Meet Our Leaders
Leadership practice is undergoing one of the most challenging and rapid transformations in modern history. Technology, mobile teams, generational shifts, diversity, and changing work cultures are top of mind topics for today’s emerging leaders.
To explore this new frontier of leadership, we sat down with emerging attraction leaders from around the world and from a variety of attraction types to understand how they’re deftly wielding these new opportunities, where they’re finding challenges, and where they’re finding solutions.
When Georgia Aquarium opened in 2005, it was the world’s largest aquarium; and Dr. Brian Davis was the eighth person on the payroll. Operating in the equivalent of a start-up, Dr. Davis wore many hats, including feeding fish, driving forklifts, as well as creating an educational experience for guests. In a career that saw him depart the Aquarium and return twice, the world-class attraction would also see him as their Vice President of Education and Training as well as present-day Executive Vice President of Operations. In the interims, Davis honed his passion for science education as a teacher in Georgia’s Cobb County school district, later returning as an assistant principal. As a pinnacle moment, Dr. Davis became the first African American man to become the President and CEO of an AZA-accredited aquarium in the U.S. when he took the helm of the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk. Previously he has served as a board member for Centennial Place Elementary School, the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce, Open Door Shelter, and NorwalkACTS, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
As the son of the IAAPA-appointed “King of Fun,” Michael Mack grew up in the thrills of Europa-Park, instigating a life-long love for the theme park industry and its possibilities. The family business afforded him the opportunity to explore all the facets of a world-class attraction, from dining to hotels, technology to midways, serving ice cream, and much more. After his education and before returning to Europa-Park, Michael cut his teeth on renowned parks around the world including Sweden’s Liseberg, Australia’s Warner Brother’s Movie World, Spain’s PortAventura, and America’s Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Ingraining himself in the family’s Mack Rides, famous for iconic coasters around the world, Michael displayed his inherited penchant for entrepreneurship as he pursued new internal and external ventures in MackMedia, Mack Animation, Mack Solutions, and VR Coaster. Michael has been honored as a “Top Next Generation Entrepreneur” in the CampdenFB Awards, was recently inaugurated to the honorary council of the French Republic, and is a current board member of the Liseberg Applause Awards and the European board of IAAPA.
Dr. Tonya Matthews has an inexhaustive passion for STEM education, museum settings, and a famous knack for executing institution transforming initiatives and leading change management and teams across the industry. Her career in museums began as a Project Manager at the Maryland Science Center, and dynamically carried her through the Vice President for Museums at Cincinnati Museum Center, President and CEO of the Michigan Science Center, and most recently as the Director of Inclusion with the American Alliance of Museums. She has employed her near-limitless energies into entrepreneurship as well, founding several related ventures such as The STEMinista Project. Dr. Matthews has served as a board member of the First Independence Bank in Detroit, the National Assessment Governing Board, Culture Source, Detroit Public Television, TechTown, and the National Academy of Sciences.
As the great-great-grandson of George Vanderbilt, Chase Pickering grew up in the picturesque beauty of the Southern Appalachians and storied elegance of Biltmore Estate. With significant encouragement from his family, Chase developed a love of the surrounding land’s natural resources and ignited a passion for conservation and sustainability. After volunteering with Dr. Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, Chase then joined the Disney Conservation Fund, forwarding conservation efforts across all divisions of the company, before returning to Biltmore to deepen visitors’ engagement with the property. Today he is a current board member for Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Muddy Sneakers, and Wild for Life: Center for Rehabilitation for Wildlife. He previously served on the board for the Jane Goodall Institute, Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, and Nature’s Best Photography.
The Changing Landscape of Leadership
When Dr. Matthews took on the role of Director of Inclusion for the American Alliance of Museums, she was surprised to learn that the country’s 200 year-old leading museums’support organization didn’t require “desk soldiers.” “We’re now fully immersed in the culture of flexible workspace and telecommuting – the majority of our staff have telecommuting days. You work from home; you work from the coffee shop; you work from wherever you work best and zoom in for meetings,” she notes. This era of digital communication and telecommuting presents two leadership challenges: both for leaders in mentoring their teams, and for leaders to develop. Michael Mack confirms, “the most important and yet hardest is communication. A few years ago, the best meetings took place while having a beer after a long day. Today with all the internet messengers, cloud services, and systems, it’s very difficult to communicate – to share information and to combine it in a way that cuts through the clutter.”
For Baby Boomers, seeking job security in a role that lasted for 20 – 40 years was a key component of a career; but with today’s Millennials and Generation Z, some leaders feel that they recruit the best talent, hone them over a couple of years to ensure they’re great brand ambassadors moving forward, and then wish them well in their careers.
“As leaders and those who are heading into the leadership community, we need to get our mentorship skills up, because the generation coming after the generation that’s coming is very definitive in what they need; and as they’re identifying mentorship, sponsorship, leadership role models, they will flat out tell you that you’re supposed to be in that role,” says Dr. Matthews. “I’ve been on the receiving end of that conversation a few times now. Frankly, it’s quite impressive – and more likely than not you’ll say yes, so we need to be prepared.”
When reflecting on what’s changed most regarding leadership theory in his career, Dr. Davis emphasizes the rise of transparency. When he started out, he felt that it was his job to do what was asked of him, and not to challenge leadership or ask deeper questions. “With the younger generations, just saying ‘do it’ doesn’t cut it,” he says. “They are fine to follow your lead, but they have to trust and respect you first, and they want to be able to follow your lead with passion; to do that, they have to understand your perspective; and to do that, you have to give a lot more information than you had to previously; understanding your vision shapes their inspiration.”
Leading by Empathetic Management
While today’s emerging leaders are growing expertise in management techniques and in their fields, effective leadership requires a triangle of emotional intelligence: managerial empathy, employee empathy, and self-reflection.
“I cannot emphasize enough the value of getting to know your team and being able to respond to them in a personalized way,” says Dr. Davis. He reflects on an occasion when he walked by a team member who didn’t seem her normal self. He paused and asked her how she was doing; howevever she was unable to respond, so the two walked to his office where she explained she was going through an immensely difficult time as a family member transitioned into hospice. Brian has lost count of how many times she has told him how much it meant to her that he was able to recognize her difficult moment in the midst of so many other things going on at work. More importantly, taking the time to ask if she was okay. “In leadership, you often think of resource and financial management for your team, but not of the emotional support they require,” he says. “You get so much back from just being in tune to their needs. It’s mutual relationships though; on days when my mind is occupied, they ask if I am okay as well.”
Dr. Matthews reflects that one of the essential elements of leadership success is empathizing with individuals higher up in an organization. She emphasizes that upper management is full of real people with varying needs and motivations that require tailored approaches, just as staff do. Key to this is understanding differences in perspectives as you ascend an organizational chart – being able to recognize the broader priorities and responsibilities of your manager that outside of your own purview is a critical skill.
“One of the greatest tutorials I’ve had in managing-up has been my work in development,” says Dr. Matthews. “Fundraising is about uniting your objectives with someone else’s vision for the way they want to make change.”
To curtail the eroding emotional effects of the pressures of leadership, it’s essential for self-health to find outlets for resetting and recharging. “The challenge is being able to shut off my 24/7 passion for this place, for my own mental health,” says Dr. Davis, “and I’ve found three solutions:
- I take a vacation twice a year and limit communications; I work to unplug;
- We have a small farm where I leave my phone inside and drop a fishing line in the lake;
- I became a grandparent a year ago, and this little guy just makes everything else disappear.”
Two Ears, One Mouth
We envision our ideal leaders delivering an inspiring TED Talk, passionately defending a cause, or courageously leading a challenging board meeting. However, when we asked our emerging leaders how they are best advancing their leadership skillset, they all agreed on one tactic: stop talking and listen.
Jane Goodall became world renown for being one of the greatest silent observers of our modern era – a key quality of any great scientist. “The power of observation is a key skill I really learned from Jane,” reflects Chase. “You need to listen, watch, and be soaking in all the information, and that will make you smarter and empower you to make better decisions.” Chase traveled the world with Dr. Goodall to a variety of encounters with world leaders wanting to meet with her and
hear her thoughts. “But the key talent Jane demonstrated was her ability to find common ground in immensely complex situations. She could enter a room, listen and observe, dive deep into the differing opinions in the room, and walk out with a commonality and solution to progress forward.”
For Dr. Davis, it’s about authentically and continuously seeking 360-degree feedback. “Having very honest conversations with my team is essential – where my successes are, where I overstepped, and where I failed to communicate,” he reflected. “To be a successful leader, you need to be willing to take the harsh criticism, own it, and grow from it. I learned a long time ago: we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.”
As Tonya currently manages construction of the STEM Innovation Learning Center at Wayne State University, she echoes that sentiment as she talks with structural engineers, architects, faculty, and academic staff. “I think a significant skillset I’m leaning on right now is that good leaders lean on the expertise of others and listen. I think the really good listeners must be “dynamic listeners” because they must simultaneously translate what they’re hearing. It’s the ability to understand when other people aren’t using your language.”
“My number one educational tool is to go visit other theme parks and attractions and ask lots of questions,” exuberantly reflects Michael. “Talking with my own team members at every level has always been a great tool to keep me focused on innovation.”
How Mentors Spark Inspiration
For many of us, our parents were our first mentors, and a variety of family characters filled in the spaces to teach us other life lessons and to offer sage advice. It should come as no surprise that our emerging attraction leaders share these sources of early inspiration with us.
“I am my grandmother’s favorite grandchild,” says Brian, “and after she picked up on my early fascination with fish, she would take me down to the Jersey Shore every summer. From then on, my mother and father made sure I always had a fish tank, and often took me fishing.” With a 245-year-old legacy company, Michael has spent countless hours strolling the family theme parks learning from and being inspired by his family members. For Chase it was his grandmother Mimi Cecil, who whisked him around the world as a young teenager to Africa, Antarctica, the Galapagos, and more, opening up a worldview of the planet and the importance of conservation in nature. And of course, she introduced Chase to Dr. Jane Goodall.
When the two first met, Dr. Goodall told a young Chase Pickering, “You as a young person have the opportunity to change this world.” Chase asked, “How do I do that,” to which Dr. Goodall replied, “Come volunteer with me.” Thus launched a career that saw him volunteering, photographing, and traveling around the world with Roots & Shoots to forward Dr. Goodall’s conservation message.
After the spark of leadership in an early age, we encounter new people along our career path that carry the torch forward. For Brian it was Jeff Swanagan, the first executive director of Georgia Aquarium, who helped him understand that the foundation of a successful zoo or aquarium is how you treat people.
The truth of the matter is, mentors may not realize they’re mentors at all. For Tonya, Michael, and Chase, this rings true every day: “One important leadership lesson that I’ve learned from my mentors is the importance of leading by example, every action that we take should stay true to the values of our company,” says Pickering. Leadership and mentorship is a daily practice, whether we realize it or not.