In the office of Bruce Poon Tip is a $5,000 cheque in a plexiglass case. It’s a prize for any employee who can hurt Bruce’s feelings with negative feedback about his leadership or the practices of his company, travel operator G Adventures.
To date, no one has won the award.
“Anyone who can hurt my feelings would get the cheque, to really promote people to say the microscopic truth. I want to know everything, tell me anything, and you can’t hurt my feelings – if you want to tell me I suck, please tell me,” says the Canadian entrepreneur.
Poon Tip started the company with two college credit cards in 1990 when he was 22 years old, after returning from a backpacking tour of Asia. He spotted a gap in the market between do-it-yourself backpacking and mainstream holidays at a resort or on a cruise ship.
“I said ‘there’s got to be something in the middle, something that captures the culture and immersion as backpacking does, but is organised and active and moves around, focused on local people and communities’.”
What started as a small company taking tourists to South America (his friend, a doctor, took a year’s leave of absence to lead the first tours) now operates more than 700 tours in countries around the world – from exploring the coast of Antarctica to sightseeing in Zambia. The business also now achieves double-digit growth each year.
Learning to lead
For Poon Tip, the biggest challenge was trying to develop as a leader alongside his business.
“I never thought I’d be leading a company. When you start, you have no idea that you can envision becoming a global brand with 2,000 employees and operations in over 100 countries. And so you have your own limitations in terms of your own leadership – you realise when you’re running a business that when your leadership stops developing, your company stops growing.
“I’ve had many times when the company stalled in its development, because my leadership style wouldn’t grow and evolve with the business.”
Which leads us to the $5,000 cheque.
Poon Tip is motivated by trying to get better, and has tried to instil that philosophy throughout the business.
He has worked to create a culture of honesty where employees aren’t afraid to tell their boss about problems within the company.
“That’s the kiss of death in any organisation if people start hiding their weaknesses from the leadership. I want to know and have the opportunity to decide whether or not an issue is important to the business. I want to make that decision, instead of people curating what they say to me.”
As part of this, G Adventures runs confidential surveys every six months so the company can measure employee happiness and, more importantly, their engagement.
“Engagement is a big word for us. It’s super important for a business that exports services. What we do is pretty incredible, in that we get someone from Finland to book an African safari with a North America-based company. In order to do that, you need amazing people, and engagement becomes everything.”
In order to create engagement, people have to feel connected to their work, Poon Tip explains.
It is such an important company value that the entrepreneur has had to fire staff who aren’t able to generate engagement, even if they were excellent at their job.
“Even if their work was outstanding, we’ve had many leaders who couldn’t survive or be in the company if they couldn’t keep the level of engagement required in the business.”
This hardline attitude appears to be effective, and his business success has been recognised by the industry.
He was in London last week to be inducted into the British Travel and Hospitality Hall of Fame, which awards high achievers in the tourism sector. “We’ve been embraced by Britain since the very beginning, and it has been our biggest market for years. Getting inducted into the Hall of Fame is really a feel-good thing for me, personally.”
The power of travel
Poon Tip isn’t just focused on business success. He’s a social entrepreneur and philanthropist – he founded the Planeterra Foundation in 2003, which currently runs more than 50 community projects around the world, with plans to create more.
One such project is Oodles of Noodles in Vietnam, which takes kids off the street and puts them through a two-year cooking programme in a training kitchen.
The projects complement G Adventure’s tours, such as training women in India to drive and then employing them to transport arriving tourists.
In Vietnam, children at the cooking school go with tourists to shop for ingredients and then cook with them.
“It creates a great experience for our customers and repurposes these kids lives,” Poon Tip adds.
His personal belief is that travel has the power to change the world and benefit local communities.
“Travel can be the greatest form of wealth distribution if done right. We just need a business model where the local people benefit. That’s what we’ve always tried to prove.”
Poon Tip is also keen to influence the travel sector – G Adventures recently launched new guidelines on animal welfare, child welfare, and indigenous communities to help companies deal with local people more responsibly, and is sharing them with the industry. “For the first time, we’re getting calls for big mainstream travel companies that want to look at our guidelines and see how they can install them in their businesses.”
With plans to start even more tours and grow the business in markets including Asia, South Africa, and Brazil, it seems the G Adventures tour is set to keep on going.