I used to wrestle crocodiles. Yes, crocodiles – giant, apex predators that haven’t changed much since the Cretaceous Period.
When this factoid from my past comes up in casual conversation in coffee chats or pre-games, I’m usually met with contorted expressions of horror or shock. One classmate, who stumbled upon my blog about my work at a reptile zoo in Texas, questioned my sanity. Why would I focus my efforts on such “disgusting animals” which appealed to “tattooed bikers donning leather and chains?” She went on to extol the virtues of consulting and private equity as the job of “real men,” and asserted that only uneducated people from the South with no real applicable skills would put their bodies on the line in such a dangerous, manual profession. She cited using venomous snakes during ancient worship as emblematic of the backwards nature of this whole reptile business. “Why not work to save something like a seal or a cat? What’s the market size of people to care about crocodiles anyway?”
Working with predators requires a high degree of focus and knowledge that is hard for outsiders to appreciate. After all, there are no second chances if you’re bitten by a cobra or a croc. The zoo staff I worked with had not only done their academic homework on our subjects by studying animal anatomy, physiology, and evolutionary biology, but also developed a deep intuition for their behaviors after years of experience. Just as working in investment banking leaves one more skilled at M&A than sitting through FIN2, the hands-on experience provides a wholly different level of understanding. The zoo staff could deftly handle vipers and hyenas by reading behavior and predicting their next move. Small details from the twitch of an ear or the tensing of adductor muscles could indicate a switch from placid to explosive. Staying alive in this business, in and of itself, is a skill.
Born and raised in Boston, I was often asked why a Yankee like me who had done his undergrad at Harvard would choose to work with reptiles in Texas. It’s quite simple: I’m driven by the mission of conservation and fell in love with my zoo team. Wildlife and conservation remain core interests of mine and so when I visited the zoo on a weekend trip, I jumped at the chance to get involved. When I first approached the staff about helping the reptile department, they could not have been more welcoming. They gave me the freedom and autonomy to learn and contribute in the way I saw most effective, from giving educational demonstrations to designing exhibits, while making sure I wasn’t going to end up in the hospital. While many of my zoo colleagues were religious, they were open to discussing evolution, phylogeny, and genetics. We engaged with open minds, broadening our perspectives by listening to each other. So rather than backwater fundamentalists, the people I interacted with were in fact much more open-minded than some people I met while working in corporate. Additionally, the mission of wildlife conservation coursed through the veins of every team member. The smile I saw on their faces at 5 am on a Saturday as they prepared their exhibits is the very definition of happiness and job satisfaction. They had found their calling and lived it every day – the joy and fulfillment the team derived from working with their favorite animals were nothing short of paradise.
There was one key aspect of the croc team that I’ve been searching for in the business world. When moving the crocs into their winter enclosure, I lassoed a 9-foot Nile croc from the pond that was home to over 20 of the angry reptiles. The moment the rope slipped over the jaw and pulled tight, the croc exploded out of the water yanking me into the pond. A split second before I hit the water, I felt the arms of my teammate bear-hugging me, fighting to pull me back to dry land until I regained my footing on the muddy bank. To save me from harm, he risked being pulled into the water. Such a level of team cohesion and selflessness is hard to find; while each member performs a specific role and contributes a unique expertise, each is willing to risk his life for one another. Everyone is responsible for the others’ safety, and the camaraderie and seamless collaboration cannot be more apparent.
When I left the zoo, I had gained a deeper understanding of team building. In some ways, the croc pond and HBS couldn’t be more different. But in others, both experiences couldn’t be more alike.