February 15, 2023

What Makes A Great Leader?

Grayson Ponti, Heidi Rahn, Tony Vecchio

Featuring Heidi Rahn, Director, Oregon Zoo & Tony Vecchio, Retired Executive Director, Jacksonville Zoo

By: Grayson Ponti, Canopy Strategic Partners Content Contributor

Few things are as important to the success of a mission-based organization as having a great leader. To gain the perspective of what makes a great leader, I sat down with two leaders, one retired and one current, to gain insight into this question. Tony Vecchio (TV), who recently retired as Executive Director of the Jacksonville Zoo after a 45-year career in zoos, previously served as zoo director of the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence and the Oregon Zoo in Portland. Tony’s background is in animal care, but he has also been a strong champion of conservation, community impact, education, mentorship, and team building. Heidi Rahn (HR), a lifelong wildlife advocate with a focus on sustainability, was recently named Director of the Oregon Zoo after nearly twenty years of working with Metro, the zoo’s governing body, where she led the implementation of a $125 million zoo bond program, earning national acclaim for projects prioritizing animal welfare, conservation education, and sustainable infrastructure. Here is their insight:

GP: What makes a great leader?

TV: A leader’s primary responsibility is conveying the vision to the staff so that everybody on the staff is on board and going in the same direction. [Their role is getting everybody] believing in the mission and the vision. The main quality that a leader needs is empathy. To develop your staff, you have to be able to talk to them, guide them, and mentor them. That takes someone who can connect with them.

HR: Being really focused on your mission is important, and keeping that core to the decisions you’re making — but also really being present with your team. You have to be empathetic and a good listener, and focus on how to help your staff achieve success. Open communication and transparency are critical so that everyone feels informed and invested in where things are going. And you need to be able to identify your team’s strengths and empower them to lead. It’s about really cultivating the best in your staff and aligning them toward the mission.

GP: Heidi, as someone relatively new to the zoo business, how would you compare being a leader of a zoo to your previous roles in government?

HR: The stakes are higher — the risks are higher, and the rewards are higher. I took this position coming out of the pandemic so I have the challenge and the honor of helping the zoo rebuild out of this crisis. My emphasis has been on rebuilding in a strategic way and connecting with our community. The role has required me to be curious, open to trying new things — and to be able to pivot if something doesn’t work out. I’ve benefitted a lot from the expertise of others in the zoo world, tapping into their collective knowledge and experience.

GP: What experiences were most influential in helping you learn how to lead a mission-based organization?

TV: Personally, I’ve evolved over the years and still feel like I have a lot to learn. It’s frustrating retiring before I became as good of a leader as I’d like. I learned [being a leader] is all about developing your staff – mentoring, guiding, teaching, and inspiring them.

I learned through lots of mistakes. I’ve learned especially from working in small zoos that if you’re going to be successful, it’s not [just] about being able to raise money to build big new exhibits. it’s about the staff believing in the mission. Everyone who works there needs to believe in the mission, care about the mission, and be dedicated to it. There’s no director that can make a zoo great – the director’s job is to get the staff to be all they can be, help them learn and improve, and keep them focused on what the mission is.

HR: My first job out of college had a big impact on me. I was representing an energy company, working collaboratively with industry and government leaders to protect habitat for the Karner blue butterfly in Wisconsin. The most important lesson I took away from that experience was how to align various stakeholder groups around a collective mission. I learned how to show up, be true to my values, and represent a large organization in the recovery efforts for an endangered species.

GP: Tony, you were part of the zoo profession for over 45 years. What changes have you seen in zoo and aquarium leadership and why?

TV: I may have misjudged formerdirectors, but from where I was it looked that the director was more of an authoritarian figure. The zoo was shaped in that director’s image – they decided what animals they wanted and what exhibits were built. It’s now a lot more collaborative than it used to be. You have to be better at including people and have to have everyone contribute to the team.

[When I started,] what directors were being asked to do in those days was a bit different. There were a lot more government-run zoos that were looking for a zoo guy that knew animals. it was really just about managing animals and people and less about managing a business. Now it’s much more recognized that zoos have to be entrepreneurial and run like a business. It’s more about what you know about running a mission-based organization.

GP: What parts of being a great leader have stayed the same during your career and which have changed?

TV: I would say there’s always been people skills. In the old days, it may have been because you had to work with elected officials and deal with other zoos. Learning how to connect with people, empathize with them, and understand what they need [is still critical.] You may be doing it for different outcomes but it’s still working with people.

Now there is more emphasis on what we call the soft skills. Management styles have changed to be less hierarchical, authoritarian leadership and more collaborative, coaching mentor leadership. [You have to be able] to understand your staff and what their needs are.

HR: What’s stayed the same is remaining authentic and true to your values as a leader. What’s different is being more prepared to manage through a crisis and navigate change. To keep an organization moving forward, you have to be resourceful, connect with others, and track what’s happening in other industries.  

GP: Heidi, at Oregon Zoo, you’re currently working on a new campus plan. What are you doing to address continual changes when making the plan?

HR: Yes, change is a constant, and our plan will have a strong focus on sustainability, flexibility, and community input, so we need to think about changes in technology, changes in SSP priorities, and changes in our community expectations. Our site is in a beautiful park just outside of downtown Portland, but we’re landlocked with undevelopable conservation zones, parking lots, and highway surrounding us so we need to be really effective with the space we have. We continue to be Oregon’s top ticketed attraction, and we’ve received incredible financial support from our community. We need to maintain that trust and keep improving the experience to match higher expectations. Ultimately, our communities come to the zoo to connect with animals, nature, and each other, so we have to create an experience that is welcoming, inspiring, and mobilizes people to take action for wildlife.

GP: What strategies do you recommend to enhance diversity at the higher leadership levels?

TV: If I had the answer, I would have shared it with the AZA already. I like to think we’re evolving in that direction [but] it takes time. We have a history of not being very diverse and you can’t just suddenly say we’re going to be diverse.

The leaders from different backgrounds need to come up through the system. We need to have more diversity at entry and mid-level positions to get it at the senior level. We don’t have enough people from different backgrounds working up the system. We don’t want to wait twenty years to see our senior leadership become more diverse, but it’s hard when the majority of our staff aren’t diverse. We need to do a better job of getting [people with diverse backgrounds] in and developing those people so they can make their way up through the system.

HR: Having diverse perspectives on your staff and leadership team has to be a core focus. We are a reflection of the people we serve — their hopes, dreams, identities and abilities — and knowing how to bring that to the forefront of our work is critical. I agree that getting more people interested in zoo and aquarium careers early on is key. We need to remove barriers and increase access to opportunities — offering paid internships, making sure our hiring criteria are flexible to account for different lived experiences. Our Zoo Apprenticeship Program, which Tony was instrumental in starting when he was director here, employs young people as educators providing conservation programming to systemically marginalized communities in the area. We’re working to broaden that experience now and help participants gain more exposure to work across the zoo. We need to really focus on leadership development and look internally, identify future leaders, find mentors and build development plans. We also need to expand our traditional idea of what a leader looks like and be open to different skill sets and lived experiences.

GP: What advice would you have for emerging leaders?

TV: Recognize that the job is not about you—it’s about the staff. Work on those skills that are going to [make you] better able to help them. The first thing we did at Wheeling is ask students why they’re there. If you want to move up to make more money and do a better job, or move up because it’s expected from your peers and family, those are all the wrong reasons. [The job of a leader] is about others, not you, and if you’re not excited about mentoring, coaching, and teaching others, you’re not fulfilling the job of leading an organization into the future.

HR: Be authentic and find your own leadership style. Don’t think there’s only one type of leader for an organization. Look for leaders you admire and identify what you admire about them. Focus on developing empathy, self-awareness, and becoming a great communicator. Work to understand your own strengths and weaknesses, and help others understand them. Lastly, stay true to your core values. 

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