Kevin Bell: Lessons from the Zoo of Life

Casey Gordon | May 26, 2016

Kevin Bell is one of the most experienced zookeepers possibly ever. This is not an understatement.

He grew up on the actual grounds of the Bronx Zoo, where his father was a curator of birds. He was volunteering at the zoo by age 10 and a full-fledged zookeeper at 16. After picking up a bachelor’s degree in biology from Syracuse and a master’s in zoology from SUNY Brockport, Kevin impressed everybody and surprised nobody when he became a bird curator for the Lincoln Park Zoo. Just 23 at the time, he still holds the record for the youngest curator ever hired at the iconic Chicago institution.

Leapfrog twenty years and Kevin is named the first president and CEO of Lincoln Park Zoological Society, the managing organization of the freshly privatized zoo.

Jump ahead twenty more and Kevin has successfully raised almost $200 million for the zoo through a series of capital campaigns and received such honors as being named one of three U.S. delegates on the board of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA).

Over the course of his career Kevin’s seen more of the world than most of us ever will. Uganda, Iceland, Panama, India, Indonesia — name a country and it’s probably at least fifty/fifty he’s been there.

Kevin has seen a lot and he knows a lot. We’re talking encyclopedic levels of knowledge here. He knows about nourishing a healthy organizational culture and managing people to their full potential. He knows about managing animals. And managing people who manage animals.

You get the idea. You’ll want to listen to whatever he has to tell you.

Kevin’s got 5 leadership lessons that have served him well since his childhood in the Bronx Zoo:

1. Respect an organization’s history. Always keep legacy connected to culture.

2. Don’t be afraid of mistakes. You will make them. Some small. Some not so small. It’s how you learn.

3. Share your mistakes. Your perspective benefits those who make similar missteps. And helps others avoid making them.

4. Don’t be afraid of heights either. Take risks. Sometimes you will have to go out on the edge.

5. Do things the best way. The “how” is just as important as the “what.”

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