“Put your pants on, Joe!”
Our planning team is never at a loss for colorful metaphors when it comes to making aspects of our work clear and relatable. This quality was on display at this year’s Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) annual meeting in September in New Orleans. Jill Macauley, our Director of Strategic, Business & Organizational Consulting, facilitated a panel discussion with four industry leaders, each representing a different perspective: Sean Greene, COO & Executive Vice President Park Operations, Dallas Zoo; Chris Pfefferkorn, President & CEO, Birmingham Zoo; Dr. Rebecca Snyder, Curator of Conservation & Science, Oklahoma City Zoo; and Andy Wood, COO, The Florida Aquarium.
During the panel discussion, an audience member raised a concern about the difficulty of transitioning from the planning process to implementation. Specifically, she asked about who does that work of implementation and, in essence, how. While the panelists provided their perspectives, Jill added that the plan doesn’t tell you to first put your left pant leg on and then your right. Instead, it simply tells you to “put your pants on, Joe.” While that metaphor got quite a chuckle and even a suggestion for next year’s session title, it illustrates an important point: The plan doesn’t tell you how “to put your pants on” because every organization and even every staff member will implement the same steps in different ways. Your strategic plan and ultimately how you implement it needs to be tailored to fit your organization rather than being specifically prescribed by a facilitator. As one of our panelists said, “You need a plan that sets you up for success.”
In a way, this colorful phrase was a theme of the session. There is ultimately no one or absolute right way to develop a strategic plan. It must reflect the organization and its unique culture in order to be a plan that will establish a realistic yet ambitious roadmap for an organization’s future. However, it became apparent through the session that while there is no one right way, there are some universal elements and considerations when it comes to developing a strategic plan.
We are proud of Jill for facilitating a spirited and productive session and are grateful to our panelists who took the time out of their very busy schedules to share their perspectives. We captured the essence of the discussion in the summary below. We invite you to read the panelists’ insights and reflect on strategic planning processes in which you’ve been involved.
Lessons Learned – Panel Discussion
Sean: We had the perfect storm in 2009, presented with an opportunity to privatize the Dallas Zoo quickly in about 4 months with many unknowns. In short-order we started a new company, added a new management Board to our existing Zoological Society Board, developed new HR policies and transferred more than 200 staff over to the Dallas Zoo Management company. At the same time, 75% of our executive leadership staff was new. Between 2009 and 2016, we were running full steam ahead with a high degree of success, but without a defined strategic roadmap. With the enormity of things to accomplish post-privatization, we were essentially driving our own cars 100 miles per hour towards the intended finish line. By 2016, looking in our rear-view mirror we had covered a lot of distance but in many ways were traveling different roads towards success. In 2016 we took the time to develop a true roadmap rooted in a new strategic plan that would get us in the same caravan headed towards that finish line together.
Rebecca: We had several changes in senior leadership with a new Director, Deputy Director and Director of our Society. In addition, the mission hadn’t really been revisited for nearly 15 years so that also represented the right time to begin the planning process.
Andy: The aquarium had brand new leadership. A year after new leadership was in place, we began strategic planning with the specific goal of understanding the business; now, we needed to lay out the roadmap. For us, the process was the most important and the timing was right to evaluate every aspect of what we do and why we do it and either reaffirm those aspects that were valuable and important or eliminate those that were inefficient and ineffective for the organization.
Chris: We were also going through an executive leadership change. Within a year, our CFO and our COO retired. We had a Board Chair change and our CEO was working on his exit plan. The current strategic plan was also about 7 years old. The executive leadership change was a big prompt to get the plan going. It allowed us, with the new leadership, to create a team and work together and bring the Zoo together at a time when people were asking about our direction. All the people driving the ship were jumping the ship. We were able to develop a vision statement for the Zoo, which we hadn’t had in a long time. All of that set the zoo on the path to be successful.
Andy: We all get caught in what we do every day. For us, the strategic planning process didn’t just slam on the brakes for the executive leadership team, it did it for the entire organization. You can’t think big and bold when you are caught up in the day-to-day. Our CEO uses a phrase “make no little plans.” However, those are words – we needed a process and a strategic vision that allowed everybody to own those words.
Sean: What was supposed to be a 7-month process turned into a 12-month process, because once we started, we realized more conversations were needed to fully engage our various internal stakeholders. Our initial staff survey only garnered a 40% participation rate, so we added more time for surveying staff, volunteers, Board Members and the community. We layered in focus groups and Board retreats to make it as inclusive as possible. As a result, we established an employee advisory committee made up of 15 supervisor level staff to give us a pulse of the Zoo and discuss key issues we may have missed. They helped provide feedback and develop our core values which we have integrated into the Dallas Zoo’s onboarding process and hiring practices. The committee is still active today, under the name Zoonity.
Chris: We had six strategic mandates with leaders over each. We had multi-disciplinary teams for each mandate that built out the associated objectives and strategies. At the same time, we surveyed volunteers, Board, staff and some city officials to get their input on our core values as well as test the mission and vision statements. It was a full team effort in putting our plan together. By doing that, we created ownership for our plan to the point where people now ask when an idea comes up, “How does that relate to our strategic plan?” Once you have your plan and are at the stage of massaging it, don’t do it in a room with your executive team. It has to come back to everybody because they are a part of the plan and you need to explain why certain changes were made. Then you have buy-in and then they will hold you, all the way up to the CEO, accountable for its implementation. At the end, we had an open house where people could talk to each mandate leader about the strategies and objectives. It gave even more people who weren’t as involved in the process the opportunity to really understand the plan.
Chris: I can speak to this on two levels: institutional and personal. On a personal level, I had always been on the animal side. When I went to the Birmingham Zoo as a Senior Vice President, I took on a lot more of the operational role. However, I was still seen as the animal person by the Board. Being able to lead the Zoo through strategic planning, reporting to the Board, involving the Board, involving the staff and involving the community, I got to show that I had an ability to lead. It gave me an opportunity to showcase my skills to the people making the hiring decision. On an institutional level, once the plan was adopted, it gave the executive search committee a guide for who they were looking for in their next CEO. When they adopted the plan, they knew what the Zoo would be doing and where it would be going and how it would do it – this allowed them to search for a leader that they felt could successfully implement the plan.
Andy: We had a Task Force with nine Board members and eight senior staff members. The Board was involved but were not driving the process alone. With staff on the task force, the Board had an opportunity to lead and engage but not feel the need to dictate the direction our organization should go. The Board also asked for community leaders to serve on the Task Force. Having those community members within the group was a gift because they shared ideas that we hadn’t previously thought about. They looked at us differently. They asked a lot of challenging questions, which was great to have in the process.
Sean: We had 60% participation on the Board survey. We also had Board retreats and regular communication with the Board. It was more about them turning the lens inward to say, “How do I engage?” and “What do I want to take from this?” As part of that, the Board reduced its Committees from 16 down to 8 and revamped our nomination process, executive committee and term limits.
[Audience Question] How do you manage your team within the process? Also, we are often criticized for always planning rather than executing. How do you wrap all of these elements into a concise presentation or communication to the Board?
Chris: We spread out the workload so that it didn’t all fall on only a handful of people. That helped and got a lot more buy-in. I noticed that a lot of people were putting their job duties into the plan. We had to pull all of those out and distinguish between job responsibilities and the plan. We then looked objectively at the plan and considered whether the plan was too big and whether it was going to overburden the staff. We then pared it down to get a realistic plan. It was a big eye opener for much of the staff to see that on one hand there is their job and on the other, with the plan, is the clarity on why and how they do their jobs.
Andy: It’s about timing too. Before starting this process, the Board told us they have done strategic plans before that end up as very nice printouts on a shelf. How do we make sure that doesn’t happen? We timed the process so that we would have a plan drafted in May because we launch our annual planning in June. We wanted staff to have a framework to build from and that would inform their annual planning efforts. So, the latest annual plan shows the strategic plan coming to life.
Sean: Embedded in every staff member’s annual performance reviews are aspects of the strategic plan. Everyone can find themselves within the strategic plan. It also ensures that the plan doesn’t sit on a shelf and collect dust. You have to regularly revisit the plan and make sure everybody is executing the items assigned to them. The other piece is the measurable aspects of the plan. It is not always easy to do, but you need to show those accomplishments in measurable terms.
[Audience Question] When you have so many different people working on the pillars/goals/mandates, how do you keep it cohesive?
Chris: We brought all the mandate leaders together to review it all as a group. We had to take a step back and logically walk through each objective and consider whether it was achievable or more “pie in the sky.” You want to set up a plan for success. We did a 3-year plan and made a point not to put too much into it. We sifted as a group and then the mandate leaders then took the comments back to their groups and made changes. We then put it back together and reviewed once more.
[Audience Question] Did any of you use an outside facilitator to work with you along the way or to kick start things?
Chris: I would highly recommend a facilitator. You want to be able to focus on and be a part of the planning process rather than having to focus on the work of having to facilitate it. Doing that will spread you thin and be difficult. You need somebody to help you through the process. Plus, they are a great bridge to your Board, staff, volunteers or community.
Sean: Strategic planning can be a scary process. However, you can’t hire somebody and not have thick skin and have there be things you aren’t willing to hear. If you want it facilitated, get someone with an expert opinion who can challenge your thinking. Without that, you aren’t going to grow, and you aren’t going to find your blind spots to understand what you don’t know.
Andy: We used two facilitators. We had a facilitator who led the process at the Board level. A facilitator keeps you honest so that one person isn’t taking over the process. We had staff champions for each of our core pillars who were responsible for facilitating the process internally. We then brought in our second facilitator to take what we were building from our staff level, review it and make sure it was in-line with what we had originally laid out with the Board. It was a way to make sure we weren’t getting caught in our own little buckets.
[Audience Question] How does the continuous evaluation of the plan work?
Rebecca: The goals for all the employees are set based on the strategic plan. Every employee has at least quarterly check-ins with their supervisor about their progress. Every employee has an HR-related goal that ties directly to an action step in the strategic plan. That gives us the continuous evaluation as well as an opportunity to determine whether something in the plan needs to be changed.
Jill: Often you will see annual Board retreats, which include a higher-level evaluation of the plan. Some organizations review the plan monthly and quarterly. Sometimes there are all-staff workshops to update the plan. There are a variety of tools, but each one of these organizations has some sort of dashboard that allows them to regularly monitor progress on the plan.
[Audience Question] There is a lot of support from the facilitator while developing the plan but after all that work is done, who is actually doing the work of implementing the plan?
Chris: We have each objective assigned to an individual with the knowledge and ability to handle that objective. The mandate leader checks-in with everybody within their mandate to make sure things are getting done and to offer support. We had to identify people and make it a part of their jobs. It starts at the top, with our executive team, to hold each other accountable and that filters down.
Sean: Initially our CFO and Senior Director of HR regularly updated the progress on the strategic objectives. It should be everybody and we continue to get better at everyone owning that responsibility.
Rebecca: We have individuals or certain groups of individuals who are assigned to the objectives, each of which has a year attached to it. Those individuals are expected to report back on how things are going. It starts at the top, but filters down through every level of the organization so that every single person feeds into the objectives and action steps that are relevant to their job responsibilities.
Rebecca: It’s critical to have a facilitator. It’s equally important to include the staff as much as you can. Once you develop workgroups, it’s helpful to have them communicate with each other to make sure it’s cohesive.
Sean: You don’t want this to die on the vine. You can demoralize staff quickly if you ask them to put in the work and then the plan sits on the shelf after you’ve gone through 7-12 months of effort.
Chris: Don’t be afraid to make your plan achievable. You want to be successful so make sure your plan is logical, will work and is what your institution needs.
Andy: I would add the community engagement at the beginning, but I would record those conversations. We serve a mission so everything we are talking about is a strategic plan to live our mission. Capturing that passion for the mission and being able to have that on-hand when times are difficult is a powerful piece of this.
Sean: The opportunity for staff feedback was important to the process. From that input came new engagement opportunities, core values and a restructured organizational chart.
Jill: Without assigning people to objectives and action steps, the accountability gets lost. There is a lot of gray area because it’s never ultimately one person’s job but someone has to own it getting done. In many regards, strategic plans can become that rallying tool for staff because we are all in it together. We know what we want to achieve in the next several years.