Ground crew to Mission Control: Where the bloody hell are we?

Those who know me will not be shocked to learn that I watched ‘We Bought A Zoo’ for the first time in 2020, despite its release almost a decade ago (I’m obviously not a movie buff!). While watching and thoroughly enjoying the movie, I couldn’t help but notice some striking similarities between the characters in the story and archetypes of people I know in my professional life. We have Ben, the smart and driven but kind of clueless guy with no animal experience who bought a zoo because he felt compelled to help save the animals (based on an actual person who bought a zoo!). Then we have Kelly, the skilled and no-fuss head keeper who works crazy hours and wrangles both people and animals daily. We then have the rest of the team, a group of animal people with varying degrees of ‘people skills’ who are far more comfortable in a zoo that is closed to the public than they are in the human world (including MacCready the carpenter who is ‘filled with Scotch and bitterness and impure thoughts’ from a life of working hard and feeling underappreciated in a job he loves). Last but not least, we have Walter the USDA inspector whose job it is to enforce zoo-related laws and regulations – Walter is unsurprisingly a ‘details guy’. So, the storyline goes – grieving Ben finds dilapidated zoo full of at-risk animals and buys it for his family to live in because peacocks make his daughter happy. Ben’s daughter loves this idea but his grieving son is a ‘people person’ who hates the country so makes Ben’s life a misery. The zoo team work hard to get everything in order using Ben’s money, while Walter lists off a bunch of very expensive things that need fixing to achieve compliance to open the zoo and save the animals. Times get tough, the team starts working for free as Ben runs out of money and they start to question what they are doing there. Serendipitously, Ben discovers that his wife left him a small fortune which he plans on using to fix the zoo, but he returns home to find everyone discussing their plans to leave. Ben (in a stroke of soft skills genius) realises that the team needs to emotionally invest in his vision for the zoo, so he rallies their spirits with a great speech about why they are all there. Team fixes zoo, zoo passes inspection and opens to public, everyone lives happily ever after…

Ben’s story is an impressive one, because unlike many animal organisations here in Australia, he pulled the team together at crunch time and rallied them around a common mission. If ‘We Bought A Zoo’ contains a lesson for the viewer, it teaches us that when the chips are down, we need a clear vision that aligns with our personal reason for being involved so that we can focus our energy on something positive. Here in Australia (and I’m sure this is not unique to us) animal welfare organisations often suffer from ‘mission fuzziness’ (Note: not having a clear mission is different to ‘Mission Creep’, another problematic rabbit hole for animal welfare organisations). Sometimes ‘fuzziness’ occurs because the mission statement was written 50 years ago and times have changed, sometimes it’s because the official mission statement is vague – written by people removed from the work the organisation actually does and so has no real meaning to staff or bearing on the reality of their day-to-day work, and sometimes it’s because there is no mission statement at all! While I’m not sure of the numbers, it’s exceedingly common in my part of the world for companion animal rescue groups to burn really brightly for about 2 years, then fizzle and fade away. These groups are born out of enthusiastic compassion for animals, but a lack of focus for their efforts combined with the significant stresses of this work quickly suck their inner fire and finances dry. What started out as a dream of making a ‘real difference’ quickly becomes a realisation that it takes more than passion to make a lasting positive impact on how we treat companion animals and their people in our society.

Larger welfare organisations aren’t immune from unclear or non-existent missions, but their woes tend to take a different trajectory. This commonly involves much pushing and pulling between more traditional ‘population management’ approaches to companion animals and an increasingly common ‘animal advocacy’ approach: a tug-of-war that eventually (hopefully) results in a shift towards progressive, community-minded and evidence-driven sheltering practices. Even though the effects tend to be more muted for those with enforcement roles due to the nature of their work, municipal Local Laws departments aren’t immune from this kind of ‘Mission Fuzziness’ either. Their struggle though is trying to balance their legislated responsibilities to ensure community amenity and safety, with an increasing community expectation that companion animals and their owners will be treated humanely and with compassion. It’s very difficult to effectively ‘sell your strategy’ to the voting public when no-one knows exactly what it is, beyond ‘enforcing local laws’. No matter what role an organisation plays in the grand scheme of ‘helping people and companion animals live well together’, having a clear mission statement that everyone on the team is invested in and can get behind is critical to organisational success.

Now, if you’ve been around this sector for longer than about 6 months I have no doubt that you’ve encountered at least one (usually very cohesive) group with an exceptionally strong mission statement, who excuse some pretty average behaviour because ‘the end justifies the means’. This is where organisational values come in to play. Organisational values illustrate the character of an organisation through clearly stated principles governing individual and organisational behaviour at all times. A great values document both inspires the team to do their best, while also setting firm boundaries on their behaviour to engender a culture of respect and compassion. If we want to make real, long-lasting positive change for companion animals, we must accept that it’s a team effort – a job for the X-men, if you like. No single organisation or group functions across the whole system of moving parts that is companion animal welfare and management in Australia, so in order for the Magic School Bus to work, we require a culture of understanding and respect for how each companion animal Superhero fits within the system (if you have no idea what I am talking about, you should read this blog post).

The tricky thing about this whole missions and values deal is that without full buy-in from the team (present and future), they don’t actually mean much. You see, each individual acts with autonomy in their day-to-day dealings with the world, so if they don’t believe in the core values and mission of the organisation, then they behave in accordance with their personal beliefs, state of mind and individual goals – not such a great situation when you need a whole team heading in the same direction! Harnessing ‘passionate people power’ effectively is hard, especially when you are inevitably challenging at least a couple of strongly held beliefs in your team. That’s why people like Kristen Hassen-Auerbach are working hard to teach leaders in our sector about how to effectively take charge of organisational culture, while The Animal Farm Foundation is imploring us to think about how our language affects animals and people. Emancipet New School even run a whole series of leadership seminars and training for people in the veterinary and shelter medicine space. Now if your organisational culture is ‘off’, at best you suffer with staff negativity, high staff turnover, and systemic inefficiency. At worst, especially if there is a fundamental mismatch between the mission or values of staff and management, you risk your fractured organisational culture becoming a public battle over everything from animal outcomes to your very existence. Take it from the pros with the runs on the board, it pays to work hard on solid foundations when dealing with problematic organisational culture.

Now, here’s the next catch. Even with a great culture based on a rock-solid mission statement and top-notch values document, the team needs to know what they are doing so that they can quit talking and get to it! This is where it’s handy to know about Professor Bruce Tuckman and his model of the stages of ‘high performing’ team dynamics ‘Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing’. In this model, having everybody come to a consensus about why they are there and how they will behave is part of ‘Forming’ the team. During ‘Storming’, team members learn how to work together, playing to each other’s strengths, while each functioning within a defined role. This is where strategic and operational plans (or for my Victorian Animal Management people, your Domestic Animal Management Plans) come into play. Where a strategic plan sets out long-term, higher-level goals that put flesh on the bones of the organisation’s mission, operational plans describe how each person or department plays their part on a daily or weekly basis to transform plans into action. An organisation’s strategic plan is where you will really find out what they are made of – are they aiming high with measurable goals, performance metrics, and evidence-based reasoning, or do you read it and get a ‘hmm, sounds vaguely like status quo in sequins’ feeling? A good plan of action should include more than just a few metrics that reflect animal outcomes and cash flow. High performing organisations also value continuing education and skills development for staff and volunteers, opportunities for partnering with other organisations to improve reach and effectiveness, and a clear process for evaluating and revising goals based on outcomes achieved. Importantly, best practice moves quickly in our field so an evidence-based plan is only as good as the information available at the time it was written. To stay current, organisations need structured mechanisms for regularly assessing and revising the plan according to what we have learned lately, otherwise it becomes ‘yesterday’s best laid plans’ very quickly.

Back to our model for high performing teams. As team culture develops and each individual is actively working as part of the team their shared goals, you will find you have moved through ‘Norming’ to ‘Performing’ – great work!! Now to get on to the job of performance maintenance. You see, your Mission, Values, Strategic Plan are all works in progress that should be revisited and revised regularly so that you don’t become ‘That 70s Show’ organisation whose management failed to stay up-to-date with community expectations and progress in our sector. If that seems like an overwhelming goal, you just remind yourself to start at the beginning. So when the ground crew pull a Lara Bingle and ask Mission Control ‘Where the bloody hell are we?’, Mission Control needs the soft skills and instincts of Benjamin Mee rallying the zoo team around his vision for the Dartmoor Zoological Park.

Dylan Mee (Ben’s son): Why are you yelling?
Benjamin Mee: [exploding] Because it’s a good dream! And it’s got cool animals in it and some pretty great people, too!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *