By Pam McDonald

As the supervisor of carnival barkers at a popular amusement park, Cole Lindbergh successfully hired a 120-member team each season—despite low wages, suboptimal working conditions, and tasks that can be difficult and frustrating. In an interview with Senior Living Foresight’s Publisher Steve Moran, Cole describes some of his secrets for retaining staff. Below are lightly edited takeaways from the interview. You can listen to the entire episode here.

For many years, I ran carnival games for an amusement park in Kansas City called Worlds of Fun, which is part of a bigger corporate entity. I was in charge of 32 midway games — everything from “Break the Plate” to “Guess the Age” to “Balloon Darts”, and an arcade. I was in charge of all inventory management, maintenance of rules, the signs and, most importantly, I was in charge of hiring.

It’s a seasonal job, basically from April until October. So, every year I’d hire staff and then fire them at the end of October. I had about 120 people working for me with an average age of 17. The great thing about my staff was that every year I had one of the highest retention rates in the entire company. I got back about 80% of my staff.

Retaining Staff Had A Lot to Do with the Park’s Culture

A lot of times, people would work on the midway through high school, even all the way into college. And, when I lost people, it wasn’t about the money. It was because it was a fun job. You were getting up in front of people and trying to get them to win a prize. It was creating this family environment where people would come back year after a year and play. It had a lot more to do with the atmosphere and the culture that we tried to create at that amusement park. 

It’s a fun job; it is meant to be a fun job. And so, we were looking for people with a certain personality to get up in front of people and say, ‘Hey, come on over here. I’ll guess your weight; I’ll guess your birthday. Come on, give it a try. Get the ball in the can.’ We recruited heavily with high school drama departments and forensic and debate teams. It was really identifying that candidate and then doing everything we can to bring out that personality that would be all right with getting in front of people and talking.

Accepting that Anything that Can Happen Will Happen

The big thing, and this is especially true when you’re dealing with teenagers is that things are always changing. You have to be willing to accept that there are things that are going to happen that are out of your control, right? I think a lot of times managers get into positions where they’re like, ‘Ah, that will never happen, never us.’ So, I accepted that anything that can happen will happen.

This is somebody’s first job. I have to be supportive; I have to be organized and I have to take care of them. But also, my goal is to extend it further than this just being a first job. I want them to enjoy this first job and use those skills for jobs in the future.

Listening and Being Open

The big thing that we did was we always were 100% active in our leadership. We were there every day, training, talking, and, on top of that, listening for new ideas. I have to listen, and I have to understand because they could just as easily go find another job at McDonald’s across the street.

But I have to get them to buy into my system, into this atmosphere at the park. I am there 100% of the time every day listening, trying to come up with new ideas. And when you have an environment where there’s that push and pull and people are willing to talk and come up with ideas, they just buy into the job more.

It’s About the Experience; People Coming Together and Enjoying Themselves

Bringing a family to an amusement park is costly. You have to have this environment of fun and your team has to be outgoing and willing to be silly to try to get people to play, because, in essence, the job is silly. I’m the number one fun leader, right? I’m the number one silly guy. I’ve got to lead by example – and give prizes everywhere, all over the place.

What the prize is doesn’t matter at all. It’s about the experience. It’s about people coming and enjoying. And that extends to the employees as well. If they enjoy it and have fun with what they’re doing, then the people playing the games are going to enjoy what they’re doing. That’s a whole attitude that just starts at the top and works its way all the way down. And that’s why staff comes back every year. We are having fun, giving out prizes, and coming up with new ideas.

Training Day and Onboarding That’s A Celebration

We had a thing called Training Day, where I would train all new people in one day. Everybody all at the same time. A four-hour training session that would involve the basics – talking about the job, talking about what they’re going to be doing this summer. But then it was ‘we’re getting you in the game, getting you talking to people right from day one.’

To me, training day is the single most important day of a job, because if I can’t sell you on the vision or the thought, then I’m done. I want you to leave training day knowing exactly what to expect with the job and then once the park opens, if I did a good job of my training, I can put you in a game. You may not be the greatest games kid in the world, but I can absolutely work with you to make it better and better and better and better.

Onboarding, that’s the first day everybody is back together after they’ve been fired. That’s the day to get everyone excited. They get in the game, learn the games, meet their leadership team, meet the people they’re going to be working with in a group with all other new people. Right away you’ve got a hundred new friends. It’s just a constant churn of getting people excited. It’s like a celebration.

Accommodating Real Life

It’s a little trickier towards the end of the year when you’re hiring teenagers. They’re heavily involved in September and October. There’s homecoming, college football games, the Halloween party. I have to be open to scheduling and working through those situations. I’m not going to deny a 16-year-old going to their homecoming dance.

It’s about letting them know it’s okay to take a break and recharge your batteries. It’s hard to go out there all summer long in a hundred-degree heat and talk to people all day. It weighs on you. It turns into a grind. But that’s where my job is to make it fun. We do competitions, have a water gun fight, or change the game up, making things new and being okay with that change. If it becomes stagnant or stale, then they’re not going to come back.

Resolving Problems, Handling “Parkmares”

Even though I haven’t worked full time at the park in a while, anyone who has experiences something called “parkmares”. I have a lot of little ones, like running out of supplies for the games, because if you can’t run a game, you’re not going to make money.

And, you can never really predict. There are always those days that surprise you. It is always an environment that is constantly going to change. Then it’s how are we going to work around this to make it better? My whole Saturday night may turn into trying to find balloons for a dart game and I have to be okay with that. Sometimes we forget that our customer’s experience is really more important than the product or the service that’s being sold.