate those kids who exemplify kindness at the camp fire. Imagine a workplace where the leaders exhibit, expect, and celebrate kindness? And then offer you a s’more?

Camp Caribou is not in short supply of Spirit!

Spirit. It’s not news that millennials want to work for a company that has strong company values, which is good for all of us. They are reminding us all how important it is to be part of something bigger than ourselves and contribute to the world in a meaningful way. In other words, companies that have spirit are winning the race for talent. Cultivating such a spirited culture isn’t rocket science, but it does take discipline and hard work. Just ask Daniel’s counselors.

Friendship. One of my favorite studies is the Gallup study that shows that having a “best friend” at work leads to increased productivity and employee engagement. Which is particularly important given the increase of technology in the workplace and the fact that left to our own devices (excuse the pun), we are often not connecting. We in the business world could learn something from the way these kids forge friendships, and the way the no-tech rules at camp can really help.

Sportsmanship. In the workplace, we are in contact with with all kinds of people from around the world. And many companies today have four or five generations of people working side by side. This can lead to a diversity of perspectives, which is good for business, but also some tension and challenging workplace situations. At camp, Daniel is living in a small, stinky, un-air-conditioned bunk with 10 boys from around the globe. In their world, a swarm of black flies is no reason for a bad attitude. What’s our excuse?

Fun—an easy value to embody at Camp Caribou!

Fun. We spend a lot of our lives at work. Why not make it fun? As much as possible, anyway. Not only is play great for people, but it’s also good for business. When we are happy, we release endorphins which lowers stress, and our creative juices flow. What better way to engage our employees and get more work done? Maybe we should take our workplace ping-pong a little more seriously? And make some friendship bracelets while we’re at it?!

Near the end of visiting day, the Lermans got the whole camp together at the campfire. They reminded us about the importance of being nice and thanked us (parents) for sharing our boys with them. We sang the camp songs, tried to understand the inside jokes, but most of all, we felt the spirit. It’s always hard to say good-bye, but I knew Daniel was in good hands. And was learning something with far more impact than another skill or language. He was learning how to be human.

He was bringing his human to camp.

It’s easy to embody the value of Friendship with friends like these! Daniel (center - grey sweatshirt, blue shorts) with his camp buddies.