Leadership Communication Sustainability

LeaderLab: How to build trust in nonprofit leadership with Nature Conservancy of Canada CEO John Lounds

Group of Skydivers holding hands in circle

John Lounds, the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s CEO and President, shares insights on building trust, creating partnerships, and motivating a team in the nonprofit sector.

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In this episode

We discuss:

  • What brought John to his current role (0:50)
  • The importance of passion in the non-profit sector (01:22)
  • How working in the environmental space has changed over time (02:21)
  • The importance of building a team that will challenge you to grow (03:39)
  • How to navigate tensions between board members and staff (05:30)
  • The challenges and benefits of leading a passion-driven organization (08:05)
  • The right way to raise funds (09:53)
  • How to manage employees who lose their motivation (11:05)
  • What’s important to remember when leading a non-profit (13:39)
  • How to grow as a leader (15:14)
  • How to foster the right culture (17:02)
  • How he feels about emojis (20:24)

John’s advice for leaders:

  • Find a team that will challenge you (03:40)
  • Think big (04:06)
  • Be self-aware and encourage others to be introspective (14:13)
  • Help employees grasp the fundamental values of the company and its culture (17:32)
  • Don’t get bogged down in the day-to-day and remember the bigger picture (18:40)

More about John Lounds: 

John has been the chief executive of Nature Conservancy Canada since 1997. Under his leadership, the non-profit conservation organization has increased its annual budget from $8 million to $80 million, and protected 35 million acres of Canadian land to date. John credits his love of nature and a passion for conservation for driving his efforts at NCC.

John was previously he executive director of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (now Ontario Nature) as well as a governor of the University of Waterloo. He has held several positions with the Ontario government, working with the ministries of the environment, energy and northern development and mines, and served as a director for organizations that include the Canadian councils of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.

Links to additional resources: 



Memorable quote:

“Nobody can do everything. If you can build partnerships, if you can build a team with those skills and abilities, the team can make it happen – but no one should think that they are the only person able to do all of this.”

About TILTCO, Inc.

TILTCO is a boutique consulting company that helps leaders define and execute their strategies in order to achieve extraordinary business and personal results. Founded by Tineke Keesmaat, who has over 20 years of leadership consulting experience with McKinsey & Company, Accenture and now TILTCO Inc. To find out more go to www.tiltco.ca.

Full Episode Transcript:  

[MUSIC PLAYING] TINEKE KEESMAAT: This leader has helped protect over 35 million acres of ecologically-significant land across Canada.

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Leader Lab, where we talk to experts about how leaders can excel in a modern world. Helping leaders for over 20 years. Your host, Tineke Keesmaat.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: John Lounds is the president and CEO of Nature Conservancy of Canada. He is passionate about nature, conservation, and leadership. Under his guidance, the Nature Conservancy has grown exponentially over the past two years, from a budget of $8 million to $80 million.

On today's Leader Lab, he'll share some of the leadership lessons he learned along the way. John, welcome to the Leader Lab.

JOHN LOUNDS: Thank you.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: It's great to have you here, and I'm very curious if you could start by telling us a little bit about the path that brought you to the Nature Conservancy.

JOHN LOUNDS: Well, I never thought I'd start off working in a nonprofit charity. Many years ago in high school, I was-- studying computer science was one of the big areas I was going to go into, but I had a geography teacher who really inspired me and wanted me to think about how the world could be changed as a result of how you think about organizing on the landscape.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And what's kept you in nonprofit for so long, and specifically, in the environmental space?

JOHN LOUNDS: Well, the environmental space is my passion. I think a big part of working in a nonprofit charity is that you need to have the passion for the work. If you don't feel it, believe it, think it, dream it, live it, the people that you're talking to about the work you're doing will not hear you, they won't understand why it's important or what the impact can be.

This field is my field, that's where I want to be. I also wanted to work in an organization that worked right across the country. I'm a proud Canadian and believe that we have one of the best countries in the world, and I just want to make sure that that's what I'm doing as well. So coupling the nonprofit work with my interest in the environmental world has been great for me.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's amazing. And 20 years ago, environmental issues were not as talked about as they are now. So what has been the big shift in leading an organization? May not have been on the first page every day to now where it's everywhere you look.

JOHN LOUNDS: I think that's true, and they weren't-- these issues weren't being discussed so much many years ago, but there were some big problems that came to the surface while I was growing up, and folks may not remember the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching on fire in Lake Erie, other events such as that, those-- a river catching on fire? Like, what is going on here? Those kind of events really affected my thinking then.

I would say today with the awareness that people have and concern about-- whether it be climate change, biodiversity conservation, et cetera, we're seeing way more interest in the work we're doing, and I think that's somewhat contributed to the growth of the work of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, because there's more people who are understanding the importance of this work, and we've been welcoming them to the fold.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's amazing. And over the last two decades that you've been leading the conservancy, you have had a dramatic impact. So you raised the budget from $8 million to $80 million, you've protected over 35 million acres of Canadian land. How did you create such an ambitious vision?

JOHN LOUNDS: Well, it wasn't just me. I'd say one of my first lessons was the importance of finding and surrounding myself with really great people who would always challenge me and the team to think bigger. If you can find them, if you can listen to what they have to say, and know in your heart that you can actually accomplish more than you think you can, that combination can lead to some incredible things.

So I remember one of my past board members who spoke about what is the conservation equivalent of a nation-building exercise? Like really thinking beyond we're not just going to solve this property problem or we're just going to solve this little issue. What is a big way of thinking about it?

I also had some mentors. We had a session where we were talking about how much money we could possibly raise for one of our campaigns, and this was-- we had thought we would set a goal of $300 million thinking that was a very big number over several years. And this gentleman came to the front of the room to speak and he said, $300 million? That's not nearly enough. It needs to be $500 million. And the $500 million was actually what we then went away to do as a result of just that person pushing the boundaries of my thinking. I would never have thought of that. They push, they ask the tough questions, that's how the people that you surround yourself with can help you.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: So John, that's amazing to have different perspectives pushing and challenging you and helping you to imagine what is possible. I can imagine that time that that might create some tension if your board is saying $500 million and your team is saying $200 million. How do you manage that tension?

JOHN LOUNDS: Well I actually find that tension to be important. It's that space between the staff who are obviously implementing the work that needs to be done and the board's role pushing and asking tough questions to come to a place where we can all agree on what the right-- or the best way forward would be.

And I'm a firm believer that if you have the staff being stronger than the board or the board being stronger than the staff, that you end up in a space that isn't as productive, doesn't create as much energy, and doesn't challenge-- whether challenging staff or challenging board members-- to get to the right answer going forward. So I look at this as a very important aspect of board-staff relationships, and it's a really important role for the CEO and the chair of the board to handle.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And I imagine that requires creating a lot of transparency and trust, right? So the board has to have some depth into what the organization's capabilities are, what they can actually do, and conversely, the staff needs to understand the role of the board.

JOHN LOUNDS: Transparency, making sure that you're prepared, you've informed the board, you haven't hidden anything-- good or bad, the information, that's all important and needs to be shone a light on and discussed. I sometimes find-- I've seen in other organizations where the CEO-- because on the role, you know a lot about what's going on in all aspects of the business, but sometimes these CEOs are impatient and want the board to decide quickly and will jump in and say, no, no, what about this, what about that? But that's probably the worst thing you can do. It's better to just sit back, let the board have its full discussion, gain understanding, and come to conclusions that they wish to take, because by doing that, you're going to end up heading in the right direction.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's great. So when we started this conversation, you talked about how nature is your passion, and I've been reading more and more about the importance of purpose in organizations-- so really helping people connect their passion to the work that they are doing. And I imagine that in your organization, you have lots of passion-driven individuals.

JOHN LOUNDS: 340 of them.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's awesome. Not everybody can say that.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: And I'm just curious, could you talk to me a little bit about the benefits of leading a passion-driven organization and maybe what some of the unintended challenges might be?

JOHN LOUNDS: The benefit of leading a passion-driven organization is that you really don't have to motivate people to get up in the morning and come to work and do the work they do. That is not the issue. They are ready to run and ready to do what they can because they so fully believe in the mission of the organization.

The key, then, is how do you direct that energy and enthusiasm? How do you keep that enthusiasm going, but how do you direct that energy and enthusiasm? So the 340 people kind of working in the same direction, that's the challenge.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And what have you found to be helpful in channeling that energy?

JOHN LOUNDS: Well, one of the ways that nonprofits and charities proceed is they organize campaigns. And often people will see in the news that there's a campaign for x hundred million dollars or whatever the case might be. And the number is important, because you do need funds to run the business. But more importantly than the money is actually the alignment that a campaign provides for everybody working in the organization. By setting a common goal, describing the impact of that-- what's the vision? Not the big vision over time, but over the next five years. And by organizing people toward campaigns, it's a really great way of ensuring that everybody's energy is channeled together.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Because I mentioned, the campaign is-- the fundraiser, clearly they're the target for them, but also it connects to the programmers because they need to think about how they'll use that money and have a clear message on it, and then your communications folks, the stories that they are telling. So all of a sudden this big goal that you've set out in the campaign, every individual that knows what they need to do to make it happen.

JOHN LOUNDS: Absolutely. And it starts with what conservation work are you're going to get done, right? And what is the impact of that conservation work and can you describe it well to people? Because you can't raise money for just raising money. What is going to be the outcome? If I invest in the Nature Conservancy of Canada, what will happen over the next five years? All donors and funders are looking to know what that is.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: I'm curious again on this notion of passionate-driven team members. I'm curious if you've ever had instances where somebody is hired, they're super passionate about the cause, they have great enthusiasm, and then they walk in the door and that enthusiasm doesn't necessarily translate to impact at an individual level. I'm curious if that happens and then how you handle it.

JOHN LOUNDS: I'd say folks that have come into the organization that don't have that passion, we've made a hiring mistake there, or they've made a hiring-- they've made a choice to come. We've had some people that come from private sector organizations that think, oh, I'll kind of retire on my way into the work here. That's never the case. And then they are suddenly surprised that they're working more than they were before.

I think you want to make sure you're getting the right people in the right seats on the bus, which is common parlance, but in nonprofits-- I'm a big fan of Peter Drucker in this regard. Basically that you need to look for that person's contribution. If they aren't working out in the role, it's best to think about can you re-pot these people into another role where they will be able to live their passion? And sometimes those require pretty tough conversations to get there, but I've found that that's not only for the person involved, but for the organization as a whole a better way to go.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: So really thinking about what are their strengths, how can they have a contribution or make an impact here, and then thinking about where that actually fits with what the organization--

JOHN LOUNDS: Right. If they've truly come for the mission, if they're passionate about it, just leaving them by the wayside isn't going to actually help the overall cause as I was just describing. So you have to figure out how to use-- now sometimes the fit isn't quite right and those decisions sometimes are mutual, and perhaps other organizations that are working on environmental causes are a better fit in terms of their particular interests.

So we have lots of alumni from the Nature Conservancy of Canada and lots of other places for all sorts of good reasons.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's great. I love that. It's just this idea of really keeping the passion of the organization and the purpose, and then thinking about the individual-- what do they need? What are their strengths? Where is that going to be a fit? And sometimes it's here and sometimes it's elsewhere, but it really is thinking about what's going to make that individual thrive.

JOHN LOUNDS: In terms of choosing to work from home or wherever, that particular time is where we understand that, especially team members with young families. And in terms of the organization itself, we try and walk the talk that we are interested in the communities where we work, and where we believe that nature conservation is an important thing for Canada.

One of the things we actually instituted-- we did it as a special a couple of years ago, but one of the things we instituted this past year permanently was to provide staff with two nature days during the summer months so that they can go and appreciate and reflect on the work they do.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's amazing. I want to nature conservative day. [LAUGHS]

JOHN LOUNDS: Well, we'll set up a program and try and get many companies to do this. That'd be fantastic.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: I think it'd be super fantastic. That's great. John, I just want to continue this conversation on nonprofits, and I'm wondering from your perspective, what you think some of the unique characteristics are of these organizations and how, as a leader, you may have to adapt our style to manage them.

JOHN LOUNDS: Well, I think one of the important aspects, obviously, is reputation and trust. We're not selling a good or service, really, so unless our reputation is beyond reproach and people trust us with the funds that they're giving us, the rest doesn't really happen. As I said, we have to remember every day that every dollar is a gift and people have voluntarily provided this to us.

So I think the reputation, being transparent, integrity, all the good things that should be part of any business are even heightened further in a non-profit charity. And I think part of it is just knowing yourself. That's a common phrase, but knowing who you are and who you're not, and then nobody can do everything, but if you can build partnerships, if you can build a team and make sure the team around you has all those skills and has all those abilities, the team can make it happen, but no one should think that they are the only person able to do all of this.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That amazing. I've been thinking more and more about the importance of leader self-awareness in being able to drive impact, because I believe that-- exactly that. If you-- nobody can do it all with themselves, and so by being aware, you can know where you need to augment your team or what you need to keep your energy up through the highs and lows of driving or leading an organization. What have you learned about yourself over the years that you've had to kind of not deal with, but that you've had to incorporate into your leadership style? And how have you done that?

JOHN LOUNDS: I think I'm in with a good group of people, because I would say that largely, the team here at the Nature Conservancy of Canada are likely skewed to the introvert side of the scale rather than the extrovert side of the scale. I'm one of those, and I've had to learn and train myself to push through my inclination to not want to talk about what we're doing, not want to get out there and yell in the bright lights about the work that's being done.

We're plant and animal people. We would like to talk to the plants and animals, we don't actually know people, a lot about them. But since our business is a relationship with people business, frankly, that, I think, I've had to strengthen, I think I have a very good understanding of how to individually relate to people. The challenge has been to speak more broadly and speak to larger groups, and I've been able to get there.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And what have you done to help yourself in those moments?

JOHN LOUNDS: Practice, practice, practice. It's about the only way to get over it. And then when I'm giving those talks, that I've checked in with the people around me to make sure I've asked, how did I do? You can always improve, and you can always do better. It's important that you get others to-- who will tell you the truth, to reflect on what you did that could be improved and what you did that maybe you should leave behind next time.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: So John, when we were talking before the podcast, you mentioned how important you feel it is for leaders to the culture of their organizations. Can you tell me why this is important to you and examples of how you've made this happen? So the nature days would be one of those examples, but what else have you done to really make the culture come to life?

JOHN LOUNDS: What I've tried to do is instill a culture where people should listen to each other. You can learn a lot from not assuming that when somebody has said something, that that's actually what they're thinking, and get underneath that and listen to what they're really saying. The culture as I see it is you listen hard, you work hard, you play some, and again, you need to know that you can actually accomplish a lot more than you think you can, especially if you're working with your team.

And I try and walk that talk. Like I said, trying to be a flexible, caring place to work, having people get out into nature so that they understand-- I mean, we've got a lot of people that work in the field, but we also have a lot of people that work in the office doing finance and other things that it's important for them to actually get to see the work. And if you're here for 15 years, which sounds like a long time, we give you a week and some funds to go and travel anywhere in Canada to go and understand what that part of the world is like and get outside. So we try and really live that as much as we can.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's amazing. John, I really enjoyed the conversation, and lots of amazing insights for myself and for the people who listen to the Leader Lab. I'm curious, just as we round out our conversation, if you had one practical piece of advice for leaders, something they can take away from this conversation and go do tomorrow that would really impact their effectiveness, what would that piece of advice be?

JOHN LOUNDS: Well, I always start with my Stephen Leacock quote, which is, "I'm a great believer in luck, and the harder I work, the more I have of it." That's always watchwords for me. And one of the ways I try and do that is by not get caught up in the day-to-day and remember what the important things are. And I've had to do that. I do try and set aside three to four hours at least once a week to work on something important, because once you set aside that much time, you actually can't do your job, which is to think several years out, not just worry about what happened this month, last month.

And I even take that to another place where I actually will go out to a place that's likely within a forest or nearby, and I'll take two to three days and actually just sequester myself and go and do that, because I find unless you actually step back from the day-to-day, you forget your perspective on what the important things are and what needs to be done in order to take you out for the next several years.

ANNOUNCER: And now, let's get to know our guest a little better with some rapid fire questions.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: As we wrap up the podcast, we have my favorite part.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: The random questions. Don't worry, they're not hard.


And just your first responses.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: First, the craziest place in the world that you've been.



The craziest place in the world that I've been? That's supposed to be my first response?

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Yeah. There's no right answer.

JOHN LOUNDS: I know there's no right answer, but I could do a lot of places.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's awesome. Or most surprising place.

JOHN LOUNDS: Manila. Oh, a surprising place? Labrador.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Are you an early bird or a night owl?

JOHN LOUNDS: Early bird.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: I'm not surprised. You as a teenager in three words.

JOHN LOUNDS: Lost, driven, and a bit unsure of myself.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: So a typical teenager.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: And your favorite emoji?

JOHN LOUNDS: I hate emojis.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: [LAUGHS] Fair enough. And the all-important final question-- how do you feel about Brussels sprouts?

JOHN LOUNDS: I'm not a fan.


ANNOUNCER: Thank you for joining us today on Leader Lab. Leader Lab is powered by Tiltco, helping exceptional leaders achieve extraordinary results. And the Ivey Acedmy at Ivey Business School, Canada's home for learning and development. You can learn more about Tiltco and Leader Lab a tiltco.ca. And to find out more about the Ivey Academy, go to iveyacademy.com.