[Life Back West] August 2011 – “Same Time Next Year”

The Passage of Time

Image by ToniVC via Flickr

Only the hopeful and the perhaps the ignorant confuse voluntary associations with work groups.

Yet the fact of the matter is that there are elements from the world of voluntary relationships that can help more than just a few work groups perform better and even have a little more fun.

These opportunities for shared lessons came to mind with the fifth version last month of what’s become an annual pilgrimage up to San Francisco Recreation & Park’s Camp Mather near the Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite Valleys in the California Sierras.

With my now 9-year old in tow, the week was an excuse to let someone else do the cooking, enjoy a little nature, catch up on some reading, and renew valued acquaintances.

Five years ago the Smith-Wallis pack fell in with a group of five or six families that shared two common attributes – all were families with kids who had been adopted and all of us lived in San Francisco. There was not much else in common except that without coordination we ended up in all years but one coming to the camp in the same week of a ten-week summer session. Since camp admission is by lottery, it has made the serendipity of camaraderie all the more unusual.

Not unlike work groups that have predictable stages of group formation, the first couple of years at Camp Mather had its share of bumps and bruises as kids – and parents – in this ad hoc group sorted out whether they could play nice with each other. It turns out that one family self-selected out – asthma was the official reason – and the group of families that’s remained has grown to be a group that I relish seeing each year.

Like many voluntary (as opposed to volunteer) groups, there are no formal rules or directives but in our case there’s an element of welcomed association which has informed how the parents – sometimes couples but occasionally parents camping as a solo – relate with each other and tackle the mundane chore of making sure a group of five to eight 6 to 9 year olds get along with each other – and their parents. Things like covering for each other, taking turns in chaperoning kids, and being that set of eyes in the back of your head you always wanted have come naturally to the group. Dinner-time has even taken an added twist as “cocktail” hour has morphed into families taking turns hosting chips, some cheap wine, child-friendly beverages, and assorted other snacks.

Work teams could take lessons from the ease – perhaps lightness is a better word – with which the families and kids mingle. While being an adoptive parent is an intentional act (e.g. the kids don’t just show up by accident) and the parents are frankly a pretty dedicated lot, there’s a sense that the group has taken some of actress Melissa Cannon’s advice to heart: “Don’t take yourself too dang seriously. If you remember that, you will always have a good experience on the set. If you are too serious, you miss out on making friends with the make-up artists, set-hands, and whoever else is there.

While there may always be the issue of looking good (if not always doing well) that can exist in the workplace, there is little to spare Camp Mather pride and appearance from a denting or two. Thin cabin walls and other close quarters, and the predictable meltdowns that occur at the 5:00 PM “ugly hour” from kids running full bore all day strip any pretense of parenting mastery away pretty quickly.

Work teams could learn a lesson or two from the group’s “Camp Mather” approach; a little more heart and humor and a little less hubris and head honchoing – something that would do many work groups a heap of good.

As smiling campers left last week the sentiment was universally the same: “Great to spend time with you, and hope to see you same time next year.

We should all be so lucky to have similar feelings about all the people with whom we all work.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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