Doug Piekarz is a scientist. Well, he’s a conservation biologist (with expertise in conservation biology specifically related to ornithology, to be specific), and he’s also president and CEO of the Akron Zoo.
“I’m here to save the world,” Piekarz says, absolutely meaning it. “I mean, if I were to boil everything else away, everything that I do is all about making sure humanity and wildlife have a future.”
His path from scientist to CEO is perspective-shaping, informing … well, everything personal and professional, including his approach to organizational leadership.
“A good chief executive knows what questions to ask and how to find the right people who have the right answers, because there is no human being on Earth who is a jack of every single trade and can do it professionally and acceptably.”
That realization helped him recognize that the gifts and skills he brought to the position — his natural curiosity and ability to frame the right questions in the right way at the right time — were a strength, not a weakness.
“Questions are the key to being a good chief executive,” he says. “I already knew how to ask them and what to ask, so that that created good alignment.”
Piekarz is bringing every bit of himself to bear on growing the Akron Zoo in a meaningful way, investments he hopes will help save the world.
That’s a Hooded Merganser
There is a personality/life/career-shaping story Piekarz shares about his grandfather’s cabin in the Catskills. Born and raised just outside of Manhattan, Piekarz spent his weekends and holidays at that cabin. There, he learned both the value of nature and how to recognize not just the genus, but the species, of the local wildlife — a skill he’d showcase to his city friends.
“I knew almost every single species of bird that existed around me, and I’d forever be pointing them out to my friends,” Piekarz says. “My friends would call it a bird and I’m like, ‘No, that’s a song sparrow. No, that’s actually a mallard. No, that’s a black duck. No, that’s a Hooded Merganser. The diversity of wildlife that was around me, even though I was in an inner city, was so much greater than everybody else around me was able to wrap their heads around. I knew from an early age I wanted to make that difference in other people’s lives to get them to see what I could see because my grandfather showed me how to look.”
Piekarz went on to earn a bachelor of science degree at Rutgers, then worked as ascending levels of animal keeper with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the parent organization of the 265-acre Bronx Zoo and one of the world’s largest conservation organizations.
With about a decade of experience and looking to put his skills to use in a different way, he responded to a posting for a general curator at the Akron Zoo. Piekarz met Pat Simmons, the first-ever and then-current CEO of the Akron Zoo at an Association of Zoos and Aquariums annual meeting in Seattle.
“One of the things that Pat said to me at the end of my interview was, ‘If you choose to come to Akron, you’re going to help me build a zoo.’ Nobody else I talked to at that time in my life was able to offer such an incredible opportunity.”
Piekarz was intrigued, enough so that he left one of the largest urban facilities in the country to work at one of the smaller ones, the Akron Zoo.