#SHRM16 Interview with Tim Mulligan – the CHRO of the Year

I lived in Southern California for my high school and college years. In college, I studied comparative animal psychology—primates in particular. As a result, I was very familiar with the San Diego Zoo. I have probably been at least 15 times, and consider it to be one of the premier zoos I have ever been to. Sadly, it has been 20 years since my last visit. When I was given the chance to interview the Chief Human Resources Officer for the zoo, I jumped at the chance. I had a delightful conversation with Tim Mulligan, and was very impressed with what he has done at the zoo for the people working there.

Tim Mulligan

Tim has an interesting combination of backgrounds. He has an undergraduate degree in the hospitality industry from Washington State University. He then got a law degree from Gonzaga University School of Law. He then did what probably raised a few eyebrows but is something I consider a logical progression, he combined those backgrounds and went into Human Resources for Starwood Hotels and Resorts. He was there until 2004, when he was recruited by the San Diego Zoo Global to become their Chief Human Resources Officer; and he has now been there for over 11 years.

Challenges for the Zoo

There was a special combination of factors that were presented to Mulligan. First, they have a group of very loyal employees who were and are there primarily for the good of the animals. Mulligan says they are “velcroed to the why of the Zoo,” and they have only about 1% turnover. Mulligan says this is both a good thing and a bad thing.

Secondly, they had old paper-based systems; and as a conservation organization they needed to be less paper intensive. Their technology needed to be updated, and how they communicated with employees needed to be changed as well.

Just like all other organizations, they were dealing with the changing nature of the workforce. Baby boomers were being replaced by millennials and bringing with them different wants and desires for their jobs.

The Solutions

The major solution San Diego Zoo Global enacted was hiring Tim. The zoo has 3.2 million visitors per year. They have onsite lodging and food facilities. Who better to head such an organization than someone from the hospitality industry? Customer service and cutting edge hospitality were critical. But, in addition to that, they are also located in California; and we all know what employment law is like in California.  So, who better to have as your head of HR than an attorney? It appears the Zoo hit the jackpot with Tim Mulligan.

One of the first challenges he took on was the technology aspect of HR systems. In 2005, Mulligan partnered with Halogen. He bonded with them, and continues to work closely with them as they innovate. Through them he improved performance management, employee recordkeeping and employee communication. He has transitioned to mobile communication and very heavy use of social media. He has had to do this on a budget of a nonprofit organization.


I always had fun when I went to the zoo, so I asked Mulligan how he has instilled “fun” at work for the employees. Playing off the theme of “zooper” heroes, he has instituted rewards and recognition for employees. They have set up rules of engagement for employees, where one of the rules is “lighten up.”

The Zoo is in its centennial year in 2016. It was founded on “the roar of a lion,” and they are using that theme this year. Tim’s book, ROAR: How to Build a Resilient Organization the World-Famous San Diego Zoo Way has just been published. He will be signing copies of the book at Halogen’s island 2325 at #SHRM16.

He is also participating in the CHRO panel hosted by Halogen Software.

If you get the opportunity to hear and meet with Tim Mulligan, it will be well worth your effort.


Originally posted on Omega HR Solutions Blog.




For more information and to attend SHRM 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition, visit www.annual.shrm.org.



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