Executive Leadership Development Program

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Understanding the Executive Leadership Development Program (ELDP)

The goal of the Executive Leadership Development Program is to develop executive talent and leadership for individuals who demonstrate the interest and expertise to move to the most senior levels of leadership in an AZA Zoos or Aquarium within the next 5 years.

The focus of Executive Leadership Development Program is to build strong leaders who will successfully advance the zoo and aquarium movement in the future.  The structure and processes of this program target the Zoo and Aquarium Director Competencies, or the knowledge, skills and behaviors needed to be most effective in this role.  The competency model emphasizes three tiers of competencies and includes:

  • Executive Leadership Behaviors, which define the heart and values of an effective leader and the leadership approach to Inspire, Model, Challenge, Enable, Encourage others to deliver on the mission of the Institution. 
  • Executive Focus, which defines the skills and knowledge needed to sustain a viable institution and advance the mission. 
  • Executive Oversight for Zoo/Aquarium Operations, which define the skills and knowledge needed to provide operational oversight at the Institutional level. 

Each ELDP participant will work closely with their leader and assigned mentor to advance their executive competency capabilities and expand their networks throughout the AZA executive community.  Through structured development approaches and individualized development plans, participants will experience a variety of experience-based learning opportunities including:

  • On-the-job training and job shadow experiences at the participant’s home institution, other community organizations, etc. 
  • Action Learning Teams to which participants are assigned to address urgent and critical priorities facing AZA and its members, which are complex and not easily resolved. 
  • Conversations with Zoo and Aquarium Executives scheduled throughout the year. These informal sessions will enable existing executives to share leadership lessons and transfer institutional knowledge on a variety of topics. 
  • Executive Leadership Coaching to focus on development priorities and the leadership transition from manager to executive.   

General Program Commitments

  •  Program participants will be required to devote a significant amount of personal and professional time to their individual development throughout their program experience. 
  • Program participants are accountable for driving their own development and will be responsible for scheduling regular time with their Director and assigned Mentor to develop, review and update their individual development plans to address their top development priorities.   
  • Program participants will actively reflect and keep notes to document what they are learning, what they could be doing differently, and how to apply new learnings to other situations. 
  • To make the most out of the program each participant needs to be proactive and look for challenging opportunities to lead or to increase their level of responsibility such as…  
    • Starting something new, or moving an effort in a different direction 
    • Fixing a troubled operation or process 
    • Taking on a larger budget, leading more people, or managing different functions 
    • Seeking out high risk/reward efforts – tight deadlines, multiple channels to work through, political sensitivity 
    • Taking on projects or issues that require you to influence or interface with external groups outside of the institution 
    • Stepping up to lead without authority, influencing peers, senior leaders, or other people that do not report to you.  
    • Throughout the program, participants in partnership with their Director will assess their ability to take on work with which the Director is currently involved.  

Structured Program Commitments

  • Participants will participate in a 360-Degree Leadership Behavior Assessment at the start of the program during which their direct reports, peers, and Director will rate their current demonstration of specific leadership behaviors. 
  • Participants will attend structured ELDP work sessions scheduled during the AZA conferences planned in January, March, September and January, requiring travel to the conference site during those weeks. Participation in the remaining conference is encouraged, but is not mandatory. 
  • Participants will be assigned to an Action Learning Team and will meet via phone and web-conferencing on a regular basis for a 6-8 month period with other assigned participants to address a urgent and critical problem that is complex and not easily solved.    
  • Participants will be paired with another ELDP Participant as a peer-feedback partner. Throughout the program they will develop a relationship that will offer peer feedback, a sounding board and the opportunity to share challenges, experience and knowledge. 
  • The Participant’s Director, Mentor, and Action Learning Team Coach will formally evaluate program performance at the mid-year point and conclusion of the program. 

Application Process   

Applications for the following year's program are made available each June and due in mid-July.  

 Click here for the ELDP Application Form and more information to help determine if the ELDP is right for you.  


Still have questions? 

 Visit the ELDP FAQs or contact Kris Vehrs at kvehrs@aza.org