Could Internal Comms Have Saved Tiger King Joe Exotic?

May 6, 2020

Is paying a hitman to kill your enemy a good idea? No. But hear me out: Tiger King, aka Joe Exotic, could still be living in Oklahoma as the king of his domain if he had thought about a killer internal communications strategy as much as his killer tigers. 

1. If you hire great people, give them a chance to speak. 

You probably knew this was coming. If you watched the series, your first takeaway was likely, “That guy needs to hold 1:1 meetings with his team.” Just think about it though — what if Joe 1) held regular 1:1s and 2) if he had actually listened to his people! He might have heard things like, “Maybe we aren’t treating these animals well,” or, “Hey, we’re going after Carole too hard and losing sight of our mission.” I’d say those are pretty important pieces of feedback to consider. 

So, make sure you’re truly spending time listening during 1:1s with your people. (Side note: 1:1s should be held often — weekly is ideal!) Let your people set the agenda for what they want to discuss, and check yourself if you’re constantly jumping in and sharing unsolicited advice. Instead, ask questions and probe to hear more about their concerns and what’s not going well — or going really well. 

I often get asked if it is OK to hold your 1:1 meeting while you are sorting expired meat. Of course it is! As long as you have a whiteboard nearby and can focus, having a conversation while doing repetitive work — like sorting expired lamb from expired chicken — is a-OK. 

2. Keep your mission front and center.

Joe’s team seemed pretty out of touch with what was going on at the zoo. As a leader, Joe needed to communicate his vision for the future and connect the dots between everyone’s daily work and the organization’s mission. How could he have done this? 

He could have kicked off (or at least attended) daily stand-up meetings so everyone knew what they were working toward that day. He could have posted info at the pizzeria where it seemed everyone ate, or he could send text messages with updates. He didn’t need to do anything wildly sophisticated — he needed to turn his attention in a direction other than Carole Baskin.  

3. Benchmark against competitors. 

Now Joe certainly was assessing other zoos — to a fault. In fact, his weekly show, with a producer and around-the-clock video crew, did focus on benchmarking his competitors. So where did he go wrong? 

He wasn’t looking at the right benchmarks. The fact that Carole might have killed her husband and that Doc Antle might have had seven wives was interesting, but not key to understanding how other zoos beat Joe at building culture, community and commitment to the cause. 

That’s why it’s important to benchmark against the right competitors. They don’t necessarily need to be in your exact industry because you can still collect valuable insights from leaders and organizations who are doing similar things and doing them well. Maybe Carole and Doc Antle were not the best people. Why not benchmark against someplace like … the Central Park Zoo?

4. Use 360 performance reviews.

If Joe wasn’t holding weekly 1:1s, I doubt he was creating space for 360 reviews. Understandably, he might have been nervous about this — receiving and internalizing constructive criticism is never easy — however, he might have heard some positive feedback too. Maybe some people on his team really were fans of the blue eyeliner. 

Just remember that no matter how hard it is to hear negative feedback, not hearing it is worse. So is continuing destructive behaviors, discouraging change and letting anger and resentment fester. 


So, I hope all you cool cats and kittens don’t need saving (or a Presidential pardon), but don’t underestimate the power of internal comms.

If you haven’t watched Tiger King, stop working on your sourdough starter and turn on Netflix tonight. (Since you work from home, you don’t need to wait until tonight actually.) And if you like more reasons to binge-watch TV (because professional development), check out 5 Leadership Lessons from Netflix’s Cheer and Leaders With Game: Lessons From Game of Thrones.

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Kate Brinkerhoff Angus

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