ZooAmerica Manager Accepted Into Prestigious Leadership Program
ZooAmerica Manager, Theresa Wilson, has been accepted into the 2023 cohort for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) Ted A. Beattie Executive Leadership Development Program (ELDP). In this story, Theresa shares her ZooAmerica journey, the road to ELDP acceptance, her experience in the Program so far, and its impact on her development as a leader at Hershey Entertainment & Resorts (HE&R).
From part-time Zoo Educator Aide to her current role as Zoo Manager, Theresa Wilson's ambition, drive and determination have carried her through multiple career advances at HE&R's ZooAmerica North American Wildlife Park. Theresa joined the ZooAmerica team in 2010 as a seasonal Zoo Educator Aide, and in 2014 she moved into a full-time role as an Education Specialist. Her management aspirations kicked into high gear after taking two AZA management courses, and she moved into the Zoo Manager position in 2021. Her role focuses on animal care and zoo operations, and her responsibilities encompass animal welfare, training and enrichment, while also mentoring a team comprised of part- and full-time naturalists. Theresa also chairs the Animal Welfare, Animal Training and Goal-Based Enrichment Committees.
In addition to her Zoo responsibilities and commitments, Theresa is active with committees and team member programs throughout HE&R, including the Multi-Ethnic Resource Group for Everyone (MERGE) Employee Resource Group, the Hersheypark Entertainment Complex Employee Appreciation and Employee Training Committees, Human Resources Core Group representative, Zoo Marketing and Communications group, and the ZooAmerica Strategic Business Task Force. Theresa is committed to HE&R's Core Purpose and supports Milton Hershey School (MHS) by coordinating educational programs, special events, and summer internships for MHS students.
The AZA Executive Leadership Development Program
Along with her day-to-day involvement with ZooAmerica and her additional responsibilities throughout the company, Theresa is committed to her growth as a leader and decided to pursue candidacy for the AZA ELDP in 2021. With almost 240 AZA-accredited institutions spanning the globe, the selection process for the ELDP is scrupulous and highly competitive. Although not selected in 2021, Theresa applied again in the summer of 2022. She shared that the application process "consisted of a seven-page essay on my aspirations of moving into a director role someday, how I have advanced changes through leadership, and my visions for the future of the Zoo. I was interviewed by six AZA leaders in September 2022 and was selected for the ELDP program in October 2022, along with eight others in zoos and aquariums across the country - all in the 2023 cohort.”
Heather Storm, Assistant General Manager of Entertainment at the Hersheypark Entertainment Complex, is proud to work alongside and support Theresa as she completes the ELDP. Heather tells us, “This is the first time in company history that a member of our team has been accepted into the Program. The focus of the ELDP is on the development of the executive competencies - or the knowledge, skills and behaviors - needed to be most effective in the role of Director. This is important to our company as the Zoo is a unique business unit in our portfolio.”
Participation in the ELDP is a tremendous effort. Theresa explains, “The AZA ELDP is a 13-month Program, which started in January 2023 with the kick-off at the AZA Directors Policy Conference. It is a very rigorous program since you have to balance the Program initiatives, your own full-time job and work-life balance, but so far, it has been well worth the efforts.” She continues, “I was honored to be selected for this highly competitive program, especially coming from a smaller institution. It is exciting to have ZooAmerica and HE&R’s names out there as a place that invests in growing their leaders."
“I could not be more proud of Theresa and her continued commitment to leadership in ZooAmerica. Theresa and I are thankful to our company for recognizing the importance of this Program and investing in the future of ZooAmerica.”
AZA ELDP Curriculum
Theresa outlined some of the components of her education and experience through the ELDP:
- Attend the AZA mid-year conference in March and the annual conference in September, as well as participate in several site visits at other zoos and aquariums throughout the year. Site visits allow the cohort members to connect with the facility's senior leadership on operations and gain exposure to other executive oversights.
- Complete a Leadership Practices Inventory 360 Ⓡ and the Myers Briggs Type IndicatorⓇ, with a major focus on executive leadership behaviors.
- Regularly meet with an Executive Coach and assigned mentor (a CEO at another zoo or aquarium), as well as the director or CEO from their own organization. This internal leader will also participate heavily in the Program through numerous conferences, regular meetings and leadership milestones. Theresa mentions, “I am grateful for Heather Storm’s time and commitment to this ELDP program!”
- Work within a peer feedback team of two or three individuals from the cohort that work closely on tracking individual development plans and provide peer mentorship within a safe space.
- Plan, prepare, and present a leadership topic for the AZA annual conference.
Theresa will wrap up her AZA journey in January 2024 at the Director’s Policy Conference where her cohort's accomplishments will be highlighted and they will share takeaways from the Program. This information will be presented by the group to their Program's leaders and mentors, as well as the incoming ELDP cohort.
Growth as a Leader
Above all else, Theresa recognizes that participation in the ELDP is an investment in her personal evolution, as well as her professional development. Theresa opened up about the meaning of her experience. “I am learning best practices in operations, including enhanced safety plans, sustainable animal collections and intentional focus on my emotional intelligence. I have acquired valuable knowledge from my cohort who come from various backgrounds, including finance, guest experience, education, animal programs, research and operations. Site visits and virtual visits have allowed me to connect with leaders behind-the-scenes on their operational layouts and have a visual for employee and guest service spaces. We have been able to talk through leadership challenges and best practices, and it has really opened up my eyes to a lot of self-reflection and realization - which can be hard at times.”
Theresa's accomplishments in the AZA ELDP and her many contributions to the team members and guests throughout HE&R are profound and impactful. We appreciate that Theresa took the time to share her story with us, and we cannot wait to hear about the remainder of her ELDP journey!
“I am extremely grateful for this amazing opportunity that HE&R and ZooAmerica has afforded me. I know that all of the knowledge, best practices, connections and experiences will allow the Zoo team and myself to move forward together through the foundations of trust, commitment and mutual understanding.”