Petr Fejk: Kamikaze in the zoo

Initially despised, the 38-year-old director of the Prague Zoo has changed the facility beyond recognition in five years. Following the floods, his former opponents have become allies.

When you won the tender to become the zoo’s director five years ago, you found yourself in a difficult position, as you were neither a zoologist nor a veterinarian by training, which meant that you had to earn the respect of your 180 employees. How did you bring that off?
When I started here the zoo couldn’t be changed from within, so it was decided that a person from an entirely different field should be brought in. It was like a kamikaze role. I’m the first purely managerial director in the Prague Zoo’s history, and I must admit that building respect is a neverending process. The first two years were a struggle for authority. I’m a fairly strict boss, and I demand order and maximum performance – such an approach suits some people, but it gets on others’ nerves. I see the fact that I’m not a zoologist as a personal handicap that gave my employees a chance to demonstrate their lack of faith in me. The best defense against this was to learn, and to take advantage of experiences gained at other zoos.

Career highlights
1988 graduated from Charles University School of Philosophy, majored in Czech Language and Literature/History
1990-93 taught at gymnazium in Libeň
1993-97 owned and operated the Belmondo rock club
1997-present appointed director of Prague Zoo

Is it true that after you arrived you were shocked by the work habits of some employees? How did you show them that the party was over?
Yes, that’s true. When I caught someone stealing, I fired him. When I caught a driver under the influence of alcohol, he too was let go. I even went so far as to installing a time clock. Most of the employees turned against me at that point, but they finally acknowledged that I wasn’t harassing them, I was just trying to make them come to work on time.

How do you motivate your employees?
Our organization is funded by the state, so I can’t give them much financial motivation. I try to at least show them that I respect their work. Sometimes we organize events and get together outside of the work environment, and I try to praise them, but I’m not too good at it, as I’m rather reserved. Additionally, I try to give my employees a feeling of prestige. People who take care of animals aren’t just shovelers of manure. They must also have a deep knowledge of animals.

Your arrival was marked by a broader, more aggressive method of presenting the zoo to the public. Did you plan to promote the zoo as you would any other firm?
I’m convinced that an organization or institution like a zoo must be based on presentation. We have to attract people to the zoo in order to carry out our mission. We’re like a museum – we’ll either be dignified and monumental, but dead, with no one visiting us, or we’ll be an active place people like to go to. I like communicating with the public. The zoo is something that we all hold in our hearts – children, youngsters, parents, and the elderly. Our expositions are first-rate; we have a graphic artist, we turn out press releases, we organize social events, and we sell gift items. We want to offer full-value to politicians, entrepreneurs, sponsors and the public.

You are an innovator in many respects. Have you ever encountered fear or even resistance on the part of your employees due to innovations that you try to introduce?
Yes, there’s always an initial wave of resistance against anything new, starting with our logo, which was my little revolution, through the time clock and working with computers, to our efforts to make our animals on display more active.

How were you able to break down this resistance?
You can never break it down completely, it’s a never-ending story. For example, the animal tenders here have little microphones, and they tell visitors about their charges. This is still very traumatic for many of our people, as they aren’t used to communicating with the public. I even hired a psychologist to help them overcome this inhibition. I’ll have to convince them over and over as I introduce new things.

This year’s floods placed an extraordinary burden on the zoo, and you faced crisis management. How did your relationship with your employees change in this situation?
The floods naturally brought us together – suddenly, our earlier disputes seemed petty. When you’re in a boat with someone with who you’ve been arguing for five years and you’re trying to haul a gorilla into it, things have to change. I know that we’ll fall back into our old habits, but for now we still feel the euphoria of belonging together. During the crisis it was irrelevant who was in charge and who was an employee.

Both you and your team were attacked by the media for killing some animals, and there was even speculation about the importance of the zoo’s existence. How did you survive the media pressure?
It was very cruel, and I heard some employees that it was the worst time of their lives. I personally expected negative articles, and I responded to them immediately. I patiently explained what carrying out the largest evacuation in the history of all zoos meant. The hardest thing for me was to stay calm and cool in this situation, but to simultaneously show my people that I was going through it together with them. When Gaston the seal or some other animals died, the tenders felt it as the loss of a family member. When the press expressed suspicions that it might have been our fault, it was a hard situation without a solution for many of them.

For some nursing animals the evacuation posed great dangers, with their very survival at stake. Were you worried about your people? Could they possibly refuse to carry out your orders?
I was most worried that a fatal injury would occur. Our people were truly not thinking about danger. I was present at all of the critical situations, such as the transporting of gorillas on boats – they are huge animals that were under stress, and taking them by boats was sheer madness, completely against all the safety rules. If something had happened to someone, I would have taken it as my own personal failure. Although it’s painful for me to kill an animal that cannot be evacuated, it’s still a more acceptable decision than to watch it kill a defenseless person.

What do you need to improve about yourself in order to be the ideal boss?
The ideal boss should be strong. He has to be normal, and he mustn’t fly off the handle. He should have healthy common sense and an internal engine to make him absorbed in his work. He has to have a system, he has to be rational. He shouldn’t have the clutter around him that I have on my desk, because a neat desk means a well-ordered mind. He has to know what he wants, and how to achieve it. I think I handle relationships with people well. By nature I’m a reservedly honest, rationally communicative control unit that keeps a certain distance but can look at things with feeling. Sometimes there’s so much work that I can’t do everything – I teeter on the brink of collapse, and in the end, nothing is properly done about most of the things that must be done properly. That is my shortcoming.






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