Ron Kagan is CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society, an advocate and activist for nature conservation and animal welfare, and an ASE board member. ASE recently spoke with Ron to learn more about his career path, the Detroit Zoo, and how he views the role of HR.
Tell us how you got here.
I was recruited by a really amazing guy. I was the general curator at the Dallas Zoo at the time, but I was very intrigued by The Detroit Zoo because I knew there was a long history of community that was passionate about the zoo. They were looking for a leader who was comfortable taking calculated risks. That’s not something you typically hear in the non-profit sector. There was both an understanding that there was lot of work to be done, but also the courage to do it.
What do you like about working in the Metro Detroit area?
The great thing about metro Detroit is the people, and I saw that when I was being recruited. I could just tell.
Growing up, did you always want to work for a zoo?
I was always interested in cars and really interested in animals. I wasn’t sure which way that was going to go, but I ended up studying zoology rather than trying to make a profession out of racing cars. I didn’t know it would be a zoo, but I knew it would be nature and animals.
What are you most proud of at the zoo?
The people. We have an incredible staff and board. I’m sure most people would think that the first thing on my mind is the animals, but the first thing on my mind is the people. We have about 250 FT employees and then there are part-time and seasonal employees, and we have over 1,100 volunteers. So, the most precious resource here are the people. Everybody who works here, including the volunteers, are unbelievably mission driven. That makes for a very powerful force to do good. While what’s famous are things like the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, the Arctic Ring of Life, and other similar attractions, the most amazing thing here is the people. It’s a great joy to be able to work with such smart and dedicated people.
How did events like Sunset at the Zoo and Wild Lights come about? Do other zoos do things like that as well or is Detroit special?
Well, of course we’re special! I think zoos have evolved in many ways in the past 20 years. They used to be primarily an attraction that had animals and provided a nice outing for families. There has been so much development in every area, whether it’s education or conservation. There have always been fundraisers that have been connected to zoos. We at the Detroit Zoo try to have events for all demographics, so now we have some purely adult events here – Wild Beasts Wild Wine, Zoo Brew, and events like that. Really, in every area there has been a lot of evolution. Twenty years ago we didn’t have conservation projects on every continent around the world, now we do. A lot has changed.
Is that fairly typical of all zoos or just large zoos?
I think we are unusual in a number of areas. We are leading when it comes to animal welfare initiatives, amphibian conservation, and penguin conservation care and exhibits. We are the only zoo that has an academy for humane education. In some areas we are among the leaders, and there are other zoos that do some things we don’t do because of our climate or expertise. Certainly, no zoo can do everything, and it would be a mistake to try. When you do that, it’s hard to be impactful.
Do animals move around like artwork does?
A little bit. Certainly not as much as may happen with artwork for the simple reason that when you move an animal there is some element of stress involved. We are very cautious not to do it unless there is a very good reason. It’s never for exhibition purposes; only conservation. Animals are only moved to another accredited zoo.
Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about the initiatives going on with Belle Isle and also with Macomb County…
We continue to develop the Belle Isle Nature Center. That’s really a focus on urban wildlife, urban natural environments, and issues. We have close to 100,000 people visit that campus every year so it’s a major resource and a free resource. We are developing a third campus which is the Great Lakes Nature Center, and that will be in Macomb County. I anticipate a groundbreaking early next year. It will be the largest and most unique nature center anywhere in the Great Lakes. Macomb County has always been a leader in terms of focusing on the Great Lakes and water quality, and this is an important focus for us. There will be a number of displays with aquatic species. There will also be a variety of other animals from around the Great Lakes and many interactive and green elements.
Before we move to the role of HR, is there anything else about the zoo that you’d like to make sure we cover?
Many people might not know about the work we do all over the world, some of it in incredibly difficult situations. We have several partners we work with in the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa) to help orphaned Grauer’s gorillas. There are only a few thousand left in the wild. The conditions there are unbelievably difficult, but we’re helping the most incredible orphanage that’s been created where 14 young gorillas ultimately will be released back into the wild when it’s safe. There are just so many unique programs we are involved in.
OK, so let’s talk a little bit about HR and how you view HR…
As I said at the very beginning, people are everything. If you assemble an amazing group of people, it doesn’t matter what you are doing, you are going to have terrific outcomes. We have been very intentional about developing a diverse work force, having a really wise group of board members, and attracting lots of fabulous volunteers. We do a lot of benchmarking, in part through the help of ASE, on employee benefits and things like that so that we’re constantly trying to figure out how do we create the right infrastructure for the workforce. We do an enormous amount of training. We created something called the DZSU, which is the Detroit Zoological Society University. With ASE’s help, we are training people in writing, budgets, planning…anything you can think of. We do a lot of organizational development and renewal. Twice a year we have organizational renewal for everybody which is a blend of things including some job shadowing, volunteering in the community, and internal communications about what’s happening. We believe without HR and a healthy workforce we couldn’t serve our mission, which is celebrating and saving wildlife. It’s how we think about anybody that’s involved here whether they are staff or volunteers.
Everybody at the zoo is welcoming and energetic. What do you credit that to?
It’s a snowball effect. We enforce basics like friendliness all the time. We have 1.35 million people in the park every year, and it’s generally very clean. That is not easy to do. If people aren’t really into their job and don’t have a positive outlook, they don’t do well here. So, I think over time this has become an expectation that everyone has of everyone else. It doesn’t just come from management. How you handle difficult people is more telling than how you handle people who are easy. Our team is very thoughtful, respectful, and patient. Those are wonderful qualities.
Do you have a secret recipe for employee retention?
We believe in quality not quantity. If we have 200 stellar employees, that’s far more valuable than 300 average employees. If you want stellar employees, you need to have a good working environment, and a great mission helps too! It’s also important to remain competitive in compensation and benefits. We try to find people who will work in difficult situations just because they are mission driven. Another thing we do is diagonal slice meetings with the employees. It’s something that I learned from Dennis Archer when he was mayor. I meet periodically over a brown bag lunch with about eight employees. They are not managers and are from different divisions. We have an informal discussion about what’s going on, what are they feeling good about, and what are they not feeling good about. I also ask them if there is anything I might not know that I should know. The diagonal slice helps to ensure that we don’t end up with a bureaucracy and a linear environment. We do these five to six times a year.
Is there any advice you can give to HR professionals on how to be impactful to their CEO?
I rely heavily on our HR director, and I think it’s important to be able to develop a relationship between the CEO and the HR director that is best characterized as being a confidant. It’s not just about the process and procedures of HR, but also the advice. There should be a free flow of perspective, opinion, and insight going back and forth.
After speaking with Ron, our biggest take away is that it really is all about the people. HR plays a key role in people management. It truly spans from the top to the bottom. It’s the team you assemble and how each and every member contributes and works towards the mission of the organization.