By Dawne Bear Novicoff
Since November, I have been consumed with the stories of one of the most dramatic and confusing leadership transitions in our country’s history – filled with sordid tales and accusations of wiretaps and secret alliances. Just days before President Trump assumed his place in the White House, we at the Jim Joseph Foundation experienced our own leadership transition as founding Executive Director Chip Edelsberg stepped down after 11 years of service. Unlike the staffers in the White House, we did not have to pack up our boxes and vacate the premises prior to moving day for the new administration. Rather, my colleagues at the Foundation and I sat in the front seat and watched closely as the 18-month transition unfolded and came to a close. We were in the office to say good-bye to Chip on his last official workday and then back the very next morning to welcome Barry Finestone to his new digs.
Many people have asked my colleagues and me: What was it like? How did you survive the long transition? Well, it is true that the 18-month transition felt rather long, at times. But now that we are on the other side of this enormous moment for the Foundation, I can more clearly see the benefits and appreciate the process. I share them here to hopefully help other organizations and staff who may experience their own leadership transition down the road.
First, the long transition allowed us time simply to acclimate to the idea that this was in fact happening. For those of us who had been with the Foundation for multiple years, this was a necessary process. Additionally, the long transition helped to strengthen the team internally as we worked to support one another and take steps to anticipate change. While people often focus on the onboarding process for the new CEO – and Barry certainly had a deliberate and complete one – each of us to some degree went through an onboarding of sorts as we refined our roles and responsibilities at the Foundation – a natural thing to do during major transition.
Second, the Foundation’s transition had a somewhat unique relationship factor that worked to its advantage. Barry and Chip knew one another well. The collegiality and friendship that they shared prior to the transition contributed to a very direct, honest, and transparent onboarding process. Of course this helped them; but the benefits also flowed straight through to the team. For example, staff had interacted with Barry at the office multiple times even before he was a candidate for the position – which also was a benefit of Barry being local. All of this laid a strong foundation as staff and Barry grew to know each other even more during the transition. In the three months preceding his official first day of work at the Foundation, Barry attended two Foundation Board meetings and several staff meetings. This was not only a way for him to build a deeper understanding of our work, but also was an excellent opportunity for Barry to get to know us as individuals and to see the dynamics as we worked together as a team.
Third, a successful transition is not only about the two individuals but about the readiness of the team to rise to the occasion and support the leadership change. Chip did a remarkable job getting his team ready for this moment. He raised us and nurtured us through his entire time as Executive Director. He taught us the art and science of strategic grantmaking and instilled in us the sense of humility and respect that is needed to engage in the relational grantmaking that is now the hallmark of the Jim Joseph Foundation. Then, to no ones’ surprise, Chip spent 18 months preparing us for this leadership change. He shared with us new and relevant learnings, and he ensured that we were ready to lead. He left behind clear, methodical systems and structures that positioned us to overcome challenges. He empowered us in subtle and effective ways.
Of course the transition did not stop on Barry’s first day. A new leader means new projects and a new style. We have had significant changes to our Board (including a new Board chair) and to our professional structure – moving from founding Executive Director to CEO, as well as adding the positions of COO and CPO. Already the field has seen signals of changes, and there are more to come. We will certainly begin to look and feel a little different. We might wear our sneakers more often than our dress shoes. Yet while it already is clear that this transition brings new elements to our work, it also is clear that “the new” is being built on solid ground – the essence of the Foundation is with us and will guide us. Jim Joseph’s inspiration, the efforts of the founding Board, and the beautifully simple goal to create effective and compelling Jewish education experiences for young Jews remain.
Finally, for me, the transition has reinforced my understanding that two excellent leaders can have two very different styles as they both lead a team towards a similar North Star. At a time when many are discussing the key elements of successful leadership transitions, Steven M. R. Covey’s book The speed of Trust is referenced frequently. In it he states that the most essential element to any successful leader or successful team is “trust.” My colleagues and I trusted Chip, and still do. And Barry, from the earliest stages of the transition process, showed us respect and trust that helped lead to a deep trust of us in him. The long and deliberate transition process facilitated that transfer of trust. We came into the process unknowing, lived through it, and were met with a whole lot of trust on the other side – ready to be led by a new CEO and ready to continue to pursue the work in ways tried and true and in ways exciting and new.
Dawne Bear Novicoff is Chief Operating Officer, Jim Joseph Foundation.
Cross-posted on Jim Joseph Foundation Blog.