When Tim Mulligan joined San Diego Zoo Global as the Chief Human Resources Officer in 2004, he faced an uphill battle. The nonprofit zoo was performing well and was at the top of its field, but the management team didn’t have goals or accountability for its employees. Combined with the wide range of employees, from hourly cleaning staff to marketers and top animal scientists, Tim had to get creative with his HR solutions.
What he did changed the way the organization runs and put the San Diego Zoo on the forefront of the future of work. His solution? Focus on performance.
Tim’s main quest focused on carrying the zoo’s world-class reputation over to its people programs by starting the best and most innovative performance and employee programs. Employees had been coming to the zoo for years because they loved the work of it, not necessarily because they loved the organizational structure. Tim was tasked with bringing modern HR to the organization and chose accountability as his first big project. Early surveys found that employees were disengaged from the company. Employees were hungry for progress and to be challenged, so a focus on accountability and performance was a natural first step. He began by working with the management team to decide goals for the organization and how to put them into action. It wasn’t a glib process–Tim and his team spent a year looking at different vendor options.
Without wanting to transition everything overnight from essentially no HR programs to more complex programs, Tim and his team slowly rolled out the initiatives. It began with an accountability program for management, which was then spread to the rest of employees to increase performance. The ensuing years have focused on other issues, ranging from technology to training and beyond. The organization has implemented a variety of programs that have been incredibly successful with its diverse employee base and that have won awards and recognition. Among them are computer kiosks and learning labs around the zoo for desk-less employees to have a space to check their email, take classes, and perform other tasks. There is also a wellness program that incentivizes employees to participate in a variety of health activities, from exercising to joining a healthy book club. One of the employees’ favorite new programs is the marketplace, which allows them to purchase items like computers, phones, and bikes at a great discount that is automatically taken out of their paycheck.
So how can other organizations follow San Diego Zoo Global’s example? Tim provides some advice: The first step is to have senior buy-in and to get the CEO and other executives on board. Some leaders may be more enthusiastic, but others may need a business case backed up with numbers that a change is necessary so the company doesn’t want to get left behind. Tim recommends then recreating multi-functional teams with some naysayers and employees from all levels and areas to get a real feel of how new programs will affect all types of employees. Employees around the organization should regularly give their feedback and opinions through methods like surveys and polls.
Perhaps Tim’s biggest piece of advice to HR leaders is to get creative. Changing the culture can be a daunting task, but it isn’t impossible. If you don’t think you have the money or resources for a culture shift or new program, look at your existing talent to be innovative, find the right partners, and make change happen.
The future of work is definitely shifting to a performance-focused culture, and San Diego Zoo Global is leading the charge. Learn from these examples to turn your own culture into a world-class initiative.