AZA’s Professional Development Courses
Each year, a group of zoo and aquarium professionals attend the Professional Development Courses where they spend seven days in Wheeling, W. Va., for an immersive week of education and networking. When the courses were called off for 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Professional Development Committee saw this as an opportunity to analyze and overhaul the curriculum.
Hollie Colahan © Birmingham Zoo
AZA began offering professional development courses 50 years ago for people in the community who wanted to take on leadership roles. The Professional Development Courses form the foundation of the Professional Development Program. AZA created these courses to incorporate the special needs of the animal caretaker community. Each course is team-taught by experts from within the community, which is a huge part of their appeal. The courses take a balanced look at issues facing zoos and aquariums and reflect the diversity of AZA’s many institutions.
The Professional Development Committee (PDC) routinely conducts surveys and evaluations after each course to adjust the curriculum. In recent years, the committee became aware of potential gaps in leadership training at the higher levels. The courses didn’t provide as many resources for people to gain leadership capacity, but they were heavy on managing technical skills. With the opportunity to take a deeper dive into past feedback in 2021, the committee recognized the chance to bring the Effective Leadership courses into the fold alongside the programs they’ve been working on in the last decade.
In February 2023, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums introduces two new courses in Effective Leadership: Foundation and Development and Continuous Growth.
“We are always trying to keep the course content updated, but at some point, you have to quit making minor adjustments and do a wholesale revamp, which is what we did here,” said Hollie Colahan, deputy director at the Birmingham Zoo in Birmingham, Ala., who served as vice chair and then chair of the PDC from 2012 to 2021.
Since a one-week-long course isn’t enough time to address all topics of interest, the PDC decided to narrow classes down based on what information is (or could be) available in other formats, like websites and webinars. This gave the PDC the space to create an original and uniquely beneficial curriculum.
Andi Kornack © Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
“COVID put a magnifying glass on it and created an opportunity for us to say, ‘Alright, let’s move this from teaching about all the different areas in a zoo to how to lead all those different areas of the zoo,” said Andi Kornak, deputy executive director at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Cleveland, Ohio, and a co-chair of the PDC.
The Effective Leadership courses will take a holistic approach to building strong teams, improving leadership skills, and creating self-awareness. Part of the new shift in curriculum comes in the form of a focus on the whole person, the importance of self-care, and staff wellbeing.
We said, ‘Okay, let's take a look at all of these subjects and see what can we do with this extra time. Should we start moving things around? How do we want to separate out these two courses? And honestly, the more we discussed it, and the more we looked at how far our members have come, it made more sense for us to really evolve both courses. And that brings us from Managing for Success to now Effective Leadership in our two new courses that will premiere in February,” said Kenton Kerns, assistant curator at Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C., and a co-chair of the PDC.
Kenton Kerns © Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.
The goal, according to Kenton and Kornak, is to send people out there with the best skills possible that will raise the entire AZA community, not just individual organizations. This way, if people move between facilities, they will still bring a high standard of leadership and invaluable people skills.
The two new courses are for distinct audiences. Effective Leadership: Foundation and Development is for building a strong base while supporting the front line. It’s designed for staff members in a new-to-them leadership role as well as people who are leading the frontline teams responsible for day-to-day operations. This course is also a great option for people who are seeking the skills to move into a leadership role one day in the future. Effective Leadership: Continuous Growth is designed for mid-level or senior-level leaders at an organization who are seeking to gain skills and knowledge that will help them advance their professional careers and support their teams with development. This course will focus on mission-alignment, advocacy, and leadership that moves from within a department into the broader organization.
Each course is divided into categories for behaviors, focus, and oversight with detailed topic buckets. For Foundation and Development, the behavior bucket includes classes on Developing Your Authentic Self, Cultivating Strong Teams, and Leading with Influence. For the Continuous Growth class, the behavior bucket includes courses on Growing Your Leadership, Cultivating Organizational Culture, and Leading Leaders. Within the focus category, Foundation and Development includes Building Better Processes and Supporting Staff as People. In Continuous Growth, focus highlights Leading Better Processes, Leading People, and Leading Culture Internally and Externally. Under oversight, Foundation and Development offers Understanding Cultural Organizational Operations, and Growing Your Expertise and Experience. For Continuous Growth, oversight includes Growing Your Expertise and Engagement.
Laura Martina © Fresno Chaffee Zoo
There are many opportunities for self-assessment throughout the courses. Laura Martina, former chief people officer at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo in Fresno, Calif., joined the instructor team three years ago with a focus on personnel management and effective communication through understanding behavioral preferences. Her new courses address how to build leaders who understand the role they play in work culture while helping people understand their own motivations, how they communicate best, and how to incorporate and respect everyone’s differences.
The original Professional Development Courses dedicated small amounts of time to a wide range of topics, which was most beneficial for managers who were new to the industry. Now, the focus has shifted to include building leadership skills.
“There’s more focus on what students can control and less on what AZA does as a whole. We’re providing tools and connections they can take back to their organizations and implement regardless of the regulations in their states,” said Martina.
One of the biggest benefits of the week-long courses is the chance to meet 30 new colleagues from all over the country (and in some cases, the world) to form new friendships and networks. Interacting with people who come from different types of facilities with their own specific challenges offers plenty of learning opportunities, as well.
“There aren’t a lot of distractions in Wheeling, so you’re with the group. It’s a fantastic networking opportunity. It’s truly a cohort where you’re learning about other institutions, other challenges that people have, and you’re helping to actively solve problems during course discussions,” said Kornak.
Amy Rutherford ©Birmingham Zoo
The Professional Development Courses were originally developed for zoo directors but have evolved alongside the AZA community, said Amy Rutherford, vice president of education at the Birmingham Zoo, who served as the manager and then the director of professional development and education for AZA from 2011 to 2021. Over time, as operations became more sophisticated and people at all levels needed management and leadership training, the target audience changed.
“I think somewhat related to leadership, but also related to teaching philosophies, we’ve worked to make the courses a lot more interactive and project-based versus test-based, with skill building as much as knowledge building and network building,” said Rutherford. The biggest growth over time has been in the percentage of courses focused on management and leadership. Over the last 10 to 15 years, the ideology has shifted to include understanding people, valuing diverse skillsets, and fostering different work styles, as opposed to trying to fit everyone into the same management approach.
Now, the suite of AZA courses (like the Executive Leadership Development Program and Education Leadership) are coming together within the same framework and using the same terminology and approaches. This gives the larger community a shared understanding and vocabulary when talking about leadership, which is significant.
“Personally, I’m excited that we’re taking some of that framework and those tools to build a curriculum that will have consistent leadership language and structure across all our courses. I think it’s going to provide a really impactful experience for our students,” said Colahan.
Hillary Richard is a writer based in Bloomfield, N.J.
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