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Elaine Bensted - Follow your passion

June 1, 2019
Elaine Bensted
Elaine Bensted
Chief Executive Zoos SA
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Elaine Bensted is Chief Executive, Zoos South Australia commencing 3rd September 2012. Since being in the role Elaine has led an improvement in the financial position of this conservation charity and an increase in Zoos SA membership base from 26,000 to over 43,000. She also led the work that culminated in the release of a 20 year Master Plan for both Adelaide and Monarto Zoos in early 2015.

Prior to being appointed as Chief Executive, Zoos South Australia Elaine held the position of Chief Executive, Office of TAFE SA.

Elaine has previously held senior positions in State and Local Government, and the private sector in the finance industry.

Elaine’s qualifications include an MBA and a Masters in Public Policy and Management as well as qualifications in finance. She has experience in both the private and public sector in management, marketing and community engagement.

Elaine was the recipient of the 2014 Australian Institute of Management Not for Profit Manager Award.

Elaine is the recipient of the Telstra South Australian Business Woman of the Year Award for Purpose and Social Enterprise 2017.

Elaine is also a Board member of Nature Play SA, Zoos & Aquarium Association (ZAA), Children’s University Advisory Board, the Uni SA Business School Program Advisory Board, The Australian Rhino Project Board, International Koala Centre of Excellence Advisory Board and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) Finance Committee.

leaders leave a legacy everyday"

Show Notes

My Story

People often ask how I went from being the head of TAFE to running zoos. It’s a slightly unusual career move. I grew up wanting to be a vet. That was the only thing I ever wanted to be – but I faint when I see blood and I can’t watch an injection being given, even on TV. I knew that, but I always thought I’d grow out of it. Around Year 12, the realisation hit that I hadn’t grown out of it. So, I couldn’t really be a vet. It’s not a good career trait if you faint every time you see blood.

I went to uni doing a science degree - because I’d picked all my subjects based on being a vet. Then, I dropped out because I didn’t want to be a scientist and I had zero idea of what I wanted to do. In those days, it was really easy to get a job, so I wrote off to a few different places and I ended up working in a bank. The plan was that was going to take 6 months while I worked out what I was actually going to do, and I was going to go back to uni and finish my degree. I ended up spending 17 years in banking and finance, so I never quite got back to uni in a full-time capacity. I did all my other study part-time.

I did all the traditional banky things. I was a bank manager for a short period. Then I got more into project management, marketing, and then human resources – particularly in training. Then I had a short stint in local government, then joined state government in South Australia. Most of my banking stuff was in Adelaide and I did a stint in Melbourne. Then we returned to Adelaide as we had a young daughter and it was just easier with family support. I ended up having around 12 years in the state government. The last 7, I had responsibility for TAFE.

I did a few other studies through that period, so, when I wanted to leave the banking sector – and I’d got quite well known in the bank – I was going to move into local government. I made a decision to do an MBA just to show that I had some transferrable skills and government was really focused on post-graduate qualifications - which the bank, at that stage, wasn’t so much. I did my MBA and then I did a masters in public policies, thinking I should really have a better understanding of how government sets policy. It was a really good masters. I couldn’t actually see that’s how governments set public policy, but I have a theory of how they should set public policy. It was full-time work and part-time study. I do like a deadline, and I had a number of assignments that were being done at 3 in the morning the day before they were due. So, it was a fairly busy life.

I can’t remember exactly, but the MBA was, I think, about 4 years part-time. The masters in public policy was much shorter because I had a lot of credit for the subjects that I had done in the MBA, so I think that was only 12 months part-time. At one stage I did play with the idea of doing a PhD, then decided that, no, sleep was a really valuable commodity that I wasn’t getting a lot of.

The last 7 years in state government, I was responsible for TAFE as well as the employment program – so, the traineeship and apprenticeship system in South Australia. That was a fabulous role, and TAFE was a fabulous organisation. It was a very challenging role time-wise. It became quite political. We were going through a lot of policy changes, taking TAFE from being an entity that received most of its money from government to one that was working in a much more open and competitive market - changing legislation to set TAFE up as a statutory authority.

You get so immersed in it. You do a lot of – what I now might look back on and describe as ‘busy’ work. It was doing political briefings – just managing ‘stuff’, but busy stuff. And, TAFE was a large organisation with a spread across the state (about 50 campuses), so if I visited each campus once a week, they’d only see me once a year. With that many staff spread over that big a distance, we got to use video conferencing a lot. It’s how we communicated.

Then, literally, I saw the job of chief executive of the zoo advertised in the paper. It was just like this little lightbulb went off and I said, “Oh, that would just be a fabulous job!” The zoo had been in very serious financial trouble – it was in very serious financial trouble. Everyone in South Australia knew that. It was in the newspapers quite regularly. The previous chief executive had left so it was in a difficult position. So, I rang the recruiter, who I knew, and said, “I am an animal lover. A conservationist at heart. But, I really knew nothing at all about running a zoo. Is it worth me putting an application in?” He said, “Yeah, absolutely”. The zoo is 139 years old and has been doing fabulous animal work and that bit of the zoo wasn’t in trouble. But the business side – recognising that the zoo was a business – was in serious trouble. Obviously, the financials, but it was broader than the financials.

So, I applied and ended up managing the 2 fabulous zoos in South Australia. Then, I think within about 2 weeks, I was on a plane to China. We’ve got Giant Pandas (the biggest pandas in the southern hemisphere), and that was part of the contractual arrangements. I’d known nothing at all about Giant Pandas, but I learnt an awful lot on that plane trip. I was just reading and reading and reading.

5 years later, people often say, “Do you have any regrets in your career?” And, the first time I went to answer that, it was, “I wish I’d joined the zoo world so much earlier, rather than wait until I was almost 50”. But, the reality is that I couldn’t have done the job, and do it well, without the things that I’d learnt along the way – both in the private sector and in government. So, I think for me, the timing was right, but I have said I’m not going anywhere else now. As long as the board will have me, this is where I am until I retire, because it is just a fabulous job.

There are a couple of things that make me really like the job so much. The fact that we are really making a difference – or can! Zoos can make a real difference. We are losing species to extinction at an unprecedented rate. There have been more than 1,000 species lost forever, just since I was born. And, if you read some of the statistics of what might happen in the next few years – The Living Planet’s index estimates that we could lose two thirds of the planet’s wild animals by 2020. That’s really scary and I want to see that change. In this role, I’m leading an organisation that’s got absolutely committed staff and volunteers who are all able to do that. That is, to save species.

For me, it’s the pleasure of working in a fabulous environment. I mean I do have the best office in South Australia because it’s physically in the middle of the zoo. It’s in Minchin House, which is an old heritage building in the middle of Adelaide Zoo. And then we’ve also got Monarto, which is the largest open-range zoo in Australia. They are two very unique zoos. One, we call our ‘city oasis’ because it is right near the CBD, but it’s green and lush and then you’ve got all the wonderful sounds of the animals. Then, Minato is only an hours’ drive and you could feel like you’re in the middle of Africa as it’s 1,500 hectares. You see giraffes running at 40 kilometres because they can, and they’ve got the space. So, two very unique zoos and they offer very unique experiences.

It’s a fabulous environment. I certainly draw on all of my skill sets. It’s a challenge, financially, and you have a whole range of other challenges – managing risks, working with stakeholders, seeing sponsorship, always doing fundraising, so there’s never a dull moment. But you always feel that what you’re doing is for a genuine reason and purpose, and to add value. There’s none of that ‘busy’ work. It’s all genuine, meaningful work, and with a passionate group of volunteers and staff – there are 3 times as many volunteers as staff.

There a lot of things to enjoy. It’s a fabulous community in Australia and New Zealand as well. When I started, I had a lot to learn about how zoos operate. I could pick up the phone and any time and talk to my counterparts in Victoria and NSW, and WA and Queensland. We are not in competition with each other, and there’s a good network globally that you can call on and discuss things with.

We work closely with a lot of tourism providers, in particular, trying to attract interstate or international tourists to South Australia. We don’t have the marketing budget to do that by ourselves, so we’ll work with some of our partners on putting together a package deal. If people are interested in wildlife, they might want to spend a couple of days on Kangaroo Island, then head to Adelaide Zoo, then go up to Monarto. So, it’s working with others to try and put together a really exciting package that showcases what South Australia has got.

Volunteers are all passionate. We’ve calculated the number of volunteer hours that we get, and, if we were paying the salary for those number of hours, it would add about $4 million of expense, which we can’t do. We really couldn’t operate without them. They run about 17 different programs. They are all quite different. There are some who are doing tour hosting – taking people on personalised tours of the zoos, but we also have groups that build things or make enrichment items for the animals. We’ve got groups that do weeding (because it’s 1,500 hectares, there is always a lot of weeding to be done), planting (we’ve planted a couple of hundred thousand trees), and then we’ve got a group of scientists who come in and do some of their biochemical analysis. We’ve got an amazing, skilled group of volunteers.

I take them really seriously. Once a month we have a volunteers’ meeting on a Saturday. I always attend that and give them an update on what’s happening because I need to show that respect. That’s what they’re giving to us. But, at the same time, we have to set standards. Our visitors need to get a certain level of customer service. We’ve got safety standards, etcetera, etcetera. So, all of our volunteers go through a recruitment process. They go through interviews, then they go through a very detailed training and induction session, and then they go through an assessment before they are ticked off as a volunteer.

We’ve got mandatory training on things like our values – both staff and volunteers will receive that training, so we do treat them as part of our workforce because they are! As I said, we couldn’t deliver what we deliver without them.

It is a conservation charity, so, from a business model perspective, we are incorporated under the Associations Act, and that’s quite different to most of the other main zoos in Australia – which are run as entities of the state government, they are owned by the state government. We’re not, and that’s just history - 139 years ago somebody set up the Acclimatisation Society. We do receive a funding deed. We’ve got a funding grant from the state government, so that’s about 22% of our revenue. The rest of our revenue, we’re responsible for ourselves. That’s through our day admissions, through our memberships, through sponsorships, through retail, through running events, etcetera. Then, I report to a board. Legally, we are ‘owned’ by our members, so it is quite a different governing structure to many. We are a registered charity. We’ve got tax-deductable status. So, getting that message out to the public is important.

I think zoos have changed a lot. If we look over the last 20 years, yes, we still have to offer an entertaining day. That’s why people choose to come, using their discretionary income to have a day at the zoo, so it has to be fun. It has to be entertaining. We also want it to be educational. And, at our core, we’re a conservation organisation. We need people to come, fall in love with the animals, and then we can tell the story about how you can make a difference so that we don’t have the level of extinctions that we’re facing now. We use a philosophy called “Love, not Loss”, so we focus on why you love the animals. What it is about them that is so special? What’s so fabulous about them? Then, what are some of the risks that they’re facing in the wild and what can we do about it? What are we doing now, but, what more can we do if we all work together?

We had the Telstra Business Women of the Year awards (which Telstra has been running for a number of years). At the South Australian level, I won the ‘For Purpose’ sector (which is like the not-for-profit sector) Business Woman of the Year in South Australia, and we’ve got the national awards on tonight. I’ve got to say, having met all of the recipients – there’s a number of categories, there’s an entrepreneur category, and the public sector and academia – this is just the most fabulous, talented group of people from such a diverse range of areas, it’s mind-blowing. There are 44 of us that are in this category and every one of them is just fabulous. So, I don’t care what happens tonight. I think I’ve won anyway by getting this far and meeting this group of people.

We’re all happy too because a couple of weeks ago there was the tourism awards in South Australia and Adelaide Zoo won the major tourist attraction award.

Advice To Self and Others

I think, being prepared to take chances. When I look back on my career when I was in the banking sector, in those days, it was a very male dominated environment (I was certainly one of the first female executives). You’ve got to have a sense of humour when you are working in that. I do remember my husband was sent an invitation to a ‘wives day’ because they had just done a mail merge and they didn’t know how to deal with a male partner. So, he got invited on a shopping day with a bunch of women – which he thought was fabulous. He had a great day. He got spoiled rotten. So, you need a sense of humour.

In those days, you didn’t apply for jobs with the bank, you were selected by personnel to go into something. A couple of roles, I got thrown in the absolute deep end. If I had looked at the job description to see if I could do that job, not a hope in hell. I could do little bits of it, maybe, but somebody saw that I had the potential and so threw me in. And, I am a very competitive person. If I’m going to do something, I like to do it well. You learn an awful lot when you are in a new role if you want to do it well. And so, be prepared to take those chances and just grab and run with it. I think we don’t do enough of that with, particularly, young people in organisations now. Enjoy the job is number one, and have passion for it. But, be really prepared to go out there and try to do something that extends you and forces you to keep learning.

I’ve always been passionate about what I’ve done. There’s never been a job that I didn’t enjoy. I think, running TAFE, I was passionate because I could see the value and the lives changing and going to some of those graduations. I always remember up in the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) Lands and you’re seeing someone being the first person ever in their family or in their community to get a certificate and you just see the joy. So, I could get really passionate about that, because it was life-changing.

I ‘ve got that education element, which I’ve loved, and in some ways, that was a continuous thread, because I was involved in training in the bank for many, many years. Then, obviously, with TAFE. So, that education element had sort of been through. But, the zoo is … as I said, I’m not leaving!

The only other advice that I always think of, from that wonderful song, is “Look after your knees, ‘cause you’ll miss them when they’ve gone!” In the zoo world, having good knees would be really helpful because you’ve got to squat down to see the smaller animals and I’ve got shocking knees.

Successful Habits

I think, if you enjoy what you do, you’ll work really hard. At the end of the day, you have to put in the effort, and, if you enjoy it and are passionate about it, then that hard work pays off. I’ve always tried to keep my focus on the end game. You know that whole ‘lose the battle, but win the war’. Sometimes, you can get so caught up in the moment, you forget about the big picture. So, always keeping the objectives of what’s important front of mind and sharing that with your team, so everybody’s got that shared focus.

We use a thing at the zoo called positive reinforcement. Our keepers do a lot of animal training and that’s primarily for health reasons, so we can do health checks without anaesthetic. Most people when you are training dogs, you’ve got a lead, but if you are training chimpanzees, you don’t have a lead and you’re not in there with them, so you can’t use physical cues. If you are training a bird to do a free flight, they can fly off. So, the whole concept of positive reinforcement training is being really clear on the behaviour that you want from the animal, trying to set the environment so that they are going to be successful. You don’t train your dog for the first time in a busy shopping centre or a football oval. So, be clear about what you want, set the environment for success, and then, as soon as there is success, there’s a reward. And then you repeat.

It’s the same when working with staff and with volunteers, using positive reinforcement. What is it that you want them to be doing? Set the environment so they’ll be successful. Reward when they do it right. And, if you use that methodology, I think it works incredibly well for giving clarity to leaders about what behaviours you want your staff to be exhibiting and making everybody really clear about that. So, once those expectations are clear – most people, when they come to work, they want to do the right thing – you just need to let people know what the right thing is.

Inspiration quotes

I don’t know where it came from, and I heard it a long time ago, is “Leaders leave a legacy every day”. There is no such thing as an offhand comment or a throw-away line. Every interaction you have is important, even if it is a casual conversation while you’re waiting to grab a cup of coffee with someone. People listen to what you say. How you say it. They watch your body language, so they can pick up if you’re feeling confident about something or if you are really worried about something. I think it is a privilege and an important thing when you are a leader that you have to show that you respect that.

Recommended Reading

There was a book I read a long time ago called, “Man’s search for meaning”, by Victor Frankl. He was in a concentration camp and lost most of the members of his family, and he was writing about – you know, it’s a pretty torrid background – the fact that you can always choose how you respond. Even though he was being treated in an appalling manner, he could choose how he responded to the guards and the people who were mistreating and killing people.

You can’t blame anybody else for how you choose to respond. If you can make that determination in that sort of circumstance, that’s pretty powerful. I don’t know if I could do that. But, that whole sense of, “Oh, I had a bad childhood, or I had a bad work colleague or the person in front of me was driving badly”. There is always something in the environment that you can use as a reason for your own behaviour, but our own behaviour is our own behaviour. That ability to choose our own response to the stimulus of our environment. To me, it was a really powerful book and a powerful message that has always stuck with me. I can’t do it to the extent that Victor did, but I’d like to think that the message has come through. That ability to take a deep breath and then think, “Ok, this person has done that. How am I going to respond? And, I am solely responsible for that”.

Working in the zoo

You can get passionate about every form of creature – I’ve got to say, apart from cockroaches, which is the one I can’t warm to. The big drawcard at Adelaide Zoo is our Giant Pandas (Wang Wang and Fu Ni) because they are the only Giant Pandas in the southern hemisphere, so a lot of people travel just to see the pandas. But, having said that, we have a sloth who, unfortunately, died earlier this year (she was the oldest sloth in the world, so she had a pretty good innings), but people used to travel from interstate to see the sloth, so, everybody has their own passion and favourite.

I got given advice when I first started, that zoo directors aren’t meant to share their favourite. I ignored that advice. Anyone who came into my office saw that it was covered in wombats, so, everybody guessed that I do have a bit of a passion for the wombats. But, you look at cheetahs and they are gorgeous. You look at rhinos and they are superb. Every animal and every species has its own uniqueness about it that you can get fascinated by. Whether it be a reptile or bird, we work with all of them. They all have their own fans and they all have something that is really special about them.

I’ve just been in Berlin for the World Zoo Association, that’s zoo directors who are members of the World Zoo Association. The current president is Jenny Gray, who is the executive director of Zoos Victoria. She has just written a fabulous book about ethics in zoos. And, I think, Australia and New Zealand would be leading the way in the good quality zoos. There are a lot of zoos around the world that are not at the standard that they should be, and they drag all of us down. But, Australia and New Zealand have some really high-calibre zoos. Folks that put the focus on science and animal welfare, but also, some of the conservation work that they’re doing. I think we can be really proud. It really helped me, coming into the industry new, I’ve got the absolute best partners in the region that I can call upon.


If people are visiting the zoo, they can visit the zoo’s website. For me, the best contact is through LinkedIn. That’s the easy way to get in contact. But I will encourage people, come and visit. They are both fabulous places.




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