Executive Leadership Development Program

The goal of the Executive Leadership Development Program is to develop executive talent and leadership for individuals who demonstrate the ability and interest to advance to the role of Director within an AZA accredited zoo or aquarium in the next 5 years.

The focus of the ELDP is on the development of the executive competencies, or the knowledge, skills and behaviors needed to be most effective in the role of Director.  The competency model emphasizes three tiers of competencies to include:

  1. 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.
  2. Executive Focus, which define the skills and knowledge needed to sustain a viable institution, be an effective executive participant in AZA forums and advance the mission.
  3. Executive Oversight for Zoo/Aquarium Operations, which define the skills and knowledge needed to provide executive oversight for the operations 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, and other industry professionals to share leadership lessons and transfer institutional knowledge on a variety of topics. 
  • Executive Leadership Coaching to help participants 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 his/her 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 executive mentor to develop, review and update their individual development plans to address that will accelerate their development.
  • 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 assignments to lead or to increase their level of responsibility such as…
    • Starting something new, or move an effort in a different direction
    • Fixing a troubled operation or process
    • Taking on a larger budget, lead more people, or manage 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, influence peers, senior leaders, or other people that do not report to you
  • Throughout the program, the 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 where their direct reports, peers, and Director will rate their current demonstration of specific leadership behaviors.
  • Over a 13-month period the participants will attend 'in-person' ELDP work sessions that will be scheduled during the AZA conferences and events planned in January, March/April, May, September and January of the following year.  Participants will be responsible for their travel expenses required to travel to the conference sites.  Participation in the remaining portion of each conference is encouraged, but is not mandatory.
  • Participants will be assigned to an Action Learning Team, meeting via phone and web-conferencing on a regular basis for a six-month period with other assigned participants to address a key priority facing AZA and the zoo and aquarium members.
  • 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, experiences and knowledge.
  • Quarterly check-in meetings will be planned to include the participant, their Director and their executive mentor to reflect on program progress and agree on IDP action plan for the next quarter.

Application Process   

 Click here for more information to help determine if the ELDP is right for you. Applications for the program year are available each summer with participants selected in early fall.

Still have questions? 

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


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