With Both Feet

I’m jumping back into conservation work with both feet after a six year hiatus. This decision was not an easy one, but it’s been made and I’m thrilled to find myself back in a leadership role, helping to protect an extraordinary landscape – the Crown of the Continent – while working to ensure communities and landscapes can adapt to climate change along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

About eight months ago I was beginning my professional transition from British Columbia back to Alberta and quickly I had to confront some of the challenging situations I had left behind in this province.

Six years ago I resigned as the Executive Director of Wildcanada.net, an organization I had helped found in the late 1990’s, and lead for the better part of seven years. When I helped launch that organization I told our founding Board of Directors that I would do the work for five to seven years, and when I made the decision to leave, I knew that my time was up. With the Board of Directors, and some independent coaching, I planned an eighteen month leadership transition. But the plan fell apart, and the organization fell with it.

One of my greatest professional regrets, so far, is that I wasn’t able to step back into the ED position at Wildcanada.net and hold it together. But I was burnt out. I had just moved to BC with my family and my second son had been born, and I had taken on new commitments with clients and a book. I simply couldn’t step back in, though many times now I’ve questioned that decision.

I’d been doing full time conservation work for twelve years by then, on the front lines of some very difficult campaigns: federal endangered species legislation, a new National Parks Act, the battle to protect Banff and other National Parks from crass exploitation, the highly publicized and successful campaign to protect Alberta’s Kananaskis Country, and the fiery debate over the protection of grizzly bears in Alberta, to name just a few.

I was also burnt out from the singular responsibility for managing Wildcanada.net’s finances. Being somewhat on the Type A side of things, I knew that I had to raise $1,730 every single working day to keep Wildcanada.net’s lights on, databases humming and staff employed. Over time, help arrived by way of an amazing program director for our social profit enterprise, ActionWorks.ca, but it was still a tremendous burden. Because we weren’t a charity – an impossibility due to draconian charitable laws in Canada that say you can’t ask people to lobby their elected officials – raising that $1,700/day became an overwhelming challenge.

So we let Wildcanada.net come to an end, and some felt it was premature. Our network of 35,000 was gifted to another national conservation organization, and we sold ActionWorks.ca to a competitor to pay off our debts. Organizations – like people – have life spans, and when one reaches its end, sometimes we just have to let go. But it didn’t mean that everybody liked the decision.

And we didn’t do it all in a way that made everybody happy. I took responsibility for our mistakes, and still do. We did our best to make amends, but in some cases hard feelings persisted. In some cases those hard feelings existed mostly in my guilt-laden mind; I remember having dinner with a former colleague about three years ago and was flabbergasted to learn that he didn’t harbor any hurt feelings about my leadership, but in fact he himself felt bad for having not been able to do more to keep the organization alive. We forgave one-another. Another such moment came when several of my former colleagues collectively called from a dinner party to say hello and to assure me that they felt no ill will. That call was like cool waters poured on a burn.

Sometimes you can rebuild trust, and sometimes you can’t. I think the final bridge that I can possibly rebuild was mended recently when I had lunch with a friend who was undergoing a similar transition in an organization that he had lead for a decade. He shared his own disappointment with me: Wildcanada.net, he said, held such promise, and his frustration was that we hadn’t been able to capitalize on that hope. We talked it through, and he suggested that before I stepped back into the conservation movement, and Alberta, that I might write down some of what I’d learned over the last six years.

And given that I’m taking such a step tomorrow, no better time than the present.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned:

1)      When taking on a leadership role, walk before you can run.

Whether you’re building something from scratch, or taking over a program, department or organization, build a stable foundation on which to grow. Create concrete systems – from human resources to financial planning and accounting – that will endure through changes and challenges in the organization’s development. Couple this with an ambitious, but realistic, effort to create early success that helps define the program or organization’s value.

2)      Secure a solid team.

Hire high on the wage scale. Invest time and energy and money to bring good people into the program or organization that you can count on to help with the burden of vision and leadership. Invest in the hiring, training and retention process.

3)      Diversify revenue early.

From the earliest possible moment, take steps to diversify the revenue of the program or organization. As an ED, and as a consultant, I’ve seen too many organization’s dependent on just foundation revenue for their survival. Earned income, major and small gifts, corporate donors and planned giving should be considered from the very start of an organization’s fundraising efforts.

4)      Mark the hard decisions in a timely way.

Through Carry Tiger to Mountain, I have espoused allowing time to make difficult decisions, but this should be bounded by the need to ground decisions in real world timeframes. One of the biggest mistakes I made while at Wildcanada.net came when I had budgeted to receive a sustaining grant from a foundation which, by complete surprise, didn’t come. I still remember opening the envelope from the Foundation expecting a cheque for $50K US to fall out, and instead read the rejection letter. I should have taken quick steps to mitigate this crippling blow to our finances by laying off the staff position that the money was to be dedicated to. But I didn’t. Instead I tried to fundraise our way out of the hole. That was more than 18 months before Wildcanada.net closed its doors, but we were never again able to make up for that financial challenge. (See # 3 above.)

5)      When things start to look crazy, get help.

At the time my ego wouldn’t let me do this. I had some help from Board members and from my professional coach, but I needed real assistance in dealing with things like financial management – keeping the various streams of income and expenses separate – that I failed to reach out for. And when I was planning the leadership transition, I simply didn’t consider all of the contingency measures that might be needed. In the end it was this failed leadership transition that did us in.

6)      Lead the transition.

I came at the issue of leadership transition with the exact opposite attitude than I should have. I believed that it was the responsibility of my small, but capable Board of Directors, to lead this transition process. I hoped that in doing so they would feel an ownership of the organization that had been missing so far. This isn’t uncommon for organizations that start the way Wildcanada.net did: a leader comes forward with a good idea and gets the ball rolling and because to formally incorporate you need a Board of Directors, you get some capable people together to help out, with the promise that it won’t be too much work.

What I now understand is that for any leadership transition to be successful, the out-going leader has to play a much larger role than simply mapping out the strategy. He or she has to lead the organization through the transition, leaving enough room for the Board and other leaders to take ownership, but at the end of the day the outgoing ED or CEO must shoulder the challenge of the transition.

That means saving some energy for that process, rather than flaming out and running screaming from the burning building.

There’s more, of course, but sometimes it’s best to just let go. As Michael Franti says, “Remember you have to reach high to be risen; the day you let go is the day you are forgiven.”

Jenn and many others remind me that Wildcanada.net did amazing work. Over the course of our seven year run, we worked on more than sixty five campaigns across Canada. At the time we had the largest online conservation network in the country and were among a handful of leaders in the online activism world. We helped pass the Species at Risk Act and helped stop the grizzly bear hunt in Alberta. We gave hundreds of small organizations struggling across the country a connection to the passion of the conservation movement they would never realize working in isolation from one another.

I’ve been coming to terms with this experience now since leaving Wildcanada.net and Alberta six years ago. Now I’m back in Alberta, and feel blessed everyday to wake up and be living in the most beautiful place on earth. And now I’m set to jump, with both feet, back into the critical effort to protect this magnificent place.

I’m doing so knowing that I will make brand new mistakes along the way, and will work hard to apply what I’ve learned to my new effort. I promise to do my very best. I will do this because the wild creatures and places, and human communities that depend on them, deserve my very best effort to ensure their survival. And because it’s an honour to serve this wild and magnificent place we call home.

The Flathead River Valley in south-estern BC, part of the Crown of the Continent

How Dharma Unfolds

Tomorrow morning I’m going to get up and go to work for the first time in a year and a half.

It’s not like I’ve been sitting around doing nothing for the last 18 months, but I haven’t had a job where I go to an office or report to an employer since leaving Royal Roads University at the end of July 2009.

Tomorrow I begin a position as the Initiative Coordinator for the Crown of the Continent Conservation Initiative (CCCI). As I’ve said elsewhere, this is a new position and my main role will be to serve a partnership of conservation groups in Canada and the United States in protecting and restoring a vast swath of the Rocky Mountains, all through the lens of creating a climate change refuge. It’s exciting and a little daunting, and it marks a major change in my life’s direction. Six years ago when I left Wildcanda.net, the organization I had helped found, I doubted I’d ever return to the conservation movement. I had allowed it to take its toll on me. But time has a way of expunging the pain of difficult memories and leaving learning as the residue; the last six years have proven to be rich in such learning.

One thing I’ve learned is that the process of finding ones Dharma – our purpose in life – is a constantly unfolding progression of experiences and experiments. It’s not a destination, something that we can arrive at and settle into, but a constantly evolving series of events that we discover on our journey.

A year and a half ago, when Royal Roads cut my position as Senior Development Officer for Sustainability, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. At the time I mused that the job was coming between me and my dharma, which was to write. I took the termination of the position, due to budget constraints brought on by the economic downturn, as a sign-post pointing me in the direction of my true work. And I seized on it.

In the ensuing 18 months I finished writing The Darkening Archipelago, the second Cole Blackwater mystery, and enjoyed its launch last March. I developed a detailed outline for a three book series called The Red Rock Canyon Mysteries (while sitting on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon; nice work if you can get it) and have found a publisher for the books. I’m half way through penning the first book in the series called The Slickrock Paradox. I wrote, from beginning to end, the first book in a series of historical mysteries called The End of the Line, wrote the outline for half a dozen more, and began detailed research and wrote the outline for the second book, The Third Riel Rebellion. The End of the Line will be released next September. The same publisher, Touchwood, will release the third novel in the Cole Blackwater series, provisionally named The Lucky Strike Manifesto, in the spring of 2012. And I’ve written a (rather sparse) first draft of a stand-alone thriller Thicker Than Blood.

Busy, busy. Hard to argue that I’ve not been capitalizing on what I dubbed The Third Coincidence over the last year and a half. All of this has come while trying to revitalize my consulting firm, Highwater Mark Strategy and Communication, raise two heart-breakingly beautiful boys, be a good husband, and move from BC back to Alberta.

Highwater Mark was how I have earned my living, more or less, for the last six years. But that’s where the strategy broke down. I’m not very good at the business side of consulting. Or maybe I’d lost the gumption needed to sell myself. As a one-person operation, I’ve managed to attract some very exciting clients to work with, and I feel that we’ve done some extraordinary work together, but developing long term, profitable client relationships hasn’t been my forte. At times I’ve been able to attract three, four, even five clients at once, but they’ve rarely been sustaining when it comes to my fiscal bottom line. I’ve enjoyed several good years, where my final balance sheet revealed decent income, but then have fallen victim to weighty income tax bills and bad tax planning. And even during the two or three really good years, it’s been difficult riding the ups and downs of a consultant’s cash flow – some months amazing, others dismal – while trying to raise a family. I have several good friends in the business who have managed to do it; I have not.

The work itself was sometimes blissful – especially when working with clients where we came together to solve complex problems and develop lasting solutions – but sometimes it was just plain hard to see how I would pay the rent the following month.

As I’ve noted in previous essay’s on this subject, I don’t believe in coincidence. What to some seems like “something that happens by chance in a surprising or remarkable way” to me are signals for the direction I am supposed to take my life in. As the time for my families move back to Alberta neared, I was wondering how, exactly, I would relocate my struggling consulting practice to a province where I’d only had two of my more than thirty clients over the last six years? I had developed a strategy to market my services to Alberta’s non-profits and green businesses, but felt a sense of despondency at having to start from scratch building a professional network again.

And then something extraordinary happened. Jenn sent me a job posting for the Initiative Coordinator position for the CCCI. Not only was I intimately familiar with this work, but I could do the job from Canmore, where I was moving to. And I was excited by it; I felt my passion for wilderness stir once more.

There are no coincidences. I applied, had a couple of tough but rewarding interviews, and several months later was offered the job. I start tomorrow.

One of the questions I was asked during the interview was how I would balance my writing with this full-time, and what promises to be demanding, position? Good question. The difficult answer is that writing will have to take a back-seat to my work for the CCCI for the time being. My aspiration is to continue to get up early and get two hours of writing in each morning before the rest of the day begins. Doing that, I should be able to keep up the pace – a book every six months or so — that my publisher and I have agreed to. If not, we may have to slow things down. The sad truth is that while I’ve been exceptionally productive over the last eighteen months in developing stories and writing books, it will be some time before the fruits of those labors materialize in my bank account.

Everything happens for a reason, and this change in course is no different. I am deeply, passionately committed to conservation, and have been eager to get back involved with the effort to protect the mountain landscapes I love. For the last six years I’ve been learning skills and strategies for achieving success from outside the conservation movement that I can now apply to my work in the Crown of the Continent. A little while ago I wrote Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership, and its high-time I applied what I was espousing in that book to see if it holds up under pressure.

My history with Wildcanada.net is something that I’ve had to come-to-terms with over the last six years. I was 28 years old when I helped found this national endeavor, and had never balanced a cheque book when I began managing its four-hundred thousand dollar a year budget. We did some extraordinary work, and had real on-the-ground conservation victories, but I was in way over my head. I have dedicated a lot of time and energy over the last six years to coming to terms with Wildcanada.net’s successes and failures, and my role in them. I was asked to discuss them when interviewing for the CCCI position. I expect some written disclosure is forthcoming, but that’s for another time.

What I’ve concluded from all of this is that amazing opportunities like this work with CCCI don’t happen very often in little towns like Canmore, Alberta; it’s no coincidence I moved back here just weeks before being offered the job, for this too is part of my dharma. This is how our purpose reveals itself; how our dharma unfolds.

The Arc of Evolution

After nearly six years, and serving more than thirty-five clients across Canada, Highwater Mark Strategy and Communications is evolving. I have accepted an exciting new position with an international conservation effort called the Crown of the Continent Conservation Initiative (CCCI) where I will be the Initiative Coordinator. I’ll officially be employed, full time, by the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, an organization I played a leadership role with as a board member from 1997 through 2004. I’ll work from Canmore, Alberta, where my family and I are settling in nicely after our December move.

My work with CCCI starts on Monday, the 14th, fittingly Valentine’s day. There will be chocolates and flowers.

For the last six years Highwater Mark has been the tool with which I have tried to make the world a better place. Coming on the heels of a dozen years as a full time activist and as Executive Director of a small, scrappy conservation group concentrating on wilderness protection and endangered species preservation, I needed to step back and see if what I had learned could be applied more broadly to help civil society. That was 2005. For the last six years I have worked with a wide spectrum of clients: Ontario’s Voices for Children and Victoria’s Steering Committee on Homelessness; Vancity Credit Union and Mountain Equipment Co-op,  Salt Spring Coffee and Holland Barrs Planning. I worked with governments too: the BC Ministry of Labour and Citizen Services, the Regional District of Nanaimo, and the North Shore Recycling Project.

And I worked with friends old and new in the environmental movement: The Sierra Club BC, the Stanley Park Ecology Society, The Pacific Resources Conservation Society and the Flathead Wild team, including Wildsight and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

It was an often intense and rewarding time, and I learned a great deal, some of which I will try to capture in future blog posts.

I can’t say what the future holds for Highwater Mark. For the time being I’m going to continue to volunteer as a strategic advisor to MitoCanada, a new national health care organization serving people suffering from the debilitating and often life-threatening illness of mitochondrial disease. I’m also helping the Advocate for Children and Youth for the Province of Ontario with an organizational merger with another former client.  And I’m going to do my best to synthesis the last six years of my work to try and leave behind a little insight into how leaders, and their organizations, work (and sometimes don’t) in the day to day effort to make the world a better place. And I will continue to publish books: that will be in my free time.

That’s what the last six years has been for me: an effort to help those who are helping children, families, the homeless, the sick, and the wild things and the places they need to survive. It’s been an honor to serve so many amazing people and organizations.

I see this next stage in my career as an evolution: my great hope is that I can bring all that I learned as an advocate and Executive Director together with the spiritual approach to leadership and advocacy I wrote about in Carry Tiger to Mountain, along with the new skills I built helping businesses, governments and social-profit organizations, to the Crown of the Continent. Sometimes when you’re undergoing these changes in trajectory it’s hard to see how one evolves into the next. But when you stand back its possible to see the arc of that evolution clearly, as I see it now.

My work with the Crown of the Continent Conservation Initiative will be to serve those who are protecting a massive swath of extraordinary land south from Alberta’s Kananaskis Country to Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, and east from the Rocky Mountain foothills and front to the Columbia Valley in the west. It will be conducted through the lens of preserving a climate-change ark; a refuge where wild things and the human communities that thrive along with them can change and adapt in a world of flux. It is one of the great challenges of our time, and I’m excited to find myself in the middle of it once again.

I have been preparing all of my professional life for a challenge and an opportunity like this. To bring together my passion for the mountains, for wilderness, for wild creatures; and to use the skills I’ve developed as a facilitator, coordinator, planner and advocate under one banner to make things just a little better, for the wild blue-green earth and all those who call it home.

Thanks for being a part of the last six years. I hope I can count on you to be along for the wild ride that starts on Monday.

Three Novel Month

January was a three novel month. It started with the penning, from start to finish, of a new thriller called Thicker than Blood; it continued with editing the forthcoming Cole Blackwater novel called The Lucky Strike Manifesto, and finished with me starting work on The Slickrock Paradox, the first of three books planned for The Red Rock Canyon Mysteries series.

Thicker than Blood was born of two of my greatest fears: going to prison and losing my children. Sometime, maybe a year ago, and just for fun, I started thinking about what made me most terrified. Prison is right up there. I’ve always said that if I faced prison, I would run. (If you are a prosecuting attorney, please stop reading now.) I wouldn’t last in prison. I’m no good in confined spaces. My body simply wouldn’t stand up to prison tats. Now, I have no plans of ending up in a situation where I’d be faced with this choice, but sometimes bad things happen to good people, and they end up doing things that society frowns on.

And sometimes police and prosecutors make mistakes, such as they did with Donald Marshall Jr., David Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin.

I thought about that scenario for a while. I guess this is what writers do. It wasn’t until I imagined what I would do if Rio or Silas faced jail – even as juveniles – that I realized I had a possible plot line. From there, the story just wrote itself. As I often do with fiction, I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the process letting my brain sort out the variables of the plot. Who are these people who are telling this story? What drives them? What makes them, like me, afraid? How far are they willing to go?

I wanted this story to be a departure from the genre mysteries I’ve been writing, so I added an element: family. Thicker than Blood, as the name suggests is about the bonds between parents and children that allow us to do the most extraordinary things for those who we love.

I’ve posted a page in the “Works” section of my website that gives a teaser of what the story is about. As with most everything I write these days, I penned the opening couple of chapters about six months before I sat down and worked through the rest of the book. That allowed me to play with the voices in the story. Inspired by reading Linwood Barkley’s Never Look Away, I decided to try something new in Thicker than Blood: the protagonist would tell his story in first-person while alternating chapters, featuring other characters, would be in third person. I’ve never written fiction in first-person, and it took some getting used to, but I think it worked.

Thicker than Blood needs a lot of work. The day after I finished the first draft Jenn and I flew to Mexico, to the Yucatan Peninsula, where the book is set. And while part of our trip was rest and relaxation, we did a lot of research while there on the locations featured in the novel, including the city of Chetumal and the fishing port of Xcalak. The book currently stands at a little over 71,000 words and reads like a thriller on crack; there’s little in the way of texture yet; the characters rush through the plot as if catapulting towards the dramatic conclusion. It’s a work in progress and my next step is to polish the first few chapters, along with the outline and see about finding a publisher for it.

After returning from Mexico in the third week of the month, I set my sights on an edit of The Lucky Strike Manifesto. I recently posted a long blog on the development of this book, which if you’re having trouble sleeping is worth a read. Touchwood Editions, who is publishing my novel The End of the Line, has agreed to pick up The Cole Blackwater Series, bless their hearts. The Lucky Strike will be the third installment of this environmentally themed murder mystery series, and we hope to release it in the spring of 2012, about a year from now.

It’s an ominous sign as a writer when you’re penning a novel, just humming along, and spell check decides to go on strike. It’s not that Word, or Microsoft, experienced their normal brain-freezes. No: spell check simply couldn’t count all the errors anymore and point them out with the little squiggly red lines, so it shut itself off. This was because the Lucky Strike, until very recently, was over 530 pages long, and 140,000 words. In this publishing environment, that’s too damned long, and my publisher not so subtly hinted that some trimming was in order (she sent me a chain saw and a coupon for extra gas).

Now, I love the editing process. I have no formal training as a writer, so the closest I’m going to come to being schooled in the literary arts is to work with a great editor. Touchwood assigned a good friend of mine, Frances Thorsen – who owns Chronicles of Crime bookstore in Victoria – to work with me on the End of the Line, and it was nothing short of amazing. Day by day I could watch the book getting better. The editorial process, with Frances and I working back and forth, chapter by chapter, was so much fun that I was sorry when it came to and end and the book was finished.

No I get to do that again with the Lucky Strike. I managed to trim 10,000 words in my first read-through (draft eight if you’re keeping track….) and now its over to Frances.

I took a day off the 5 a.m. grind, and then sat down to write the outline of novel three for the month: The Slickrock Paradox. I do this free-hand, usually with five or six sheets of butcher paper, or in this case, a legal pad. With these novels I’d mapped out a three-book series called The Red Rock Canyon Mysteries a year-and-a-half ago while traveling around the American Southwest. I used that outline to plot out a chapter by chapter approach to the first novel, which Touchwood has also agreed to publish.

Pause for a moment: Touchwood Editions has agreed to publish not one, not two, but three of my mysteries series. Since 1994 I’ve been trying to publish books. I have a PFO file (Please %$*# off) an inch thick with letters of rejection. Now, this modest sized Victoria BC publisher wants to publish a book of mine every six months. First the Durrant Wallace series, starting in September of this year; then the Cole Blackwater Series in the spring of 2012; and then the Red Rock Canyon Mysteries, starting in the fall of 2012. And start again, with the next Durrant Wallace novel. Every. Six. Months.

This is also the first time a publisher has agreed to pick up one of my books having only read the first chapter and an outline of the first three novels.

That kind of confidence by a publisher in my writing is what gets me up at 5 a.m. six mornings a week so I can write, as well as earn a modest living making the world a better place through my consulting and (forthcoming) return to conservation work.

On the last day of January, I started work on The Slickrock Paradox. Its set in Arches National Park, on the Hopi Reservation, in Canyonlands National Park, the Castle Valley, the Behind the Rocks area near Moab, and half a dozen other parts of the American Southwest that I love nearly as much as I do my home in the Canadian Rockies, and have been fascinated with since reading The Fools Progress, my first Edward Abbey novel in 1990.

Every time I start a new project, I always worry a little that it might not work. Writing Cole Blackwater was so easy, so effortless, so blissful, that I worried that it was just him; just Cole. When I wrote Durrant Wallace, it worked too. And so did Thicker than Blood. And I’m pleased to report, five days, 100 pages, and 33,000 words in that the Slickrock Paradox is coming together just fine, thank-you very much.

February is looking good.