The Power of a Strategic Plan for Your Zoo Team
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2015
Scott P. Terrell, DVM, DACVP
Disney’s Animal Programs, Bay Lake, FL USA


Great leaders proactively lead their organization (team) and define criteria to ensure current and future success. One of the most important tools in the leadership toolbox is the strategic plan. The strategic plan is a roadmap for an organization to move from today to an envisioned future. If done well, the strategic plan should not only inspire change and improvement in the organization for the future but should also aid in day-to-day decision making/priority setting in the current state. There are probably as many strategic plan formats as there are books on strategic planning, but the base expectations for a strategic plan are a vision and mission statement, definition of strategic objectives, definition of specific goals, action plans, and criteria for success.

  • A vision statement is an aspirational (and often inspirational) statement that defines where your organization wants to be in 5–10 years. A mission statement is more practical and describes the purpose of your organization today (i.e., why did I come to work today?).
  • Strategic objectives are long-term, continuous areas that align your mission to your vision. Strategic priorities identify the key areas where an organization needs to focus to get from the current state to the future state. A SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) can be a useful tool/process to guide creation of strategic priorities.
  • Specific goals should be set for each strategic priority and action plans should be created with a champion(s) identified for each goal. Goals should be short-term in duration (two-year maximum) and criteria for success should be clearly defined. The SMART model (goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely) is a useful tool for goal definition.

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Benjamin Franklin

One of the most daunting things about strategic planning is the process itself. Countless books and websites describe detailed plans and processes for complex strategic plans. The process described above can be accomplished in as little as a half-day or one-day work session. The use of a trained human resource (HR) facilitator or outside consultant makes the process easier but is not mandatory. A dedicated leader or team of leaders can accomplish the strategic planning process and create a useful plan with some readily available resources, a dedicated team, and a relatively small investment in time. Some tips for this process include:

  • Get full commitment and support from leadership. The hospital director should have commitment from the zoo director or hierarchical leadership that the strategic plan will be supported.
  • Pull together a diverse group of team members from all levels of your organization. Keepers, vet techs, veterinarians, leaders, key animal husbandry, research, or zoo operations partners could be included for a veterinary team.
  • Try to go off-site or to a remote location for the planning day to minimize distractions (this may be difficult for small medical practices).
  • Facilitate free and open discussion regardless of position. Use a facilitator, if possible, to minimize introduced bias from the “boss.”
  • Identify strengths and weaknesses and plan according to both. Don’t just plan around the things that suck, also plan around those things that your team excels at already. Use the SWOT model to identify key strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
  • Communicate the results of planning to all applicable parties (leaders, partners, team members, etc.). Communication is key to success.
  • Don’t write your plan in stone. Good strategic plans allow you to adapt to a changing climate or needs.
  • Make strategy a habit. Review strategies and goals at every one-on-one, team meeting, leadership meeting, performance evaluation, etc.
  • Celebrate successes, big and small. Track, communicate, and celebrate key milestones/successes for goals created during the strategic planning process. Also track “failures” and learn from goals that did not pan out as expected.

It is easy to discount the value of strategic planning or think that it is a tool only for traditional retail businesses or large corporations. However, all organizations and teams need direction and purpose. Lack of direction results in decreased morale, decreased productivity, and increased anxiety, as the future is unpredictable and uncertain. A strategic plan provides a buffer against indifference and drives purpose and direction for any organization, regardless of its size. Strategic planning can be as simple or as complex as the leader or organization desires, but the planning process does not have to be complex to be useful. A few key components and a clear planning process can result in a tool that is useful to any organization to drive success today and into the future.


Speaker Information
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Scott P. Terrell, DVM, DACVP
Disney's Animal Programs
Bay Lake, FL, USA

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