Tim Mulligan: It's a Zoo In Here

by HRD07 Oct 2014
Tim MulliganTim Mulligan left the hospitality industry to run the world’s largest zoological membership association. The CHRO of San Diego Zoo Global tells Jill Gregorie how he used corporate expertise to make a 3,700 plus animal sanctuary known for its people practices

When Tim Mulligan began law school at the prestigious Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, he had no idea he would one day use his Juris Doctor to work alongside elephants, mountain lions, flamingos, and rhinoceroses. Now that he serves as CHRO of San Diego Zoo Global, though, he can’t picture himself anywhere else.

His path to the zoo, however, was an unusual one.

After obtaining his law degree, he practised labour and employment law at Starwood Hotels and Resorts in Seattle. In this role, he became an expert in union negotiations, hearings, and internal employee issues. Working on both sides of the negotiating table and having to balance legal matters with employee relations provided him with a multidimensional understanding of the human resources discipline.

Thus, when San Diego Zoo Global needed an HR executive to spearhead a massive organisational reform movement for the 3,000 employees that comprise its zoo, safari park, and Institute for Conservation Research, they looked to Mulligan to be its agent of change.

“That’s what they were looking for,” explains Mulligan. “They wanted someone to come in, take what was at the time a 90-year-old organisation, and bring it into the modern world of HR. We were treating our employees well, but we weren’t cutting-edge or known for our HR practices.” 


Mulligan began this massive undertaking by crafting a comprehensive business plan called Lynx. A play on words, he designed Lynx to connect, or link, employees to organisational goals through a three- to five-year strategic plan.

A major part of this forward-looking initiative centred on raising accountability and setting higher standards based on performance and merit. The park’s world-renowned reputation meant every job was in extremely high demand, and as a result the organisation only had a 5% turnover rate.

Mulligan needed to implement a number of processes to reinvigorate workers who had been part of the zoo’s staff for decades. He started by partnering with Halogen Software’s online talent management system, which he rebranded as Z-Max, an abbreviation for Maximising Zoological Performance. Since many workers had never once been given a performance review or received recognition based on merit, he knew the overhaul had to be accessible, formalised, and easy to use.

“We are a zoo; we are a nonprofit – so I wanted us to ease into it,” Mulligan says. “It represents a big culture shift for us; not just pay for performance and having goals, reviews, and deadlines, but driving folks to the computers more, as more and more processes are automated, cloud-based, and digitised.”

So far, supervisors and employees appreciate the ongoing dialogue focused on reaching long-term, structured goals. “It’s now a huge part of the culture here. When folks say, ‘It’s time for reviews, recognition, or employee counselling meetings’, they know they need to log into Z-Max,” Mulligan says.


Mulligan also faced the challenge of employee engagement. Since many of the park’s trainers and researchers spend their entire careers with San Diego Zoo Global, he knew he had to take extra strides to keep them activated, productive, and current.

“I think for many years we rested on our laurels and knew folks would come here because we’re the San Diego Zoo,” says Mulligan. “My goal is to be looked at for best practices, and not merely be out there seeking best practices.”

Similar to Z-Max, he created a number of programs in-house to boost morale and address inefficiency in a manner that fit the culture and ethos of the zoo.

First off, to make sure employees’ skills were up to date, he instituted a variety of educational policies, including tuition reimbursement, an online academy with over 1,000 courses, learning labs at every campus, and ‘Zoo U’, an on-site education program featuring leadership development, classroom training, and roundtables for knowledge exchange.

In addition, since so many of the younger workers were interested in animal care, he started ‘Roar Core’. This program allows workers from any part of the organisation to receive training by zookeepers and become pre-approved by supervisors for positions involving the handling of animals.

“When we have keeper openings, we pull from that group. It helps us focus on internal talent and bringing people up from within the ranks, and that’s been very successful.”

Lynx: Strategic plan

Zooper Market: An online shopping centre where high performers can spend money as allotted by managers

Zooper Heroes: Well-recognised managers

Zooper Troopers: Long-term employees

Zooper Bowl: Awards ceremony


While Mulligan has created a goal-oriented and performance-driven culture, he hasn’t forgotten to reward employees and have fun in the process.

“We put many programs in place for this exact reason. If employees are going to stay a long time, we want them engaged, we want them to learn and grow, and we want them to be satisfied,” he says. 

Since the zoo previously had no formal recognition programs, he introduced a broad, multiyear initiative called Rolling Rewards.

One of the most unique features of Rolling Rewards is the online ‘Zooper Market’. Managers are given a set amount of money to spend on high-performing employees, who can then use that money to buy zoo-related items.

In addition, every quarter, exceptional employees are named Zooper Stars, top managers are named Zooper Heroes, and long-term employees are recognised as Zooper Troopers. There’s also a regular Zooper Bowl, where awards such as ‘Most Green’ are handed out to deserving staff.

While all these accomplishments are noteworthy, they are even more impressive given that Mulligan and his team of 20 have done it all on limited funds, given the zoo’s status as a non-profit organisation.

“We don’t have a large budget,” says Mulligan. “We had to ask ourselves, how can we become leaders in HR without a significant budget? And that’s where we’ve had the most fun – being innovative and creative in creating core programs that will be around for a long time.”

This feature is from HRD's September issue. Grab a copy now to read more!