October 6, 2020

The Role of Strong Leadership During Challenging Times

“Creating this annual session has been one of the best components to the AZA Annual Conference. It has been one of the highlights to me every year. I appreciate [Kathy, Jackie], David and the entire Zoo Advisors team for bringing us together. I have been uplifted and inspired by my colleagues—building new friends and a stronger network of support. This was yet again another successful session.” 
Denise Verret, CEO/Zoo Director, Los Angeles Zoo

For seven years Zoo Advisors has been hosting Women in Leadership panels at the AZA National Convention and we’d like to say thank you! As AZA members and friends, you have led, participated in, and supported us as we presented panels to help advance women in leadership and promote gender and social equity. You’ve inspired us, motivated us, surprised us, gladdened us, and sometimes saddened us, but you have always helped us see the light at the end of the tunnel—especially important this year as we all struggle with the pandemic, social injustice, staff and budget reductions, and an uncertain future. We are in this together; we have consistently supported and encouraged each other, and while this year is very different in many, many ways, our mutual support is a constant and a North Star.

2020’s Virtual AZA National Conference WIL session featured three remarkable panelists who shared stories of their leadership journeys and offered ideas for leading in these rapidly changing times—words of wisdom for now and well into the future. We heard from:

  • Meg Crofton, the first woman President of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and a current member of several corporate boards, and a mentor of many emerging leaders;

  • Shareen Knowlton, Director of Education, Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, RI*; and

  • Kathayoon Kahlil, Ph.D., Conservation Impact Manager, Oregon Zoo*

*destined to be zoo/aquarium directors

More than 140 participants from zoos, aquariums, and conservation organizations in the U.S. and abroad joined the session. Here are our top takeaways from that discussion:

  • We need to “show up” and bring our whole selves to work

    • Believe in yourself; be authentic; know your brand; speak up

  • Humility and vulnerability are good

    • It’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers; keep asking questions and keep learning

  • Follow your “heart work”

  • Learn from rejection and criticism because it’s going to happen

    • Where you started is not necessarily where you’ll end up

    • Don’t let it stop you, keep going!

  • Be hungry for learning; learn all you can about every facet of the organization, your community, and life

  • There’s a shelf life for leaders; know when to go!

  • Let go of perfection and learn to forgive yourself. Do your best and let go.

  • I am the measure of my own success

  • “Retreads are stronger”—it’s okay to go back

  • Focus on the long game; don’t get distracted by the little things

Our panel shared these experiences:

  • No matter whether they were emerging leaders like Kathayoon and Shareen or veterans, all faced struggles and setbacks on their leadership journey because of bias or discrimination and had their competence questioned.

  • How would you answer this question: “Are you happy with how you’re spending your time?” It may be a surprising question, but it can lead to great self-discovery. We all have the same amount of time, and it’s up to us to figure out how we use it.

  • Our panelists have all taken some risks during their careers and been bold; they’ve seized opportunities even though they weren’t sure of the outcomes. Meg advised, “Leap and the net will appear.”

  • Kathayoon encouraged us to learn from our mentors and always be authentic, noting that volunteering at a zoo when she was 13 years old changed her life and set her on the path to her work today,

  • Shareen described herself as a bridge-builder, a dot connector, and left us with three R’s to consider—resistance, relevance, and representation—that she sees as a framework for her leadership.

  • Valued leadership traits have changed during this crazy period: how great is it that vulnerability and emotion are now okay, and even valued, in the workplace?

Finally, we asked our audience what one word expressed how they will lead going forward:

  • Heartfelt

  • Intention; intentionally

  • Adaptability

  • Perseverance

  • Wholehearted

  • Unwavering

  • Respectfully

  • Growth 

  • Experimentation

  • Worldly

  • Authenticity; genuinely; real

  • Openly

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