AZA News Releases

Association of Zoos and Aquariums Selects Ten Outstanding Candidates for 2019 Professional Development Program

SILVER SPRING, Md. – Ten talented aquarium and zoo professionals were selected for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Executive Leadership Development Program (ELDP), now in its sixth year. Based on a survey of directors at AZA aquariums and zoos, it is estimated that there will be approximately 20 zoo or aquarium director openings ‎per year for the next 10 years at facilities accredited by AZA. Knowing this, the AZA is proactively providing development opportunities for next generation leaders of AZA-accredited zoological facilities through the ELDP. AZA has announced the 2019 class, which consists of the following ten individuals:

•    Robert Churchill - Chief Financial Officer, Sacramento Zoo
•    Rick Dietz - Deputy Director, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park
•    Jamie Dorgan - Director of Animal Care, Calgary Zoo
•    Brian Dorn - Associate Director, North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher
•    Richard Gamble - Chief Operating Officer, Chicago Zoological Society - Brookfield Zoo
•    Jessica Hoffman - General Curator, Greensboro Science Center
•    Elizabeth Mulkerrin - Vice President of Education, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium
•    Max Pulsinelli - Executive Director of Communications, WCS Zoos and Aquarium
•    Andrea Rodgers - Vice President of Public Relations and External Affairs, John G. Shedd Aquarium
•    Joseph Smith - Director of Animal Programs, Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

“AZA is proud to welcome the next class of zoo and aquarium leaders to the Executive Leadership Development Program,” said AZA President and CEO Dan Ashe. “The selection of these candidates reflects their strong commitment not only to their own personal growth and development, but to the advancement of the zoological profession. The 2019 class consists of an exceptional group of diverse candidates from various professional backgrounds, who will bring their unique experiences and vision to the group and further AZA’s conservation mission.”

The goal of the ELDP is to develop executive talent and leadership in individuals who demonstrate the interest and ability to move to the most senior levels of leadership within an AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium within the next 5 years. The ELDP program emphasizes three tiers of competencies, which are the behaviors, knowledge and skills needed to be most effective in this role, including:

•    Executive Leadership Behaviors, which defines the heart and values of an effective leader and their leadership approach to Inspire, Model, Challenge, Enable, and Encourage others to deliver on the mission of their facility. This 360-degree assessment of Leadership Behaviors was created by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner and is included in their book, “The Leadership Challenge, Fourth Edition.” The book is considered the gold standard for research-based leadership and the premier resource on becoming a leader. 
•    Executive Focus, which defines the skills and knowledge an executive needs to possess in order to sustain a viable facility and includes Animal Welfare/Conservation Development; Board/Committee Development; Business Acumen; Business Development; Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; People Management/Development, and Planning.
•    Executive Oversight for Zoo/Aquarium Operations, which defines the skills and knowledge needed to provide executive oversight for each operational area reporting to the Zoo/Aquarium Executive Director. This includes Animal Care, Communications, Conservation/ Science, Design/ Exhibit, Education Programs, Events, Finance, Government/Legal Affairs, Guest Services, Human Resources, Marketing, Member/Donor Management, Public/Community Relations, Safety, and Security.

A variety of experience-based learning methods are used to develop the key competencies for the zoo/aquarium Executive Director role. These experience-based development methods include forming action teams to address real and complex issues; having dialogues with current executive leadership to gain institutional knowledge and lessons learned along the way; and creating a customized individual development plan. Participants will also benefit from leader and mentor relationships and build competency through relevant learning opportunities.

“Through this rigorous, custom-designed program, participants have the opportunity to further develop skills necessary to meet the challenges of sustaining a viable aquarium and zoo operation that benefits the animals in their care, the staff, their local communities, and global wildlife conservation initiatives,” said AZA Executive Director Kris Vehrs. “Throughout the year these rising leaders are connected with current directors who share their expertise and foster a leadership development culture throughout our community.”

The development of this custom program, which launched in 2014, was a collaborative effort between the AZA Board of Directors, top executive consultants, and many current zoo and aquarium executives. The kick-off session for the 2019 class program was held in Nashville, Tenn., with many other development events planned throughout the year, both virtually and in-person.

The executive development of identified senior leaders will be an ongoing effort by AZA, and a new ELDP group will be selected each fall for participation in the program the following year. To learn more about the ELDP, visit

About AZA

Founded in 1924, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, animal welfare, education, science, and recreation. AZA is the accrediting body for the top zoos and aquariums in the United States and ten other countries. Look for the AZA accreditation logo whenever you visit a zoo or aquarium as your assurance that you are supporting a facility dedicated to providing excellent care for animals, a great experience for you, and a better future for all living things. The AZA is a leader in saving species and your link to helping animals all over the world. To learn more, visit

Posted by Ashley Jones at 10:00 AM

I Accept

This site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. If you continue using our website, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on this website and you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Find a Zoo or Aquarium Donate to AZA Contact Us Member Login Search the site