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Taming the Savage Culture: A Q&A with Tim Mulligan

The San Diego Zoo instilled passion in its workers. You can, too.

A man in a blue suit standing in front of bushes.

When Tim Mulligan became chief HR officer at the world-famous San Diego Zoo in 2004, the workforce was tired, stressed, distracted and disconnected. That was bad for them, the customers and the bottom line, so Mulligan immediately began focusing on shifting the organization’s culture. He has helped remake the zoo into a place where its workers are more focused, healthy and engaged. Today, as the zoo celebrates its 100th anniversary, it does so in an award-winning environment that’s more profitable than ever.

Based on that transformation, Mulligan and Sandy Asch, principal of the consultancy Alliance for Organizational Excellence, wrote Roar: How to Build a Resilient Organization the World-Famous San Diego Zoo Way (Highpoint Executive Publishing, 2016). The book shares the employee-development and rewards programs they put in place and provides guidance to HR and other business leaders on how to achieve similar results.

Why did you write this book?

The San Diego Zoo is well-known globally, but you never hear about what we do for our employees and how that cultivates great leadership. We’ve worked to establish ourselves as an employer of choice—a workplace with great benefits that treats workers well. We survived turbulent times and reinvented, reinvigorated and rebranded ourselves.

What principles drove the changes?

They were inspired by Sandy Asch and based on her research about how other longtime organizations have stayed resilient. We developed a model—a road map for change—based on five core competencies that can be used by employers of any size to help employees adapt and thrive in times of disruption. In general terms, these involve self-control, the healthy integration of work and life, honest communications, connections with others and the organization, and a willingness to embrace change.

What are some of the unique challenges to employee engagement posed by the zoo environment?

With more than 3,200 employees, recruiting and varying demographics are unique challenges. San Diego Zoo Global’s workforce comprises a wide array of positions—including nearly 700 retail employees, over 300 animal keepers/trainers, over 300 supervisors/managers and 200 scientific professionals. Demographically, the current workforce consists of 54 percent Millennials, which poses interesting challenges and rewards.

What changes did you make at the zoo?

We created a mix of programs based on our culture and the zoo’s employee makeup. They include Zoo U (training and leadership development), Roaring Rewards (employee incentives and recognition programs), ZCares (retirement, health and other benefit programs) and Roar Safer (safety and incentive programs). HR implemented each of these, and they are heavily branded, well-thought-out and geared toward being a best practice to be shared with other HR departments looking for ideas.

Why are workers today disengaged, and what toll does it take on businesses?

Technological distractions make it hard to disconnect from work demands and have work/life balance. People are stressed-out, burned out and disengaged. But engagement is the key to organizational success. If you aren’t engaged, committed and connected, you hurt productivity, customer service, and brand loyalty and equity. It’s something employers can’t ignore. Leaders need to proactively build and cultivate organizational and employee resiliency. Make it a mindset, then recruit and retain the best people by applying the five core competencies we’ve identified to HR and throughout the organization.

What’s the most important thing employers can do to demonstrate respect for workers?

Renew connections. Make sure your employees feel they truly belong, have purpose in their work, and are committed to your vision and purpose. Hire people who sought you out because they know what you are about. Help everyone know their role and how it contributes to your mission. The key is “Velcroing” employees to the organization’s “why?” so they know what they do makes a difference.

What’s the first step HR should take to boost engagement and performance?

Implement new ways of communicating with and rewarding employees. If you’re not taking that step, start now. To improve communications, we created a new intranet and gave each department its own site to connect with its employees. We stay in touch with all summer interns via Facebook. The zoo’s leadership team conducts an open forum at each location quarterly, where the CEO and CHRO give important presentations and field the toughest questions.

Before we made sweeping changes, employees stayed to work in the zoo environment, not because they felt engaged. But now we have less than 5 percent turnover. We win “Healthiest Place to Work” and “Best Place to Work” awards, which didn’t happen before. We’ve created an innovative, highly motivated workforce. If you’re stuck in your ways, you’re not resilient.

Is cash—particularly for high-performers—a good incentive to gain employee support?

You want to pay them appropriately and competitively, of course, but the answer to this depends on your population and culture. Many Millennials aren’t very cash-driven, for example. Survey your workers to learn what would be a good incentive for them.

What if there’s no budget to reward employees?

As a nonprofit, we did it on a shoestring budget. Find out what your workers want and build programs around those things. Offer a hybrid of rewards. We trade zoo tickets for goods and services from local businesses. We’ve negotiated great deals on fitness, electronics, day care and pet care. Find rewards and programs that resonate, and do what you can within your resources.

How does HR sell this to the rest of the C-suite?

You can’t do any of this without executive buy-in. I’ve had to prioritize and convince our executive team to embrace these concepts. A strong business case earns executive support. Your leaders need to walk the talk, though, or you won’t get employee support.

How can you measure the impact or financial return on investment of these programs?

Do it with the key tools HR uses—like annual and random employee engagement and satisfaction surveys. We also know we’re succeeding because revenues and zoo memberships are up. So, always come up with new programs and measure their success by how well the organization is doing.

Dahna M. Chandler is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


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