Barbara Baker sets a fast-paced culture at the Pittsburgh Zoo


The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium recently renovated its elephant and giraffe exhibits. President and CEO Barbara Baker says they decided to plant a lush hillside that separated the two exhibits.

The first thing the elephants did was reach over and pick out as many of the plants as they could. They threw them around, played with them and ate them, she says. Then, the giraffes leaned over the rocks in front of the exhibit and started to eat the tops off the plants.

“The animals don’t always do what they are supposed to do,” Baker says. “They are not supposed to be able to reach this stuff, but they’ll lean on tippy toes to try to reach anything they possibly can … and just rip them out.

“So there goes your $100 plant down the throat of an elephant,” she says.

Even if you’ve done your homework, you’re going to fail sometimes.

“You just stand there and you look at it, and you watch them and you’re like ‘Son of a gun, they can reach that’ and you just laugh it off,” Baker says.

In her 25 years leading the zoo, she’s learned that it’s critical to not only celebrate the successes but also laugh off the failures.

“You try things — you might fail, you might succeed — but you keep moving forward,” Baker says. “That’s just so important to be able to continue to do that, even though you might run into some real roadblocks.”’

Growing in new directions

When Baker first started at the zoo, it was still under the purview of the city. One of her first major acts was to help privatize the zoo, which went through in 1994.

It was a challenging time — she sometimes worried that they weren’t going to make payroll — and, looking back, she says the growth has been phenomenal.

The zoo has gone from a $3 million annual budget to $17 million, and the employees have grown from 45 to 148. In peak yearss, 1 million visitors now come through the zoo’s gates.

Baker has gone through a few changes as well.

“My experience over 25 years has taught me to be more politically correct and more diplomatic along the way, because I was kind of hard charging,” she says.

She’s learned that it’s better to use diplomacy and try to work through political channels to get something done.

“I think in the beginning I probably offended more people than I needed to,” Baker says. “Now I’m much better at being sure that we include everybody in decisions — trying to be sure that we get input from everybody that needs to be part of a particular process.”

A balancing act

Baker has helped build a culture where change is a daily occurrence, decisions are made rapidly and everyone pulls together on new projects — whether it’s the new endangered species exhibit The Islands or restaurant Jambo Grill.

“They enjoy the fact that things are happening and things are getting done, and we’re making things happen and we’re improving constantly — building new exhibits and opening new areas and improving our operations all around the zoo,” she says of her staff.

Downtime might be wishful thinking at times, but Baker knows her employees act as a team because management is open about the culture and expectations.

“People do very, very well if they know the expectations from the very beginning,” she says.

It’s a balancing act between empowering the employees to succeed in the organization, while still providing support and making decisions.

With Jambo Grill, for instance, Baker was involved in the decision-making process for the color scheme and traffic flow.

“You might call that micromanaging,” she says. “But I’ve found over the years that it’s a different mindset in that you’re there to help, to get the process complete and make a decision.”

She’s not thinking about it for days, forming a committee or checking in with this person or that person. Instead Baker says she leads by keeping everything moving.

She feels it’s critical to focus on the details because that’s how you exceed expectations. When visitors have a positive experience, they’re more likely to help animals worldwide.

And the customer service starts from the moment a person gets out of their car.

“If you go somewhere and you run into a rude attendant at the front gate that immediately sets you up — you’ve already got distaste in your mouth for that experience,” Baker says.

If people have a wonderful experience, word spreads.

“You feel good about what happened, then you talk about the animals, you talk about the visit that you had,” she says.