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Donna Fernandes: She's the Leader of the Pack
Donna Fernandes isn't your average MBA. Her expertise lies in the behavior of slugs-real ones, not the human kind. She also holds a Doctor of Sciences degree from Princeton, she's worked at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, led wildlife tours through Kenya and Tanzania, hosted her own educational television show, and now she's the director of the Buffalo Zoo in upstate New York, where her clients include elephants, gorillas, hyenas, polar bears, and more. When Fernandes arrived at the 23-acre zoo a couple of years ago, it was a mess. "Most of what I found about the current state of the zoo was negative," she recalls. The 125-year-old park, the third oldest zoo in the country, was in a terrible state of disrepair and was in danger of losing its accreditation. The management and board of directors were considering moving the zoo from its home in the Delaware Park area of Buffalo and relocating it to an industrial neighborhood along the Buffalo River. But the community rallied against the move, and it was postponed. Still, something had to be done to bring the zoo back to life. Fernandes quickly found that her base of support as a leader would come from the community and from volunteers and workers at the zoo. "As soon as I walked through the gates of the zoo, I just felt at home," she says. "The people were really friendly... It seemed like people all wanted to improve the zoo. The amount of grass roots support for this zoo is phenomenal." Fernandes used her position power to put forth a vision for improvement, but she quickly developed personal power as well. People liked her and respected her from the outset. She immediately outlined plans to bring the zoo back up to the standards of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which were backed by a pledge of $350,000 from Governor George Pataki. More funding was needed, so the board undertook a massive fundraising effort. Fernandes noted that as the zoo was upgraded she would place more emphasis on children and education through programs at the zoo. "I will also focus on trying to increase family visitors by making exhibits the right height for children in strollers and people in wheelchairs." In addition, she planned to create more natural settings for the animals, with an emphasis on wildlife habitats rather than cages. "These are issues to which I am very sensitive," she explained.
With strong support for Fernandes' vision, plans to relocate the zoo were abandoned, though she was careful to say that she understood the reasons why the board had considered it. Today, visitors enjoy the giraffe feeding station, guided tours, and especially the WILD place, where curious-and brave-participants can wash an elephant or even watch one paint. (Daryl Hoffman, the elephant keeper and head of the animal training committee at the zoo, has instituted a program called Art Gone Wild, in which the zoo sells "artwork" created by elephants, primates, and big cats.)
The zoo's outreach program includes the Zoomobile and Distance Learning, both of which take the zoo's mission outside the grounds to people who might not be able to visit the zoo in person. Fernandes' democratic leadership style encourages input from staff, groundskeepers, volunteers, the community, and the board of directors. She likes people to stop by her office to give her feedback, suggestions, and even complaints. But this open atmosphere didn't exist before Fernandes arrived, so she had to cultivate it. The change began almost by accident. In the days following the events of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, everyone around the zoo was shaken. So on a whim, Fernandes decided to bring her new puppy into the office to cheer herself and others up. Pretty soon people were stopping by to see the puppy and have a chat. Before long, Fernandes was receiving valuable feedback from people who would never have otherwise felt comfortable providing it-and a whole new line of communication had opened up between Fernandes and her staff. The puppy, which is rapidly growing, now makes regular appearances at the office, and Fernandes lets everyone know that she likes her employees to visit whenever they want.
Fernandes is happy with her work and seems comfortable in her leadership role. Of the 186 accredited zoos in the country, only 20 have female directors; so she is aware of her mentoring role as well. "I believe this is probably the most important thing I will ever do, being in this position in a community at a juncture where they want to rebuild their zoo," she says. "When I interviewed for this job, I did a presentation to the board on my vision for the zoo. I told them it would take 10 to 25 years of a shared dream, rather than just my vision, to restore the Buffalo Zoo to its greatness." Fernandes truly believes that her zoo will enjoy a second golden age-within limits. "I won't promise the world in rebuilding this zoo, but if I promise a continent, you'll get a continent." Which is plenty of ground for everyone.
1. Would you define Fernandes' leadership behaviours as a task or relationship orientation?
2. How does Fernandes influence people?
3. Create a profile of Fernandes' personal characteristics as a leader.