July 15, 2021

Is a Tsunami of Change in Leaders Coming?

Back in April of this year, there were at least seven zoos seeking CEOs or Directors in key markets across the country. Today, I can name 11, 13 if you count COO and Senior VP-level positions, and there are certainly many that I’m not aware of. The talk among my friends and colleagues these days is all about handicapping the races – who’s going to be applying for which positions? Where’s the smart money? I haven’t seen a time of such upheaval in my 35 years in the profession. Sometimes when change finally arrives, it comes in a rush like we’re seeing now, a sudden throwing open of doors. And those doors won’t close anytime soon. It’s a reality that is here to stay, and it’s going to accelerate – and reverberate. 

This spring, we published an essay advocating for transformational change in zoo and aquarium leadership. The post evoked strong reactions from colleagues, and the conversation – sometimes an uncomfortable one – continues. The fact that we’re seeing sustained momentum and engagement in discussions about DEAI issues is encouraging. The urgency of the need for change, for going beyond soul-searching, for living the 5th Promise is not a point-in-time, one-and-done imperative. This period of change has some pretty obvious and important sequelae. 

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.
— John Muir

As executive leadership vacancies are filled, there will be ripple effects throughout the profession. In recent years, we’ve seen a number of zoo and aquarium leadership positions filled by people who have come from outside of the profession. It’s hard to pinpoint the factors that lead governing authorities to select “outsiders” or “insiders”, but we can be certain that given the growing rate of executive-level turnover, some or many of those CEO vacancies will be filled by people who are currently serving in Deputy, COO, and Senior VP-level positions. And then the real race will be on – the race for the cascading job openings that will result. The ripple effect might look more like a tsunami. 

Like all change, that wave presents an opportunity. Whenever there are managerial changes in an organization, there is a chance to take a step back and look at leadership structure, culture, and effectiveness. The face and philosophy of the chief executive is obviously critical to an organization’s growth and future, but the Deputies, COOs, and VPs reporting to that leader are themselves foundational, and, as a group, perhaps even more impactful. There’s more opportunity at this level because there are greater numbers, and it’s these leaders that most directly steer institutional culture, make hiring decisions, and implement strategic plans and objectives.   

Having a diverse workforce isn’t the goal. The goal is to save the world.
— Tony Vecchio

CEOs are, of necessity, occupied with the challenges of fund-raising and managing Board and government relations. The role of chief executive requires tremendous focus on the world “outside the gate.” The next-level positions are the ones relied upon to guide what’s happening “inside the gate.” And it’s inside the gate where the changing face of our profession is taking place. It’s where the diversification of the workforce happens, it’s where more inclusive programs and policies are enacted, it’s where greater access by broader groups – of guests and of employees – becomes available.  

What are the traits that make a great deputy? How does someone in the number two position most effectively influence “up” and lead “down”? What should zoos and aquariums be focused on in seeking to fill these roles in our new post-pandemic, post-George Floyd, post-January 6th society? The skills needed for tomorrow are different than what led to success yesterday. Traits that will be demanded of new leaders include: empathy, vulnerability, courageousness, and calm.

Additionally, we’ve already talked about why these societal upheavals matter to our profession. The ability to achieve the goals of real DEAI efforts – to save the world – hinges on the daily operational decision-making of the on-the-ground leaders, the COOs and VPs who influence the workforce and the employee pipeline. 

Next week’s post will offer more thoughts on the qualities we think will be most sought-after for positions of leadership in zoo and aquariums as we move into the post-pandemic future and how best to find them in what will be a highly competitive market for the best talent in the field.

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