Friday, October 2, 2020

1994 - Great Customer Service and My First Child

Bob Telleen at Camp Manito-Wish YMCA


(40 Summers 40 Lessons Series)

“You will be a better father because you are a camp director and you will be a better camp director because you are a father.” Bob Telleen

Building rapport with others is a basic tenant of the sales pipeline. It happens in a matter of moments in any service relationship.

Bob Telleen was the YMCA of the USA’s Camp Specialist (the title has changed over the years) for the first 10 years of my career as a Camping and Youth Development professional. His role was at a national level and he worked to support the nearly 300 plus YMCA camps around the country. When I was back as the Camp Executive with Bluff Lake in 1993-98, he would often call and share resources with all the camp folks in similar roles. I had met Bob at an American Camp Association (ACA) and YMCA camp gathering of professionals.

While Bob had a sage like quality, he came across as more of a mentor and somewhat folksy. There was an instant liking to his charm and he had a very deliberate speaking style (often attributed to those in the mid-west).

My camp at that time was less than $1 million dollars a year budget. It was a three season camp; meaning we did not operate year round. It had only been around for 45 years. It was on 120 acres of land surrounded by National Forest Service. It served about 1500 to 2400 different campers each year. In contrast with the larger camps in the YMCA world, it was considered small. It is not my intention to downplay the significance; it is just a contrast in how it was perceived from many colleagues in the camping world.

Often times, at conferences, I would join in on conversations with fellow executive directors who would gather and talk about their financial accomplishments or building projects. In joining a group of directors, one would often hear, “I raised over $2.7 million for my new dining hall.” “I had over 3000 new participants for our outdoor education program.” “I am working on our Board development with Tim Allen.” “My camp is accessing another 2700 acres of property.”

It was always a measurement of added assets, greater dollar value and self accomplishment. I spoke to Bob about this and he would assure me that our value was just as much as those of those larger camp programs. I recall a few years later at a camping conference at a large camp facility where the building I was staying in was almost as large as my entire camp facility.

I had another great coach at the time, EJ Lugo; who told me I was trying to play in a pond that I did not fit in. She coached me toward changing the rules of that measurement game. The next year, at that same conference, I walked up and played a new game.

It sounded like this.

The YMCA camps have a self improvement program at called the “Ragger” program. Essentially, participants choose to challenge themselves in a year-long (or longer) time span to improve a quality of aspect about them. They receive a Rag (7 different colors representing different levels) and the first one is Blue in color. The Rag is an outward symbol of an inward goal and is just a rag, a piece of cloth. There is a ceremony where it is tied around the participant’s neck and they talk to a “counselor” about their individual challenge (s). I have seen life changing goals that youth as young as 12 have taken on.

So, I shifted the conversation at those conferences and meet ups. I would introduce myself and follow up with, “last summer our camp had 463 new Blue Raggers challenge themselves.” I may have been mocked and made fun of by some of those executive types and I knew that I was leaving a significant impact on those young people’s lives as well. And 100 years from now, I know that those buildings and fund raisers and the fact that Tim Allen served on a board will have little significance.

I share this because Bob had such an impact on my life and how he approached his work serving camps around the country. It has only been 30 years since I worked with him and I am still impacted by his generous spirit. Others; well, when measuring the top 30 camps (of over 300 in the system) they always seemed to have well over 65% of enrollments, finances, and assets. Bob still gave my camp and me a great deal of attention and mentoring. He saw that what I did was as valuable as any other and he helped me to find that in myself.

In 1994, I had just met Bob a few years prior and just in passing. He had promised that while swinging through the West Coast, he would stop by my camp sometime in 1995. (He did)

And it was on October 21, 1994, the day after my son Alec was born, that I got a call from Bob at home. He had tracked me down. I have no idea how he got my home number and this was before the full force of the internet and smart phones were still over a decade away.

He called, because he wanted to congratulate my wife and I on the birth of our first child. “You will be a better father because you are a camp director and you will be a better camp director because you are a father.”

Those words and that care from someone I had met in passing and who really believed that his role was to serve his “customers” that made a forever impact on how I approached my work and service. I had believed that I was really small and insignificant and Bob saw me as a vital part of the mission that we all performed in service of youth. He established a rapport and genuine connection that I took a hold and made it part of my own leadership style.

On his work at his former camp he said, “Manito-wish, most of all, is giving — to friends through support given, problems listened to, ideas exchanged — to a group, a goal, a shared experience.”

My experience with Bob and the leadership lesson he shared was that he taught me about giving, listening and sharing. He was one to follow and respect and his “leadership quotient” (As John Maxwell surmises) had people naturally wanting to follow him.

Simple Great Customer Service and a great way to lead.

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