From Led to Leader: Making the Transition from Clinician to Director
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2015
Geoffrey W. Pye, BVSc, MSc, DACZM
Animals, Science, and the Environment, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Bay Lake, FL, USA


Making the transition from clinician to director is challenging. For many zoos, the size or structure of the veterinary department results in no middle management positions for developing leaders to step up through. This results in a large leap as a clinician goes from the comfort zone of day-to-day management of animal health cases to a leadership role revolving around strategic planning, visions, missions, budgets, and often complex, demanding team dynamics. Great leadership is not about a change in title, but a change in you. Important factors in successfully making this change are mentorship, training, and self-belief tempered by self-awareness. As a clinician at San Diego Zoo, through mentor guidance, I changed and learned the importance of managing by influence and the power of servant leadership, which provided me with the confidence and ability to make the next step in my career. Going from an individual contributor to a leader managing a team of over 50 people was daunting. Thankfully, Disney recognizes that this transition can be difficult for any new leader and that it typically can take 12–24 mo. Disney aims to accelerate this process with training and mentorship. New leaders undergo a 6-wk “Transition to Disney Leadership” program with mentor support from their leaders and peers. The program’s goals include: defining what is expected of leaders at Disney; exploring and discussing how the company culture shapes those expectations; identifying the skills necessary to be successful and how to best use those skills within the culture; building relationships that start with trust and communication; developing others through coaching, feedback, and recognition; and making good business decisions that reflect safety, creativity, and innovation. The program provides a clearly defined pathway to developing the competencies expected of Disney leaders which include: thinking strategically, building relationships, communicating effectively, driving results, inspiring creativity and innovation, championing change, building teams, exhibiting professional excellence, embracing Disney heritage and values, promoting workforce diversity and workplace inclusion, delivering excellent service, and demonstrating technical and functional competence. While the support at Disney is overwhelmingly positive and has certainly eased the transition, it has been the mistakes that I have made that have provided the greatest learnings. In particular, I have learned a comment made as a clinician can have dramatic ripple effects when made by a director. Words meant to stimulate discussion suddenly turn into decrees. Simple statements are interpreted as new policies. Staff may need to be reassured about interpreted change and the effects on their job security and roles. The other big learning has been in regards to measuring success. As a clinician, it is easy to mark off the cases done; the successes and failures on a daily basis. As a director, it is not easy to mark off the successes on a daily basis; it may take months or years for visions and strategies to come to fruition. Making the transition from clinician to director is challenging, though with support, mentorship, and training and change in you, the challenge can be met with success.


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Geoffrey W. Pye, BVSc, MSc, DACZM
Animals, Science, and the Environment
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Bay Lake, FL, USA

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