Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 business lessons of 2015. See the full list here.
Bruce Poon Tip can’t keep track of the number of countries he’s traveled to. The founder of the adventure travel company G Adventures and author of Looptail: How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business knows travel means more than a way to escape the daily grind. Throughout his globe hopping, Poon Tip has gleamed wisdom that has had profound influences on his leadership style and his company’s operations. In fact, it was on a trip to Asia in 1990 that Poon Tip was inspired to create G Adventures.
At the time, the only other options available to those who wanted to explore the world was to go on a bus tour with 50 other passengers, a cruise, or grab a guidebook and backpack solo. After talking with several other backpackers, Poon Tip decided to form a travel adventure company that would conduct small-group trips with a focus on supporting local culture. The concept was novel and drew a great amount of skepticism from others in the travel industry. “No one believed we could make money running groups of 12 at a time,” he says. But Poon Tip was convinced that adventure-craving travelers wanted more, and his instincts have been proven right. Twenty years later, G Adventures is a leader in the adventure travel business.
Travel may have inspired Poon Tip’s business concept, but it has also shaped his management style. Here, he shares some of the greatest insights he has gathered from his travels:
A 1997 trip to Tibet changed how Poon Tip thinks about business. “Up until then, I thought business was an unemotional thing,” he says. But being in a country where decisions are made based on spirituality, oracles, and karma was fascinating to Poon Tip. “I was a person who needed empirical data to make a decision,” he says. The trip proved to Poon Tip that he could make decisions by trusting his gut instincts, rather than always solely relying on data.
Experiencing other cultures inspired Poon Tip to open his mind to different ways of thinking. It has also made his company, G Adventures, more diverse in terms of the types of skills and talents they look for. “We have a very creative and innovative environment and we’re open to people who think differently. Travel opens your mind to think of new possibilities and new ways you can do things,” says Poon Tip. “When you go to countries that govern their lives so differently and have different ways of thinking, you take those influences and bring them back to the reality of your life.”
Travel can tickle the creative bone and spark innovation. Every quarter, G Adventures allows interns to work in any of the company’s 28 offices around the world. “When you’re trying to create a global brand, you need to think beyond wherever the walls of your office are,” says Poon Tip. The company also provides employees with a free trip once a year to anywhere in the world they want to go. “We want people to get out and be influenced by travel,” he says. One of the most successful product launches was G Adventures’s Local Living program, where instead of following an itinerary, tourists are able to live on a local farm in Italy, a winery in Chile, or with a nomadic tribe in Mongolia. They now offer 40 of these local adventures around the world. It was an idea that was born from staff travels.
Perhaps the biggest lesson Poon Tip has taken from his travels is that leadership is about creating a community. Rather than the old style of leadership where the captain lead his troops into battle, Poon Tip says he now thinks of leadership as building a collective of minds and hearts. “It’s not what you can do, but how you can influence a group of people,” he says. He thinks of all of his departments as little “tribes.” Through his travels to developing countries, Poon Tip has seen how communities have rallied together to achieve a common goal. “I wanted more of those values in my business,” he says.
Travel has given Poon Tip greater tolerance to risk by pushing him to step out of his comfort zone. Camping in the Sahara or trekking through the jungle is far removed from the creature comforts of Western life, but it’s these experiences that build tolerance to risk and have allowed Poon Tip to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. “As an entrepreneur, I like to be a little uncomfortable at all times,” he says. In fact, Poon Tip credits his company’s double-digit growth over the past 10 years with its propensity for pushing boundaries and stepping beyond what’s comfortable. “I’m always pushing us to be just a bit out of our comfort zone, because I never want us to sit back and stop innovating,” he says.