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Defining and Cultivating Resilience at Every Level

By Erika Kohler, Jennifer Tracey, Dean Watanabe, and Lochlan Wooten
min read

There are so many words and phrases from the past twelve months that we are tired of hearing. There are dozens of habits we have begrudgingly embraced that we are ready to shed. Despite the struggle and the turmoil, there have been bright spots and lessons we will carry forward to better inform our leadership and decision-making in both the smooth and troubled waters that lie ahead.

A man and child feed birds at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden
Photo Credit: ©Riverbanks Zoo and Garden

While “resilience” may appear as one of those overused terms, it may be the most important lesson we take from 2020. Resilience can be simply defined as our ability to recover quickly from hardship; it is fueled by creativity, adaptability, mindfulness, and connection. Although it may be simple to define in the dictionary, it is anything but simple in practice.

Each year, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums selects ten industry professionals to participate in the Executive Leadership Development Program (ELDP), a program aimed at developing executive talent and leadership skills through a variety of experience-based learning opportunities. As members of the 2020 ELDP class, we were tasked with answering how should this crisis change the way we run our organization as workplaces? While attempting to unravel this complex question, we interviewed mentors, leaders, friends, and colleagues. We uncovered stories of institutions that adapted quickly and others who struggled to find their footing in the chaos. What was the difference? Was it leadership at the top? The size of the organization? The tenure of the staff?

As we continued to ask questions, it became clear that the key to successfully weathering this storm was not related to budget size or years of experience of the leadership team. Success was directly related to creativity, adaptability, mindfulness, and connection fostered at every level of the organization and across every department. In short, success required resilience.


Guests riding the carousel at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden
Photo Credit: ©Riverbanks Zoo and Garden

A team’s ability to generate creative ideas and then execute collaboratively seems to have made the most tangible, measurable difference. Finding solutions to adapt to a new environment enabled some zoos and aquariums to continue to connect with their guests and, in many cases, connect with new audiences.

At Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, S.C., Attractions Manager, Raychel Gramling, found that reopening with a smaller team mandated collaborative creativity.

“We were all doing more with less; helping other departments because we all needed to be so practical and intentional with every moment and resource,” said Gramling.

Gramling and her team worked with the grounds team to develop an entirely new operating manual and sanitizing procedure that allowed the Zoo to operate the carousel safely and in line with COVID guidelines while generating critical revenue. 

Sofia Springer, guest admissions manager at the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, Calif., recalled the creativity and collaboration required to open the Zoo. Springer and her team were tasked with developing a process to health screen every single visitor to one of the country’s most visited zoos.

“Obviously, we had never undertaken anything like this before. It took creativity, but it also took collaboration,” said Springer. “This would not have been possible without support from other departments and leaders.”

Guests taking a photo outside of San Diego Zoos' gate
Photo Credit: ©San Diego Zoo

Other institutions developed new ways to engage despite the closure of their physical facilities. Liz Sayles, education programs manager at Fresno Chaffee Zoo in Fresno, Calif., remembered launching their wildly successful, fully virtual, summer camp and online school programs.

“We had never done a virtual program; not a single one of any kind. When our first program listed, I was practically in tears. I wanted to cancel it because I knew no one would buy it,” said Sayles. “But within minutes we had seven sales. We were all screaming and jumping up and down—we just had so much pent-up fear and anxiety. Before I could sit down we had 35 more sales, and it snowballed from there. Looking back, I wish I would have pushed harder on things that seemed impossible. Now, ‘the impossible’ is all we do.”

Creativity is a critical component of the resilience we found across zoos and aquariums, but execution and institutional support to try new things and take risks is critical.

“I am fortunate to have an excellent, flexible team that is willing to think big, be creative, and try new things,” said Sayles. “But what really made the difference was the ability to work collaboratively, sort through all of the ideas, and ultimately execute.”

Drive thru Toronto Zoo
Photo Credit: ©Toronto Zoo

Dolf DeJong, chief executive officer of the Toronto Zoo in Ontario, Canada, recalled embracing the risk along with his team.

“We had to reinvent ourselves. We had to explore models that had never been on our radar like a drive through Zoo,” said DeJong. “It took creativity and it took courage to invest our limited resources into these new ideas. We had no idea if the public would subscribe to this model, but our team embraced the risk with the simple goal of serving our community.”


Another key factor in successfully navigating this crisis was the ability to connect personally at all levels of the organization and realize the importance of self-care. 

Each of our team members brings their whole self to work. Recognizing this interconnection of our personal and professional lives has been eye-opening for many leaders. Conservation organizations around the globe have embraced the “One Health” message in light of the pandemic, and there is a point of tangency as it relates to our teams: we are complex; recognizing that and appreciating and nurturing interconnectedness is critical for teams to thrive. 

“I really needed to be there for my team, not just physically, but emotionally,” said Springer. “I was only able to do this because of the incredibly strong support system I have at home. We could not have been successful here without the support that I receive there.”

Effectively creating a culture that emphasizes our employees’ whole health has been a process.

An adult and child look into an exhibit at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden
Photo Credit: ©Riverbanks Zoo and Garden

“Prioritizing everyone's emotional and mental health was challenging initially,” said Gramling. “I wasn’t prepared for how utterly exhausted I felt just processing my experiences, and it diminished my capacity for managing other people's ‘stuff.’ I have learned to be more gracious with myself, and I remind my team to check in with one another, to take care of themselves. We’ve gotten pretty good at that now, but I wish we could have gotten to that point sooner.”

Connecting with teams while maintaining social distance and wearing more hats has been a challenge for all of us.

“I have to prioritize Zoom conversations with front-facing staff. Early in our reopening these live interactions kept staff informed, but more importantly, allowed me to gauge the real-time temperament of the team,” said Anthony Rivera, vice president of guest experience and hospitality at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Ga. “As the pace picked up and changes have become more frequent, we’ve begun to rely on emails and video updates. While it does facilitate information sharing, it is not the same as face-to-face interactions that are critical for building trust and a sense of community.”  

The teams that were able to recognize and support their employees’ whole health seem to have weathered the storm more successfully. But it was not just their connection to one another and their own mental health but also their connection to the organization’s mission that drove resilience.

“We are all craving connection. Students want it. Teachers want it. Families want it. Our guests want it,” said Sayles. “Being able to find new ways to make those vital connections is what guides our path forward and inspires our mission.”

DeJong reflected on what he called the defining moment of this pandemic.

Toronto Zoo employee holding a sign that says Courage is Hamza
Photo Credit: ©Toronto Zoo

“Our mission to connect was never more evident than when, during our lockdown, the team came together to offer our first-ever drive-through experience for a terminally ill child and his family. The work everyone put into making this visit a possibility for Hamza and his family reminded me of the importance of our organization and the critical role we play for our community and for wildlife.”

This touching story reflects the passion and dedication to our core mission even in extraordinary times.

“Not everyone gets to work somewhere that is so meaningful to them. I get to watch our work and endurance have an impact on people’s lives and conservation right here in our community,” said Gramling. “Animal care and conservation organizations are essential now more than ever. This place matters. This job matters.”

Finding Resilience in Your Organization

So, how should this crisis change the way we run our organization as workplaces? We conducted countless interviews and collected hundreds of stories, and one thing became abundantly clear: zoos and aquariums greatly benefit when their teams are more creative, more adaptable, and more connected to both our mission and one another. In a word, more resilient.

A child looks at an animal at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden
Photo Credit: ©Riverbanks Zoo and Garden

Identifying and cultivating this trait at every level in our organizations is critical to our missions and moving our profession forward. Creating a culture of resilience may be the most important investment your organization can make. As part of our ELDP project, we are developing a survey to help specifically assess trends in creativity and adaptability among our organizations, across departments, and through all levels of leadership to help us all better cultivate this critical skill and we hope to share it with you all soon.

The survey results will help us better understand the behaviors, attitudes, knowledge, and skills that drive a resilient culture.  In turn, this can help inform the overall leadership development priorities for all member levels in the AZA community.

Resilience is the generator required to survive this storm. But if we can cultivate enough of it, we will get past survive and back to thrive. And we are all looking forward to that.

Hero photo credit: ©San Diego Zoo

Erika Kohler is the deputy director at San Diego Zoo.

Jennifer Tracey is the senior director, strategic communications and guest experience at the Toronto Zoo.

Dean Watanabe is the chief conservation education officer at Fresno Chaffee Zoo.

Lochlan Wooten is the chief operating officer at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden.

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