February 13, 2020

Everything I Know About Company Culture I Learned at Summer Camp

If you can intentionally preserve core values for over 105 years, or even five years, you’re doing something incredibly special.

I grew up in Miami and went to camp for eight weeks every summer in Maine. From my perspective, the chance to go to camp was an extraordinary privilege. I was lucky that my grandmother paid for it. I was even luckier because my home life as a kid wasn’t a breeze, and summer camp was a critical respite from a stressful childhood.

I sometimes say that summer camp saved my life. That’s hyperbole in a literal sense, but it’s certainly true that summer camp allowed me to grow into myself, to gain independence, to learn leadership, to rebuild a seriously bruised self-image, to learn, to flourish, and to figure out that sometimes as a kid there’s nothing to “do” except play. I made lifelong friends at summer camp, and I still see my bunkmates almost annually after 35 years.

I was lucky to find Camp Walden, an all-girls institution founded by two women who were working on the education of women at the turn of the 20th century. Camp Walden will celebrate its 105th anniversary this summer. Over 500 alumni showed up for the 100th reunion. Think about that, hundreds of former “customers” and staff spanning decades came to the forests of Maine to reconnect with a place they kept in their hearts for decades.

Because these things happen, last month, I had the chance to speak to the Association of Maine Summer Camps on the topic of Conscious Leadership at their annual retreat. The session was assiduously reported in the Bangor Daily News! 

But that’s not the point I want to focus on here.

The point is that the present director of Camp Walden, Kathy Jonas, serves on the education committee of this association. Her colleague and Walden’s assistant director, Jen Levi Gammill,  picked me up from the airport when I arrived. I’d never met Jen, but she also was a “Waldenite” who attended camp 20 years after I did.

From the moment I encountered Jen at the airport in Portland, we had an immediate rapport. We filled our car ride with stories about the various legends of Walden, the songs, the activities, the legacy campers who were returning as counselors in the way campers have done for the entire history of the camp.

What struck me in this quick and immediately intimate discussion is that the culture of this 105-year-old institution (which, by the way, has had only five directors in its history) is so clear and established that it has survived for generations. There are new songs, of course, but the campers also know most of the old songs. I still wake up in the morning some days singing the songs I once sang in the dining hall in Denmark, Maine (insert apology to my partner here). The leadership systems as the girls enter different age groups are similar. The trip destinations are nearly identical (5-day canoeing on the St Croix, a major climb of Mt. Katahdin, Freeport and LL Bean). The uniform colors (brown and white as it turns out) have endured. The activities I enjoyed are still present, and some new ones are there (ropes courses, climbing walls, and other things that didn’t exist in the 70s).

But the values, the culture, the sounds, the deep connections of the campers to the history and to each other. All still there. This blew my mind. Of course, cultures evolve, but if you can intentionally preserve core values for over 105 years, or even five years, you’re doing something incredibly special.

So without getting too academic and with a bit of tongue in my cheek, here are all the tips I learned for culture-building from Camp Walden:

  1. Have songs. Have teams make them up using melodies of existing songs and facts about your organization. Sing them often so that people find themselves humming them in the shower in retirement.
  2. Do silly things, preferably building annual traditions. Pranks (putting the head counselor’s bed on a raft in the middle of the lake works), random mornings to open the office late, impromptu dance parties, s’mores.
  3. Create rituals. At Walden, the girls who “aged out” each year were the center of a “final campfire” where they lit a candle and released it onto the lake while the other campers sang songs to the oldest girls. I still remember the feeling of that night. Uncountable tears admixed with a peaceful resonance that I knew even then that I’d not forget.
  4. Instill roles and spotlight opportunities in leadership. Offer responsibilities, grow people intentionally, give people opportunities to try things they think they might be good at even if they’ve never done those things before. I was a literary editor of our summer yearbook. It was so collaborative, productive, and creative. 
  5. Make mentorship. Camp had “camp sisters” and “second mates.” Every single girl at camp was connected to at least two other girls who were older or younger, and there were practices associated with nurturing those relationships.
  6. Celebrate customers. Every year, the biggest deal was “Counselor Show,” a musical written and performed by the counselors to celebrate the oldest girls who were leaving camp that year. I can’t properly convey the anticipation and memories of this happening.

It’s not hard to see how those tips can contribute to establishing and nurturing culture at your company or organization. 

These tips have delivered a level of loyalty where customers proudly count themselves as alumni, and we say yes to every chance we get to return to this place that helped make us who we are, in all of our finest moments.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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