The San Diego Zoo Way

CHRO of the Year Award winner Tim Mulligan outlines his “world-famous” approach to HR in his new book.

Building a resilient organization doesn’t require heroic acts or elaborate initiatives that consume a great deal of resources. At San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG), resilience begins with a commitment from senior leaders who articulate a compelling vision to honor and respect employees. Building on a strong “why,” leaders establish a people-centric focus and implement a culture of resilience that becomes part of the organization’s DNA. A well-designed strategy, combined with thoughtful programs, practical tools, and metrics to measure progress, transform how people behave, and recognize and reward resilient behaviors.

The Resilience at Work™ Model

Many resilience models focus on stress management. While managing stress is indeed a critical factor, we believe that building resilience encompasses a broader spectrum of behaviors as reflected in the Resilience at Work™ model (see Figure 1). This model incorporates five competencies, referred to as the five Cs:

1. Reclaiming self-control. Your ability to self-regulate, self-manage, control your emotions, maintain clarity and focus, stay calm, be proactive versus reactive, and be consistently optimistic and happy. Core behaviors: Being self-aware, self-controlled, self-regulated, empathetic, nonreactive, nonjudgmental, calm under stress or pressure, confident, certain, non-egotistical, and optimistic.

2. Realigning conditions. Your ability to effectively integrate work and life, manage overall well-being and align external conditions to support effective use of time and energy. Core behaviors: Making healthy choices, managing overall well-being, coping well with stress, staying focused, managing time effectively, and managing distractions adeptly.

3. Reimagining communications. Your competence and agreement with coworkers regarding truth-telling, honesty, commitment to transparency, acceptance of vulnerability, and focus on positivity. Core behaviors: Being positive, truthful, transparent, kind, authentic, willing to be vulnerable, and solution-oriented.

4. Renewing connections. Your sense of purpose, connection, and coherence with personal and organizational values, feelings of belonging, trust, and support from your community. Core behaviors: Being aligned with corporate and personal values, connected with others, trusting, comfortable with conflict, a team player, vulnerable, supportive, and collaborative.

5. Rebalancing commitments. Willingness to embrace change and commitment, adopt new habits, and implement new practices and rituals. Core behaviors: Embracing change, being comfortable with risk, being assertive, being persistent, being successful at adopting new habits, being courageous, and being a leader.

These five Cs are simple yet powerful. They are practical and universal. They apply to every person and organization, no matter the company size, industry, demographics, or culture. They are fundamental behaviors that serve everyone in creating more fulfillment and success at work and in life. The Resilience at Work™ model seeks to combine tried-and-true concepts such as emotional intelligence, wellness, time management, and good communication with a new perspective: mindfulness. Indeed, mindfulness is a tool to maintain relaxed, focused attention. Coupled with honest communication that promotes transparency and vulnerability; a sense of purpose, belonging, and connection; and the courage and conviction necessary to make resilience a priority; the model offers a road map to cultivate resilience in an organization.

The Resilience at Work™ model serves as a paradigm to reimagine the way people go about their jobs. It can help an organization meet its goals and objectives, and at the same time, safeguard its employees’ quality of life. When each of these competencies is systematically integrated into the organization’s culture, they foster a toolset that allows employees to thrive.

Implementing Resilience the World-Famous San Diego Zoo Way

The human resources and talent management programs developed by San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) have revolutionized its worldwide influence and success by mapping closely to the principles of organizational resilience, providing a successful model that any organization can follow.

Tim Mulligan started his new position just as SDZG was rolling out a very strong strategic plan—“the Lynx.” This embodied a new vision for the organization: to become a world leader at connecting people to conservation. To achieve this vision, SDZG realized that it had to become
a leader in world-class employee relations programs and talent management.

SDZG’s new strategic plan, dubbed the Lynx, was heavily weighted to core infrastructure programs—accountability, basic foundations, and bringing employees to the forefront. It ushered in a new vision of becoming a world leader in connecting people to wildlife and conversation. Developed by over 170 employees, the Lynx focused on creating a new infrastructure at SDZG, and repositioning the organization as a global conservation leader. The original Lynx had four main components focusing on facilities, interpretation, conservation, and supporting processes—with the latter being the playing ground where Mulligan and the HR team had to start over in all areas of human resources. It was a challenge that Mulligan was very excited to lead.

Instead of just jumping in and making sweeping changes ad hoc, the HR team did things the right way. They worked within the Lynx to prioritize the needs of the organization. A few very big ideas needed attention right away—namely, performance management, employee engagement and satisfaction, and training. Others on the list were “shelved” for future years—
including recognition, incentive, and wellness programs, as well as college relations and other recruiting efforts.

Performance Management

Prior to 2005, SDZG had a robust budgeting program, with inherent goals in basic metrics such as attendance, fundraising amounts, revenue, and profit. But these goals were never transparent—they never were communicated to the larger population of employees. There were no goals set for the management team or hourly employees that were linked to the
annual goals of the organization. There was no formal compensation program to govern annual raises and bonuses. New hires were brought in as low in the pay scales as possible, and whenever annual increases were given, there was no correlation whatsoever to pay or goals. No incentive plans existed.

In 2005, as part of the Lynx Strategic Plan, SDZG established a special team charged with finding the right partner to help develop a cutting-edge online performance management program. While this search was taking place, the management team of SDZG was polled on leadership competencies in order to create a common language and set of expectations for anyone who managed at least one employee. Whether you were a food service supervisor of hundreds, a marketing manager, an animal care manager, or even the CEO, you would be held accountable to a common set of competencies.

Ultimately, the team selected an up-and-coming Canadian vendor named Halogen Software. SDZG and Halogen began working together on a strategic performance management project that would encompass these principles. Halogen led a team of SDZG managers in creating the program, which included the creation of the SDZG Leadership Competencies (leadership, SDZG mission and customer focus, professionalism, teamwork: interpersonal relations, and communication), as well as a merit-based compensation program—a first for SDZG.

Z-Max Transforms Organizational Culture

The fall of 2005 saw several turning points in SDZG’s transformation to the next level of strength and organizational resilience. First, the executive leadership team created a set of nine goals for 2006, including those for groups not previously measured, such as animal welfare, conservation, employee relations, and training.

SDZG then launched the new project developed by Halogen Software, the first of many to be “branded” by the SDZG human resources team with its own catchy name and logo: “Z-Max.” An overarching theme of the original Lynx strategic plan was on leadership accountability, for which Z-Max would play a major role. Managers were trained on the basics of writing “SMART” goals—those that were Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound. They then conducted reviews based on those attributes, and annual increases were finally tied to individual performance.

Finally, the management team was speaking the same language, and all eyes were on the same prize. Employees were able to see their role in the success of the organization, whether they worked in janitorial, retail, or any other department.

Z-Max was the first of many programs to come that ushered modern technology into the organization, driving managers away from old school paper-based programs and toward online paperless technology.

Now, 10 years later, Z-Max has truly transformed the culture of SDZG. There is a sense of accountability, a better understanding of goals, and stronger motivation for employees to become productive and engaged. What started out with 225 participants now has grown to 850. Currently, all non-union employees are given annual goals and held to a set of competencies. They have individual development plans and “360 reviews” by peers, managers and their own direct reports, and are rewarded accordingly. In 2015, the first group of union employees was added to the system as well, and more will come in the future.

Though there were costs for creating this program, SDZG leaders made a strong business case on the importance and relevance of the Lynx: future returns in terms of productivity and accountability, higher engagement, and the risks involved in not proceeding. The funds were approved. This initiative boosted the productivity, and yes, the resiliency of the organization, which more than justified the financial investment.

Living and Working by the Rules of Engagement

An effective brand is embodied by products, services, people, and guest experiences. SDZG’s positioning as “world famous” places it uniquely in the market, communicates the organization’s values, and is a measure of its success. Ideally, each member of the management team becomes an accountable leadership brand ambassador. This includes incorporating SDZG’s code of conduct for all employees: the “Rules of Engagement,” a set of simple yet powerful standards for behavior.

1. Use your words wisely.

• We think and speak about what we want to have happen. We communicate clearly and often. • We avoid the “downward spiral” and 3 “C’s”—criticizing, condemning, and complaining.

2. Be accountable.

• We take full ownership and responsibility.

• We look for what we can do to improve situations.

3. Focus.

• We focus on what’s important and use our time and energy wisely to achieve our goals.

• We stay 100 percent engaged at work.

4. Mine the gold.

• We bring out the best in ourselves and others.

5. Strive for balance.

• We are healthy, energized, and vital.

• We take time for recovery and renewal.

• We sharpen our “saws”—stay engaged and at the top of our game!

6. Lighten up.

• We remember not to take ourselves too seriously.

• We bring laughter, joy, and fun to our workday.

• We are constantly making other people’s day.

7. Go for the ROAR.

• We delight every customer, always wear a smile, and give great customer service!

Building Resilience

These are just a few of the core programs that have been put in place to improve the overall employee experience, and make SDZG a true employer of choice. As each new program is implemented, Mulligan has his team ask the ever-important question: “ITWF, which stands for
“Is This World Famous?” If the answer is no, then it’s back to the drawing board. In addition, with each new program, Mulligan makes sure that not just the CEO, but the entire executive team is on board with the new initiative, supports it publicly, and rallies around it.

Excerpted from Roar: How to Build a Resilient Organization the World-Famous San Diego Zoo Way by Sandy Asch and Tim Mulligan. Published by Highpoint Executive Publishing, 2016.

Posted July 27, 2016 in Performance Management & Rewards

Leave a Reply