LeadingAge Magazine · January/February 2012 • Volume 02 • Number 01

Hiring and Leading Creative Activities Staff

January 16, 2012 | by Michael McCann

The best activities staff are creative, multi-talented people. This provider tells us how to get the most out of them.

What type of person has the skill set to strategically plan for the future, concentrate on the here and now and make an impact on individuals as well as a community? It may be a CEO, but it is also an activities professional.

It takes a special person to work in activities. Activities associates have to be artists—able to create something from nothing. Their job goes beyond listing things to do on a calendar. Activities associates take a leading role in creating a community’s culture through programming opportunities. They have to act as counselors, spiritual guides, teachers, mentors, fitness gurus, and pop culture and current events experts. Activities people are creative at the core. Their qualities include:

  • Open-mindedness—the ability to look at things from different perspectives and avoid “marrying” one idea.
  • Skill in team building—ability to facilitate quality programs through the development and implementation of an interdisciplinary philosophy.
  • A positive outlook—“No” or “can’t do this” is not in the vocabulary.
  • Stewardship—ability to provide Cadillac programs on a Yugo budget.
  • Ability to question everything—these are the people who are never satisfied with an outcome. They are always looking to improve the next time.
  • Goal orientation—the ability to make concepts and dreams reality through strategic planning.

As an example of how a highly motivated, creative activities team thinks outside the box, consider the comprehensive community outreach program we developed at Friendship Village of Schaumburg, Schaumburg, IL. Typically, a volunteer program for a retirement community or CCRC brings individuals and groups onto campus to provide some type of service or assistance. The old volunteer paradigm would be for activities staff and volunteer coordinators to spend a tremendous amount of time working with outside groups and individuals wanting or needing to do volunteer service.

While these groups’ and individuals’ hearts were in the right place, we have found that this model creates more work for the activities team—to find a suitable program for the volunteers. In turn, we found that we did not have much opportunity for our residents who wished to volunteer. We felt we were actually doing a disservice to our residents by not connecting them to community outreach opportunities where they could be volunteers sharing their experience, skills and passions, rather than be the recipients of other people's volunteer efforts.

We now have more than 10 different outreach programs and projects our residents are involved with. In addition, there is an abundance of volunteering done on campus by residents in different areas throughout the continuum. This has brought us local, statewide and national awards and recognition for our residents, as well as coverage in several media outlets.

To help find the right creative person, encourage yourself to recruit and interview outside the box. This will help identify those with the ability to creatively think, challenge themselves and others to try new things, and push themselves out of their comfort zones.

With recruitment, there are numerous avenues one can take. The obvious route is looking at people with previous experience in activities, recreation or life enrichment in the aging-services field. However, I would also suggest other recruitment opportunities, for instance people related to the National Parks and Recreation Association, YMCA of the USA, or the hospitality industry. Social workers, teachers and educators may make good candidates.

These associates carry unique skill sets and typical interviewing techniques are not adequate to help find the right fit for your organization. Structure your interviews to identify people who not only can think big, but can follow through on the details required to make their ideas work. Here are some questions you might use in interviewing activities staff candidates:

1.  Why did you choose a career in working for seniors?
2.  What would be the first three things you would do if you got this position?
3.  How do you maintain balance in life? How does this incorporate time management?
4.  Can you describe a program that you were excited about, but which flopped? What lessons were learned?
5.  Tell me about a time you had to do conflict resolution.
6.  How are fitness and wellness incorporated in activity planning?
7.  How did you prepare for this interview?
8.  What is the most innovative thing you have done?
9.  What is your philosophy on showing “R” rated movies to residents?
10. What was it about this job that made you apply for it?
11. What do you know about people with dementia?
12. Describe your leadership skills and style.
13. Do you have computer or AV skills? If so, to what extent?
14.  Have you been a supervisor before? Describe the teams you have led.
15.  How do you deal with adversity and resistance to change? Give an example.
16.  How would you involve other departments in your activities?
17.  How would you include humor in your job? Tell me about a time when you put yourself “on stage” and laughed at yourself.
18.  What tools do you use to quantify what you do? How do you track your programs?
19.  Are you comfortable dressing in costume?
20.  Tell me about any professional presentations you have done.

    Do not settle for canned answers that are vague and rehearsed. Look for specific examples that are quantifiable and detailed.

    Question 9 is one I ask in every interview. I am looking for employees who will treat residents as adults with age-appropriate programs. Providing residents the opportunity to choose their own movies and listing the reasons why the movie is rated R and respecting their age leads to this discussion. Remember, The King’s Speech was rated R.

    As you lead your activity team, you will have to be aware that creative people are a different breed of leader, but leaders nonetheless. Activities staff continually look at what is upcoming, and must move from one program or event to the next. Because of this, it will be important to make sure you are taking time to do program evaluations and debriefing after events so new ideas and lessons learned are not lost.

    To manage creative people, there are a few important things to keep in mind:

    • Supervision: Creative people are happiest when they get little or no supervision. They like to be independent and autonomous. Creative people intensely dislike doing routine, low-grade chores and paperwork. They work best in an atmosphere of freedom—to experiment and to make mistakes. Thus, a favorable environment and the proper style of supervision are absolutely critical to creative people’s success. It is impossible to separate creative people from the environment in which they operate.
    • Criticism: For managers to mold an environment that is maximally conducive to creativity, they must be extremely careful about giving criticism. Criticism must be in the form of feedback that a creative person views as attempt to help, to teach, and not in the form of anything approaching personal criticism. Criticism must be done in an encouraging manner. Rev. Shawn Kafader, a member of our activities staff, offers his take on what he needs from his supervisor: “I need to feel that I can be transparent concerning my program planning. When this atmosphere is established I am open to alternative ideas and constructive criticism, while I am empowered to press forward with the things that I know will work in a given situation. Transparency establishes an open exchange of ideas that results in a win-win for all.”
    • Planning and meetings: When conducting a staff meeting with creative people it is important to maintain structure while still giving the group time to brainstorm, interact and throw ideas at the wall to see what sticks. This can easily get out of hand as one idea can lead to the next and so on, taking the initial conversation off track. A leader of creative teams is able to find the balance between free thinking, interacting and maintaining a structured meeting so time is not wasted.
    • Respect: Many activity personnel feel that they are a dumping ground for planning parties, events, etc., but not respected enough to be part of an organization’s strategic master plan. They may feel as if they are looked upon as glorified “ball-tossers” and the level of professionalism they use in planning, budgeting, marketing and overall leadership is disregarded. Maintain a balance by involving the activity team in interdisciplinary teams and organizational planning so they feel respected and valued.

    Managers who deal successfully with creative employees tend to show the following characteristics:

    • They respect individual differences.
    • They understand the creative process.
    • They know how to communicate sympathetically with creative people.
    • They give credit and recognition.
    • They take calculated risks.
    • They provide inspiration in the form of support and encouragement
    • They bolster self-confidence.
    • They are flexible and have flexible organizations.
    • They welcome and encourage constructive individuality and diversity.
    • They involve creative people in the planning and decision-making process at the earliest possible moment.
    • They allow creative people to try their pet projects and ideas without fear of criticism.

    Creativity, either in an individual or a team, is a behavior that brings about positive attitudes and dynamic results. It’s all about how you approach things—looking at opportunities in every situation, piece of news or new technology that might help you serve residents. Creativity in your reaction to circumstances is a learned behavior, a matter of embracing the philosophy that any crisis equals an opportunity. A team’s creativity is like a muscle; the more it uses it, the stronger it gets. The key to success is to build a staff that can advance a philosophy that values experimentation and take chances with courage and confidence.