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.
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.