What not-for-profits can learn from a Canadian explorer

Change is challenging, but the rewards that come from adaptation and persistence are high. Learn from Bruce Kirkby, Canadian explorer, how pushing beyond your comfort zone can help drive not-for-profit innovation and growth.

What’s your professional background, and can you tell us about the journey that led you to build a career out of travel and exploration?

It certainly wasn’t something I foresaw in my youth. I was the classic geek in high school: good at math and science, unremarkable in both sports and art. I studied engineering physics at university, then quit my first and only real job after just four months to become a white-water rafting guide.

In the way that one thing leads to another, twenty years of guiding in the Canadian Arctic lead to sea kayaking in Borneo, crossing Saudi Arabia by camel and Mongolia by horse, then descending Ethiopia’s Blue Nile with National Geographic and traversing Iceland by foot. Despite failing English, I wrote a book. People liked it, so I wrote another, which lead to magazine assignments and a weekly travel column in the Globe and Mail. My wife often accompanies me on my journeys, and now that we have a young family, the boys will come too.

The underlying ethos that guides my personal journey is hard work, patience and persistence. I’ve pursued making the world a better place, amplifying the voices of threatened cultures, wild places and underrepresented groups in all the ways that I can – through words, photographs and film. At the core, I believe in the precious nature of life and the extraordinary abilities of all people. That is what I try to share in my speaking.

Canadian not-for-profits and charities often face an incredible amount of uncertainty – for example, resource constraints, turnover, volunteer management, etc. What’s your advice to CPAs and other business leaders who want to navigate change more effectively?

Change is never comfortable. Even less comfortable is the change we find thrust upon us by disruption or volatile circumstances. While the tendency is to retreat, it doesn’t have to be that way. Change represents the archetypal story of human growth and evolution. It is a process we are all familiar with from our youthful days of climbing trees, riding bikes and skinning knees. Sadly, with time and socialization, most of us evolve to avoid change, seeking certainty and security instead.

If we are able to remaster the simple journey of change – no matter how small or insignificant our first challenge to accomplish that may seem – it quickly becomes transferable into the type of game-changing reinvention that business leaders face in the modern workplace. Even the most daunting journey of change can be broken down into smaller, repeatable, recognizable parts.

How can organizations ensure they are equipping their people with the right knowledge and support to be not only successful and sustainable, but innovative as well?

In any journey of change, we will inevitably face fear, scrutiny and failure, stakes that make us cringe, or perhaps even paralysis. These are all normal and to be expected. It is how we deal with them that determines our path forward. Let’s take fear as an example. Fear is a ferocious force and we are all familiar with it. But to say we simply need to cultivate the bravery and courage to move ahead isn’t particularly helpful. Instead, we need to peel back the layers to reveal that fear and uncertainty exist on a spectrum.

By carefully managing the position of our team on that spectrum, we can have profound implications on productivity, performance and innovation. Slowly, a roadmap begins to emerge that leads toward growth, success and innovation.

In many of your stories and adventures, you talk about the power of setting aside today’s routines to embrace tomorrow’s possibilities. Can you share a bit more about how letting go of what’s familiar and comfortable can help inspire growth?

In both our lives and our workplaces, we can split our actions into two basic bins: the stuff that matters and everything else. Everything else includes daily responsibilities and the grind required just to keep our organization or home afloat – the emails, the phone calls, bills and whatnot. All of that is necessary of course, but the danger, if we are not careful, is that these things can consume all of our time, especially in this age of crippling busyness and distraction.

The result is that the stuff that matters can get left behind. And most of us understand this instinctively: the stuff that matters means growth, learning, change, strategic vision, time with family, travel… the things that make us who we are. There are only so many tomorrows. Understanding what matters and making space for it in our lives and at our work is the foundation of all success.

We’re excited to have you speak at the Not-for-Profit Executive Forum this winter. What are some of the highlights attendees can look forward to in your session?

I’m certainly looking forward to attending the forum and meeting people, both from the stage and between sessions. I believe in the importance of not-for-profits in Canadian society and globally.

My presentation will be built around adventure, featuring stories, images and videos from across the planet. While the tone is fun, my underlying goal is to reframe how we perceive change and disruption, leaving you with some solid, enduring tools to foster success when facing new challenges.

Curious to learn more about how embracing change and the adventure mindset can help your organization? Come to the 2018 Not-for-Profit Executive Forum from February 26 to 27 in Toronto.