San Diego Zoo redefined corporate culture to focus on employee performance

Tim Mulligan shares how the Zoo has revolutionized their culture to focus on performance and accountability.

The not-for-profit San Diego Zoo Global operates the 100-acre San Diego Zoo, the 1800-acre San Diego Zoo Wild Animal Park and the department of Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES). The Zoo, dedicated to the conservation of endangered species and their habitats, engages in conservation and research work around the globe.

The Zoo has existed for over 90 years as a not-for-profit organization. However, in 2006 the Zoo brought in approximately 100 million dollars in revenue for the first time. This level of revenue drove the society to re-evaluate its old practices and to create a new strategic plan that would modernize their way of doing business. One of the key elements of the new plan was a focus on employee accountability. To achieve accountability, the Zoo made use of Halogen Performance™, the latest in employee performance and talent management technology, to establish consistent reviews containing individual goals that are aligned with those of the organization, and to build a pay-for-performance culture.

Challenge

The Zoo rolled out its new strategic plan, which was several years in the making, in January of 2005. Tim Mulligan, Chief Human Resources Officer for the San Diego Zoo Global was made responsible for the processes supporting the plan, and a large part of that component focused on achieving employee accountability. To reach their goal of accountability, the plan directed Mulligan to introduce an effective and easy-to-use employee performance and talent management solution. The goals of the solution were to introduce performance accountability, and give employees a clear understanding of what they were responsible for and regular feedback on their performance.

"It's hard to insist on accountability if there are no goals to hold anyone to," said Mulligan.

In addition, with the growth and modernization of the Zoo, new management talent is being recruited into the organization. This new generation of management is accustomed to having realistic set goals and expects to work within a system where they are fairly and accurately measured against these goals.

"Meeting the expectations of these new managers helps us to recruit the best managers possible. The best managers want to know that their achievements will be appropriately recognized," said Mulligan. "It also helps productivity overall, because now our people see that if they do great and exceed their goals, they will receive increases that are two or three times what they would receive otherwise."

Before implementing Halogen Performance™, there was an informal paper-based review process that was not consistently followed or regulated.

"The old review process was spotty at best," explains Mulligan. "There were managers within the organization who had not received reviews in ten years. There was simply no way to monitor whether the reviews were getting done and more importantly, there was no understanding by employees or managers of the need for them."

The Zoo decided that an effective employee performance management system would need to:

Solution

The Zoo's CTO, Robert Erhardt, and a team of five managers researched and sampled over 20 employee performance and talent management vendors in their search for a winning solution. From this initial group they distilled the candidates down to five finalists who presented product demonstrations to managers. After the presentations had been completed, Halogen Performance emerged as the clear choice for the Zoo.

Many in the organization were not especially comfortable with technology, so the Zoo looked for a solution that would be easy to use even for those easily intimidated by software. After looking at a number of vendors, they selected Halogen Performance because it provides a simple yet powerful solution with a user-friendly interface.

"We had a list of things we required from a solution and eAppraisal had everything we wanted," said Mulligan. "It has been adopted very well into our organization. Once people start using the solution they appreciate its value and how easy it is to use."

"We did a good job planning this implementation well in advance," said Mulligan. "We gradually and methodically rolled it out over time."

The Zoo did not have any employee goals in place before using Halogen Performance, so they were not able to open up their process with goal reviews. Instead they brought their organization together to select and develop a series of goals and competencies.

A second team from the Zoo surveyed the more than 200 managers in the organization to have them rank and determine the Zoo's key leadership competencies. This resulted in a high degree of employee support for the solution. All managers agreed on a list of competencies that would, regardless of department, define what made a successful leader in the organization.

"The solution was not shoved down their throats by HR," said Mulligan. "From food service workers to veterinarians, no matter what department you worked in, you had a vote on the competencies that were going to be included."

The final process directed managers to choose five individual goals, three of which were to be tied directly to overall organizational goals and two that could be tied to the manager's specific department. Even with this option, most managers elected to choose all five of their goals from the list of organizational goals. This guarantees that the goals are cascaded down from the top levels of the organization and that employees are not left feeling they are working towards five random goals.

Involving their employees did not slow the Zoo's implementation of Halogen Performance. "Things progressed quickly," said Mulligan. "We had to ultimately have it running in November just three months after we decided to go with Halogen. It all went pretty fast."

Over the course of his career, Mulligan has worked with other employee performance and talent management solutions and they have all been more difficult to implement and use. "One of the reasons I would recommend Halogen so highly is that the implementation has gone smoothly from the beginning," said Mulligan. "As the head of HR, everything falls on my shoulders and this experience has been fun and exciting. Thanks to Halogen's on-going support, including their help center and trainers, things have been easier than I could have imagined."

Initially The Zoo had 210 managers involved in the employee appraisal process. They hoped to add approximately 50 additional employees into the process at the end of 2006. Going forward, the Zoo is considering adding key hourly employee once the pay-for-performance culture has been firmly established.

Results

Since implementing Halogen Performance, the Zoo has enjoyed a number of benefits including:

  • The ability to easily track the progress of appraisals and ensure a 100 percent completion rate;
  • Establishing a clear connection between employee and organizational goals;
  • Greater employee motivation and morale; and
  • Greater employee accountability.

The Zoo's 17-person executive team, of which Mulligan is a member, has wholly embraced the solution. In addition, the executive team has received a great deal of recognition and praise for their achievements involving the implementation of Halogen Performance from the Zoo's Board of Trustees.

"I would definitely recommend Halogen," said Mulligan. "It has been well received and more importantly it has revolutionized our organization's culture."

Since the implementation the appraisal completion rate has risen from approximately 50 percent with the paper-based system to 100 percent with Halogen Performance. This guarantees that the employees involved in the process know what is expected of them and can be held accountable for the goals established for them.

The Zoo's employees are now able to see a clear connection between the objectives that have been set for them and the overall objectives of the organization. They are also able to understand how their achievements will translate into potentially greater compensation in the new pay-for-performance culture.

"Everybody is working really hard to meet their goals so they can see the financial rewards at the end of the year, and those goals are also contributing to the overall success of the organization," said Mulligan.

In addition to motivating employees to strive for greater achievement, the process has also boosted the overall morale of the organization. Outside of the 210 managers currently involved in the process, the other 2500 employees are able to see that their managers are being held accountable and are not being allowed to simply rest on their laurels.

"At first, I think our employees found it hard to believe this was all really happening," said Mulligan. "Seeing managers being held accountable for customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, budgets and training and development is helping to strengthen our organization's employee accountability and to boost overall morale."

Using Halogen Performance, The Zoo has now created a pay-for-performance culture where employees are more motivated and accountable and are collectively working towards organizational goals. The Zoo has all it needs in place as it continues to grow and prosper; it really is all happening at the zoo.