What to do in the midst of an uncertain future

There were acute challenges when I started leading the San Francisco Zoo as interim executive director: a tarnished public reputation, absence of corporate donors, a $2.4 million operating deficit and politicians threatening to shut it down.

I knew what we needed to do — ensure public safety, emphasize visitor and donor relationships and stabilize the finances. Accomplishing those goals required immediate, sweeping action.

I inherited a senior team already in place and there was no time for performance reviews, restructuring or bringing in new hires.

I had to make the best of what we had, so I took a page out of “Strengths Finder” by Tom Rath and focused on the exceptional people and products within the organization. One of my strengths was quickly analyzing what we did well and eliminating that which we didn’t.

Enhance strengths, wipe out weaknesses

The zoo had wonderful exhibits like the African Savanna, Grizzly Gulch and Children’s Zone. I recognized that donors, at the time, weren’t interested in investments to animal spaces, so I leveraged an expansive children’s playground project to make a good attraction even better.

I also found opportunities to expand existing, successful exhibits by incorporating nearby, empty spaces. Thus, the polar bear habitat doubled in size.

If other areas weren’t amazing, we closed them. We literally reduced the zoo’s footprint by closing off empty spaces and paths that led nowhere, redirecting visitors to more engaging and populated areas.

Another major strength of the organization was a committed and large volunteer base, which helped both day-to-day from an operations standpoint and long term by shifting public perception of the zoo.

In an effort to thank and take care of them, we repurposed aging exhibits to volunteer areas. Eagle Scouts converted an old hoofstock exhibit into a thriving area for volunteers to plant, compost and catch rainwater, called Greenie’s Conservation Corner. One donor was so moved she created a $10,000 conservation internship.

Make the most of what you have

In a 100-acre zoo and garden, there are bound to be some quirks. Penguins are widely known for mating for life, but we had a penguin love triangle between Harry, Pepper and Linda. Instead of denying it, we made light of it and gave visitors an interesting and memorable story.

Collaboration instead of endless meetings

This was a culture that liked long meetings and wasn’t incented to make a decision. It led to a practice of being told what to do and not think independently. I started giving the senior staff more responsibility, autonomy and separate budgets.

We held fewer large meetings and began meeting in smaller groups. When we get together to collaborate now, it’s purposeful and therefore more effective.

We have recovered from crisis and are now one of the premiere zoos in the country. In March we received Association of Zoos & Aquariums reaccreditation and celebrated 39 years of continuous accreditation. My efforts to keep improving continue and I’m thankful for the difficult, but important lessons I learned as an interim. ●

Tanya Peterson is president and executive director at the San Francisco Zoo