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“Make sure you are the coach, not a player” With Bridget C. Coughlin

Take the definition of ‘team’ literally — and make sure you are the coach, not a player. We all can’t be quarterbacks and you can’t have the same quarterback on every play. It is hard because, not to take the sports metaphor too far, most executives got to the C-suite because they were star players. […]

Take the definition of ‘team’ literally — and make sure you are the coach, not a player. We all can’t be quarterbacks and you can’t have the same quarterback on every play. It is hard because, not to take the sports metaphor too far, most executives got to the C-suite because they were star players. Now you need to be a star coach. Use the whole team and round out the team with varied and truly diverse skills and attributes and know your own. What I love about baseball, my favorite professional sport, is that when they pull the pitcher, the Manager and team goes to the mound. Joe Madden, former head coach of the Chicago Cubs, would personally relay to the pitcher that it was time to go to the bench and sit the rest of the innings out. The pitcher of course knew, but Madden took the time to walk to the mound and communicate the news directly. Talk to your team and be present and honest with them, make sure everyone knows the game’s strategy and the huge value they bring to execute it — even when it’s time to sit out.


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bridget C. Coughlin.

Bridget C. Coughlin, Ph.D., was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of Shedd Aquarium in 2016. Under her leadership, 1.9 million aquarium guests each year enjoy innovative experiences that are focused on Shedd’s Mission of compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. A relentless advocate for access in all ways, Dr. Coughlin commits the organization to offering tens of millions of dollars in free admission each year; champions varied learning styles and approaches; and is a voice for real diversity, equity and inclusion. Shedd is also a founding member of the Aquarium Conservation Partnership, and Dr. Coughlin has played a critical role in guiding this organization’s work to reduce global plastic waste and advance the protection of marine sanctuaries. Before joining Shedd, Dr. Coughlin served as vice president of strategic partnerships and programs and adjunct curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS). Prior to Denver, Dr. Coughlin was the Managing Editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC.

Currently, Dr. Coughlin serves as an AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador for the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Lyda Hill Philanthropies. A Colorado native, Dr. Coughlin holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Knox College, a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Iowa and an executive scholar certificate in finance from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She finds great joy in any outdoor activity, sports of all kinds, theater, board games, and most of all spending time with her husband and three sons. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @SheddAquaCEO.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Iget an emotional and intellectual charge from learning and generating new science. Pursuing a doctorate in biochemistry in graduate school lit that fuse, but it was only after exploring some postdoctoral work on the communication of science for the public that I learned there was something that generated an even bigger spark inside of me — connecting people to science and nature. Connecting and inspiring millions of people, in a social setting, deepening their relationship to biology and the living world around them. Nature is what fuels me and keeps my mojo. That’s what we get to do every day at Shedd Aquarium.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

As executives, we receive a lot of emails and requests and triage them during the day and late into the night. A vast majority fall into categorical types like: “FYIs”, “the team needs a decision”, “request for a meeting”, “review and approvals”, “please add input”, etc. One day at the aquarium, a senior aquarist sent an email — notifying all staff that the black tip reef shark was pupping (the term used for sharks giving birth) and if we hurried we could see the babies being born, followed by the umbilical cord and placenta. That’s an email category I now classify as “get out of your chair, cancel the meeting, drop everything and go see your mission in action and in real-time”. Having the privilege to see an animal being born, underwater, especially a key species like black tip reef sharks, and to know that your organization’s efforts will result in opening a rare window to the wonder of the blue planet we share for millions of people? Now that’s a great day at work!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When you first start off in a career, you have a gift of being naïve — you just don’t know you are naïve, nor that it is a gift. Starting out at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C., I was assigned several members of the Academy as editors. I of course knew they were amazing scientists as members of the National Academy, but I had no idea they were Nobel Laureates or near Laureates.

Once on a paper I had under scientific review, I asked one of them to substantiate his claim on peer reviewed merits. He sent me a link to his Nobel prize citations. Uh, ok. Nobel credentials, that will do. He did not mean it with a hubris spirit, but I learned to know who I was in conversation with and who was in the room!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Over the years, I’ve worked at several non-profits and served on a variety of non-profits’ Boards. All are mission-driven, but Shedd Aquarium’s mission-fueled board, staff and volunteers are best in class. From the controller in finance to the facility managers, and of course the research scientists, education and animal teams — everyone is in it to win it. All 400 staff and 900 volunteers are committed and passionate, and can recite our mission to spark compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Everyone reads about the parallels of plastic in oceans and our blue planet being out of carbon balance and works hard to inspire others to join us and take action to protect wildlife and the environment. We strive to do more and do better as a collective and we push each other every day. They are driven to make a difference, and this manifests itself in our programs for the public, exemplary animal welfare and care, and our quick response to animals in crisis that need rescue and rehabilitation. It manifests itself in how we connect donors to our work and how fiscally well-run the organization has been for almost 100 years. I joke to the team that my title CEO means Chief Example Officer and that I mirror the example they have already set.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Each year, Shedd Aquarium transports two million guests to the alien, aquatic world that lives beneath the water, filled with the bizarre, the beautiful, and the biologically wonderful. But, at 89 years old, we are just getting started. We are now planning one of the most significant initiatives in our history — an audacious leap forward that accelerates nearly a century of evolution and impact. In an age where nearly one million species are at risk of extinction, and where children spend less than half as much time outside as they did 20 years ago, our mission has never been more urgently needed — and we are not sitting still.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

The women in STEM movement has focused too much on only one side of the equation-the women! We are only half of the solution. The other half is our wonderful XY counterparts. Men need to be mentored, called out and called upon to be engines for change and equality. They should be called out and coached when they misstep — often unintentionally and subconsciously with micro and macro aggressions. They must be called upon to lift up and see women and self-check that they are holding everyone to the same standards. As an AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador I think this is more possible now than ever before. Plus I’m a mom of three boys so I want them to be a huge part of the solution too!

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Don’t prove yourself externally–it’s too exhausting. I was at a conference recently and a female panelist stated to a young female audience member that if you feel like others will question that you were promoted because of a female quota rather than on the merits of your leadership and skills you should “work hard to prove them wrong.” I hear this sentiment a lot, “go get ’em girl! Work hard and show ’em what you got.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. I do think we should all “go for it” but it’s more important to understand the WHY behind what we are doing. It is not for finally converting others opinion of us or external validation that we should be in the executive suite or management room. Do it because you can. Because the work fuels you and you make an impact on the business. If others want to be voyeur and form opinions about your work — so be it, but do not do it for them, do it for yourself!

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Take the definition of ‘team’ literally — and make sure you are the coach, not a player. We all can’t be quarterbacks and you can’t have the same quarterback on every play. It is hard because, not to take the sports metaphor too far, most executives got to the C-suite because they were star players. Now you need to be a star coach. Use the whole team and round out the team with varied and truly diverse skills and attributes and know your own. What I love about baseball, my favorite professional sport, is that when they pull the pitcher, the Manager and team goes to the mound. Joe Madden, former head coach of the Chicago Cubs, would personally relay to the pitcher that it was time to go to the bench and sit the rest of the innings out. The pitcher of course knew, but Madden took the time to walk to the mound and communicate the news directly. Talk to your team and be present and honest with them, make sure everyone knows the game’s strategy and the huge value they bring to execute it — even when it’s time to sit out.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mom. Plain and simple. She loves me deeply and does not, even well into my 40s, let me get away with anything. She will correct me. She counsels and consoles me, she challenges me and checks me if I start getting too puffed up! She is my role model in all ways. I am lucky.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I try to skillfully manage multiple roles — as scientist, CEO, educator, and advocate — and encourage others around me to take action for nature and science. I try to be a relentless advocate for access in all ways, champion varied learning styles and approaches and ensure we are a voice for real diversity, equity and inclusion practices in the business world. As a nature lover and scientist at heart, working together with my team, we develop innovative experiences that educate and engage the public about aquatic animals and their habitats by encouraging action. Never has the aquatic animal world needed us more than now and we are uniquely experienced and positioned to create transformative change for the evolving world around us.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.).

A. STEM does not mean you are a scientist, but rather that you are trained to think like a scientist. This can be applied to law, public policy, business, education — a myriad of fields. When I went into science policy and communication some were disappointed because I was clearly not going to be a science practitioner after years at the bench. Feel ok with that. It was not until my late 30s that I could reconcile this!

B. Love science and remember why you do. Science is a wonder. Remember that when you have bad days.

C. Boys and men need coaching too. We all do. We want men to treat us as equal, do equal parts of the house duties, etc. — but we need to tell them and communicate this. Does this give us yet another job to do? Yes, but seriously, how else will they know? Help them break bad habits.

D. Own your space. You got the job for a reason. Remind yourself, daily, to be fearless.

E. Find people to be vulnerable around. It’s hard to climb to the top in male dominated world. Find people you can be real with and who love you.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Think before you eat. Choose food that does not harm people or the world. I’m not a vegetarian but I try to balance everything. I try to think and be informed about four things — the carbon, water, animal welfare, and human labor that went into what I am putting into my body. And make changes that will protect not only the Earth but also the health and well-being of generations to come. I also try to be aware that I am in a privileged economic status that can take the time to contemplate this and act on it. It’s complex.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I think it is attributed to several people by the genesis, but it is likely Madeleine Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.” I get loads of emails from girls and young women looking for mentorship or advice. It’s overwhelming, the need. Then I realized that they just need one connection, one warm supportive word. That’s pretty easy in the eyes of everything else and the AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador program makes it a slam dunk.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

What a fun question. I would love to invite Condoleezza Rice and Leonardo DiCaprio to our small home in Chicago. It would be a breakfast meeting. My 14-year old son makes great omelets to order, and my 9-year old son can make smoothies. They’ll cook, and we can craft policy plans and recommendations to mitigate ocean and fresh water waste, especially for the Great Lakes, and create a circular economy for plastic in the Midwest. Like the Paris Climate Accord, but for water rather than air. Leonardo DiCaprio has large scale innovative Ocean health initiatives — I’d like to become more a part of that. Afterwards, I’ll try to convince Secretary Rice to play the piano (I hear she’s amazing) and Leonardo DiCaprio to tell us jokes or do card tricks (my three boys could teach him a few). You have got to balance life and work — these passion jobs are all consuming and can be 24/7, and you need to find everyday joy as a tension relief for the world’s challenges we are trying to solve. Mr. DiCaprio and Ms. Rice, are you in? Let me know so we can tune the piano and buy eggs.

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