leadership training for zoo managers

Leadership Training for Zoo Managers: Improving Communication and Staff Satisfaction

Managing a zoo and, more importantly, managing zookeepers is a complex and demanding task. Zoo managers must know animal behavior and welfare and have strong leadership skills. Most institutions seem to forget this, so leadership training for zoo managers is lacking at most facilities. 

The most common complaint from zookeepers is bad management. Typically we promote our best individual contributors, the best zookeepers. But what makes the best zookeeper doesn’t always make the best zoo manager. Leadership training for zoo managers can help teach the best zookeepers the skills they need to be the best leaders.

Leadership training can help zoo managers communicate better with their teams. When our curators, supervisors, and team leads are better leaders staff is happy, and the turnover rate is low. In this blog post, we will explore the importance of communication and leadership in zoos, the impact of poor leadership on staff satisfaction, and the strategies that can be implemented to improve the situation.

Five Skills for Improving Communication and Leadership in Zoos 

It’s your M.O.D. day, and a springbok is popcorning in the barn, an otter won’t take its medication, three events mean increased attendance, and a zookeeper is out sick. Whether dealing with staff, animals, or the public, the ability to communicate effectively, delegate tasks, motivate and manage performance, resolve conflicts, and maintain self-awareness can significantly impact the zoo’s overall success. This section will explore five key skills that can help zoo managers improve communication and leadership in zoos. 

1. Self-Awareness

When I discovered the Enneagram, my whole world changed. As an “eight,” I tend to run head-long into things, “putting the wings on in the air” sort of style. I have no fear; I don’t worry about outcomes and move fast and break stuff. 

My general curator was a “six,” slow and methodical. Before acting, he liked to consider every possible risk and was prone to analysis paralysis. Everything I did terrified him. No wonder we butted heads all the time. 

Learning and understanding my personality, including my strengths and weaknesses, was the game changer in my happiness and satisfaction. Recognizing and appreciating that other people are different from you can be the quickest way to improve communication and leadership in zoos.    

2. Delegation and Motivation 

I was managing a new leader once and couldn’t figure out why things weren’t working. She completed everything on deadline and with the exceptional work quality. Her small team of interns and volunteers seemed happy and always said, “Mary is great!” 

Something was off. Eventually, we hit the ceiling on that team. We couldn’t launch new welfare improvement initiatives or train new behaviors because “Mary’s plate was full.” 

Mary hadn’t gone through leadership training for zoo managers. She had been an amazing individual contributor, a.k.a. an awesome zookeeper. Her standard of cleanliness was perfectly balanced with the animals’ needs for training and enrichment. She was great at reading behavior. She was even good at delegating tasks. She was kind and well-liked.  

Delegating tasks instead of outcomes is one of the most common things stifling communication and leadership in zoos. If a leader can learn how to set clear goals (and update them quarterly) and show the team what winning looks like, they can foster teamwork and collaboration. 

When Mary learned to let go of her need for perfection and control, her team was excited to execute new visions and improve animal welfare. 

3. Communication 

Effective communication is a critical component of effective zoo leadership. Zoo managers need to be able to listen to their staff, communicate information clearly and concisely, and use empathy and transparency to build trust with their team.

Communication problems are also a bit of a black hole. When I hear zookeepers tell me communication at their zoo is bad, I don’t know exactly what they mean. Are they not getting enough information? The right information? Is the tone a problem? Is it peer-to-peer communication? In our workshops, we focus on a few communication strategies for zookeepers that improve all of these various issues. 

Leadership training for zoo managers should remind leaders to over-communicate, ask open-ended questions, and, most importantly, learn to shut up. Zoo managers need to repeat themselves often. They should probably repeat themselves when thoroughly communicating the outcome and vision. Not because our teams are stupid but because humans need to hear something seven times before internalizing it.

If we improve communication and leadership in our zoos, we must teach our managers to stop trying to fix every problem quickly and move to the next. We have to teach our teams how to think, not what to do. We must spend more time listening and asking questions to teach our teams how to think for themselves.

4. Conflict Management 

Great leaders know how to reduce tension and encourage productive conflict. These leaders can spot a zookeeper or fellow curator moving into fight or flight mode.  They use excellent conversation management to ease emotions and stay focused on outcomes. 

The best leadership training for zoo managers includes conflict resolution and conflict management. Zoo managers and zookeepers need to have skills to confront problems. We teach “Script It,” where zoo managers are taught to use the behavior, impact, tossback templated when planning conversations. This keeps conversations concise and encourages collaborative problem-solving and listening. 

Improving communication and leadership in zoos also requires learning to have empathy and take action when dealing with individuals you find difficult. We teach people first to try to understand why someone might be acting the way they are. This requires mastering the skill of “assuming best intent.” Once they can empathize, we teach them what to do about it. 

Most new zoo leaders don’t have these skills and are highly conflict-avoidant. They fear every difficult conversation will end with either them having to stuff their frustrations or a giant argument. Zoo staff satisfaction greatly improves when leadership training for zoo managers includes conflict management. 

5. Performance Management

Effective meetings are an important part of managing performance and improving communication and leadership in zoos. These meetings can be a great place to have transparent accountability and check on delegated outcomes. Each team member has goals and measurables and, during meetings, will report to the group if they are on track or off track. 

If a team member reports that they are struggling to meet routine times or are stuck on blood draw training with a tiger, the entire team can come together to discuss and solve the issue. This helps keep performance on track and zoo staff satisfaction up. 

Learning to conduct regular touch bases or one-on-ones should also be part of your leadership training for zoo managers. At least once a quarter, zoo managers and zookeepers should sit down and allow the employee to reflect on successes and struggles. It also gives zoo managers a chance to learn more about their teams. Being seen, heard, and understood is vital for employee engagement.

Set up a call to launch leadership training for zoo managers at your facility. 

Great Leaders Increase  Zoo Staff Satisfaction 

It’s no secret that what gets zookeepers into the field is the animals, but what increases zoo staff satisfaction is leadership. This love of animals also often stops us from having the best communication and leadership in zoos. We’re animal-people, not people-people. Most of us would rather pressure wash the hippo pool than spend time developing our leadership skills or our teams. 

Zookeepers will apply for a training or zoo animal management course over a communication and leadership course (most of the time). Our apprehension in addressing conflict and having confrontations also inhibits us from launching leadership training for zoo managers. That will require feedback, and while we say we want feedback, we get defensive when we get it. Ironically, providing leadership training for zoo managers is more likely to increase zoo staff satisfaction than increasing pay. 

In a survey conducted of zookeepers, the number one thing they wish their zoos would provide their teams was leadership training. Most had quit a previous job because of a “bad boss.” Improving our zoo staff satisfaction is critical for animal welfare. When keepers are engaged, and turnover is low, the animals benefit. 

In facilities that have focused on providing leadership training for zoo managers and focused on improving communication and leadership in their zoos, turnover is reduced. At one facility, turnover has been reduced by 49%; in another, they haven’t had anyone leave in 15 months.  

The lack of trust between zoo managers and zookeepers is increasing, and unionization is rising. Teach your leadership to embrace the challenge and focus on their teams. 

Leadership Training for Zoo Managers 

Poor communication and leadership in zoos can have a negative impact on zoo staff satisfaction, leading to high turnover rates, decreased engagement, and low morale. This is a problem not just for the staff but also for the zoo. Animal welfare is decreased when zoo staff satisfaction is low.

While everyone has ownership in improving communication. Leadership training for zoo managers can help leaders implement strategies that improve zoo staff satisfaction. By investing in leadership training, zoo managers can create a work environment that is supportive, engaging, and rewarding, leading to higher levels of zoo staff satisfaction and reduced turnover rates.

Leadership training for zoo managers is a valuable investment, providing the skills and strategies needed to communicate effectively, motivate employees, delegate outcomes, manage performance and embrace conflict. By focusing on communication and leadership, zoo managers can build a more productive, engaged, and motivated team and provide the high-quality animal care and customer service that is essential for the success of any zoo.

For more on communication strategies for zookeepers, read our blog and book a call to reduce turnover at your zoo. 

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