Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Four Keys to Enhanced Protected Area Manager Performance

Recently, I participated in the Second Mobile Seminar on Sustainable Tourism and Protected Areas organized and sponsored by Colorado State University. The Seminar focused on the opportunities and challenges confronting protected area managers as they set to integrate two goals partly competing and partly overlapping: protecting the natural heritage at the foundation of the protected area and providing access to that heritage for visitors to view, enjoy and appreciate. This challenge is among the most significant facing management of protected areas globally as tourism and visitation are most likely the largest commercial use of these areas.

CSU had asked me to present about what challenges confronted managers as they sought to manage tourism and visitation. I have previously written about this challenge on the blog and had identified a set of professional competencies needed to address it. But meeting this challenge requires more than being competent, as I told the Seminar participants. Competently applying skills is only one component of enhanced managerial performance, particularly given an increased emphasis by conservation organizations on effective management of protected areas.

View the video that goes into a bit more detail: 

Here is how I see the four keys to enhanced performance and how we get there:

1.     Thinking critically – in the wicked and messy world of 21st century protected area management, learning and thinking critically are paramount. As Jon Kohl and I argue in our soon to be released book, The Future has Other Plans, we can no longer argue or assume that the world is predictable, linear, understandable or stable. Rather it is dynamic, impossible to completely understand, complex and ever-changing. An ethic of daily learning is required to address the challenges—as well as the opportunities—we encounter daily in this environment. We need strong critical thinking skills to assess, evaluate and reflect upon the many proposals arriving on our desks. This means we need to be a bit of a skeptic, closely scrutinizing events, from global to local, to understand what they mean and their implications.

We build critical thinking skills through several pathways, most notably through tertiary education, but also through continuing education programs oriented toward creating understanding of why things occur, building frameworks to guide our thinking, and developing networks and communities of practice to test our ideas. Continuing education is generally the domain of universities and colleges because these institutions, while having handcuffs of their own, are not bound by particular agency policy and culture, are focused on uncovering truth, and often open our minds to ideas we do not see because of our organizational cultures.

2.      Acting Competently – we need managers that are proficient, that understand how things work, that drive and operate organizations in ways that are not only effective and efficient but equitable as well. Doing things right is important and this is probably the most valued attribute of managers and protected area staff. We need to build competency in protected area skill application just as we need our staff to think critically. We need managers who know how to design and implement interpretative programs, enforce rules and regulations, apply landscape level restoration, manage wildlife populations and administer concession contracts among other tasks.

Skill development is the domain of training—where staff understand what and how to do things, but not necessarily why they do these things. While universities often provide training, this is properly the domain of vocational programs and agency training centers, such as the U.S. Department of the Interior National Conservation Training Center. A university may not be the best place to learn the how to’s of law enforcement or how to design and implement a field data management program, but a training center or program would be.

3.     Deciding Confidently – managers must be able to make decisions that reflect themselves as self-assured and poised, that they feel good about having considered the alternatives and their consequences, that they have interacted with constituencies and staff about a preferred course of action, and that they have built monitoring and adaptive management protocols in the event their assumptions underlying the decision are proven questionable. There is often a fine line between being confident and being arrogant (say a feeling of being of superior intelligence or perception), so I mean here that decisions are made with a sense of humility.

Developing confidence requires mentoring—working jointly with more experienced and confident managers to appreciate their particular approach to making decisions. In this real-world cauldron of conflict and contention, of choice and uncertainty, and of change and complexity, this sense of confidence is needed for effective leadership. Mentoring and shadowing programs within the agency itself then are needed to help potential managers to develop this sense of confident humility about their decisions.

4.      Empowering Environments – Managers work within organizations, be they governmental, non-governmental or parastatals. Organizations have cultures, they have norms, they have expectations, they have traditions, and they have bureaucrats. Everybody has a boss with viewpoints, perspectives and priorities. This culture may disempower managers or empower them.

Libby Khumalo and I argue in a forthcoming article to be published in Tourism Recreation Research that empowerment means that organizations carefully manage the four types of power they wield, often unknowingly: the power over, or the ability to control people, their decisions, and behavior in order to ensure predictability and stability within an organization; the power to, or ability of a person to pursue their own goals within the context of an agency’s vision and mission; power with deals with collective power, the ability to get things done cooperatively and without formal coercion; and finally, power within, which is an increased will for change, expressed through self-confidence, assertiveness and awareness.

By empowering managers, organizations encourage them to think critically, act competently, and decide confidently—in other words to pursue the organization’s vision and mission with enthusiasm and with a focus on learning, both critically needed in the protected area world of the 21st century.

Participants in the CSU Mobile Seminar on Sustainable Tourism and Protected Areas at Fairy Falls, Yellowstone National Park.