October 11, 2021

How Will the Dominos Fall? The Importance of the Shoulder Tap

Last week was huge for changes at the top management level of zoos, with four new CEO/Director announcements. For those of you who may have missed the news, Dwight Scott will be the new President and CEO at Saint Louis Zoo, Heidi Rahn has been named the Director at Oregon Zoo, Tom Schmid will become President and CEO at Columbus Zoo, and Dr. Michael Adkesson has been selected as President and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society and Director of Brookfield Zoo. This news comes on top of three other CEO positions being filled over the last two months, in Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Earlier this summer we talked about the changes to come, and now the chess board has shifted in some interesting ways.

One of the big shifts has been the elevation of three women into CEO/Director roles and more notably, into leadership at large zoos. This now puts eight women in top roles at zoos with over 1M guests. Score another win for greater gender equity.

But there’s cause for additional celebration as these leaders take on new roles. Each of them, in their own way, represents the leadership skills for the ‘new tomorrow’ we’ve been talking about for the last 20 months.

  • These leaders are ‘home grown,’ having come up through the ranks in our own profession. They are experienced and well-respected. They know the field intimately and have earned the respect of their peers.

  • They embody the commitment and passion to our conservation mission that our field demands. They understand deeply the need for world-class animal welfare.

These changes set off a series of dominos with others still to fall. At least three CEO positions just became open as a result of these advancements, and the race continues for several more openings yet to fill with still more dominos to follow. I know many around the country are ‘placing their bets’ on who will fill these vacant seats still to come…but I’m not a betting man.

All these changes present opportunities. This is a time for knowing and growing the pool of next generation leaders at AZA institutions around the country. I would venture to guess that at some point in their careers, the leaders recently named were tapped on the shoulder and told, ‘You have the potential, you can do this’. Some of them may have had mentors or sponsors, others may have needed prodding to take the next step, and some possibly saw it in themselves.

We as leaders—whether formally or informally—need to start tapping the shoulders of some of our colleagues and encouraging them to take that next step in their career. The next CEOs are in our midst—the ones that embody a new style of leadership; that bring new perspectives and experiences; and that don’t look like traditional leaders. But some of them need that push. They need to overcome the ‘confidence gap’ and to hear ‘Yes, you can’. Intentional mentorship and purposeful sharing of experience is the key to the continued development of new leaders from within our ranks. Existing C-suite leaders who are thoughtful in scanning the horizon may find tremendous potential that can be inspired towards advancement.

Collectively, with this understanding, we can really know the pool of the next leaders and grow the pool for not just these immediate openings, but for those still to come as the dominos continue to fall. Can we count on you to ‘know’ and ‘grow’ the pool?

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Dr. Frederick Lahodny

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