Reflections from the Second Annual Leading Edge Employee Engagement Survey

By Scott Kaufman

In my past eight years as CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit, it has become clearer every day that talent and culture are the two key drivers of organizational success. Thus, when Leading Edge emerged as an entity specifically designed to help strengthen both the talent and culture of our field, I eagerly joined the board, seeing Leading Edge as an ideal vehicle to leverage my limited volunteer bandwidth. By engaging with Leading Edge, I have gained meaningful insight on leadership trends in the Jewish community from a sort of press box view – just as leading my team in Jewish Detroit has given me a view from the field level. It is with this dual perspective in mind that I am sharing these reflections on the latest Leading Edge report on employee engagement in the Jewish nonprofit sector.

Many of you are familiar with the work that Leading Edge has been doing to support Jewish organizations in becoming leading places to work, that actively enable staff members to do their very best. We all know that people are the most valuable asset of the Jewish nonprofit sector. “We” are our product! Without talented, committed professionals, we would be without the great programs and services that strengthen our community and enrich our society. If we fail to cultivate and grow these professionals, we weaken our impact on the world.

To assess where Jewish organizations fall on the spectrum of great workplaces, for the second year in a row, Leading Edge conducted a groundbreaking employee engagement survey. These surveys enabled us to gather insight into what is most important to our employees and provided us with valuable data to build an action plan for growth. This year, nearly 4,500 employees from 68 organizations took this survey. Taken together with last year’s survey, Leading Edge has now surveyed nearly 10% of the Jewish nonprofit workforce.

The data from this survey is extraordinarily rich, and its worthwhile for others to draw their own conclusions from the data. Here are a few of mine:

1. Our mission is our magic.

I’m an optimist. I’m in this work because I believe in it. And I’m not the only one. As a sector, we produce tremendous value for the Jewish world and beyond. We educate youth, provide essential services to millions of people in need, and offer rich Jewish experiences for hundreds of thousands of individuals craving connection, community and meaning in their lives. We know that the overwhelming majority of professionals who spend their days doing this work believe deeply in its value. The Leading Edge survey showed that 84% of respondents feel that the mission of their organization enables them to make a difference in the world. This purpose-filled work draws people to our sector and fuels their passion. I believe that mission is our greatest differentiator as far as talent attraction. This is particularly true with respect to millennials.

2. Menschlichkeit is not the same thing as management.

Many of the organizations surveyed do not have sufficient systems and practices in place to train new staff, provide feedback, or hold people accountable. Only 54% of survey respondents had a meaningful performance review in the last year and less than 50% feel that there are structures for accountability at their organizations. This was an area that we at the Federation in Detroit did not score well on in the first survey, leading us to address this issue head on. A lay leader who helped analyze our data said something that resonated with me: “There are natural leaders and natural salespeople, but I have yet to meet a natural manager.” Management is a learned art. So we strengthened our review processes and hired coaches for some managers. These interventions led to an improvement in this area, which I am pretty sure we would not have achieved without the kick in the pants that the survey results provided.

On the other hand, 86% of respondents feel respected and recognized in their workplaces. Note the interesting juxtaposition: While many managers fail to address poor performance, they succeed at helping employees feel recognized and cared for.

It seems we are good at saying yasher koach for a job well done, but struggle with having honest or difficult conversations when employees are not performing well. It is hard to see how employees will continue to advance and grow in their careers if they are not held to meaningful standards.

3. Senior leaders: Do you walk the walk?

As a CEO, I am ever-aware that I play a key role in setting the tone and fostering a positive culture at my organization. My words and actions are under the microscope – as they should be – and my team is attuned to the values I uphold or disregard as I lead the organization.

I was fascinated to see that in this year’s survey overall, respondents felt a strong sense of loyalty and confidence in their individual manager (79%) and significantly less confident in the senior leader of the organization (64%). Based on the data, this lower confidence stems from both a perception of lack of transparency and occasional misalignments of their leader’s behavior with organizational values. When we look at the data on why people stay or leave their organizations, we find that confidence in leadership is a major factor. People stay because of a good boss, and they leave because of a bad one. As senior leaders, walking the walk is one of the most important things we can do.

4. Do our people have a path?

We need to do a better job of providing pathways for advancement, both within and between our organizations. Otherwise, we won’t have talented leaders ready in the wings as our current leaders retire. Anyone who cares about the future of our Jewish community should be alarmed by the fact that only 45% of respondents expect to stay within our sector for five or more years or until retirement.

To what extent do we really invest in our people and enable them to grow? This year’s survey data revealed a fascinating finding: Employees are generally given opportunities to learn and develop in their current roles, but have fewer opportunities for learning that would enable advancement within their organization or beyond. It appears that in our effort to focus on the work right in front of us, we are failing to sufficiently invest in the future growth of our emerging leaders. Only 39% of respondents felt they have opportunities for advancement at their organizations. It is clear that people want to advance and grow and are not finding opportunities to do so, nor do they find their managers supportive of their career growth.

The Bottom Line

Without a doubt, Jewish organizations have a tremendous amount to offer their current and future employees. There are few other sectors that present the opportunity to do such meaningful work, and largely because of this, our ranks are filled with talented and dedicated people. But we must recognize that we have a lot of work to do if we want to continue to attract and retain the best and brightest. We must instill – and truly live out – the policies, practices, and behaviors of great places to work.

But again, I’m optimistic. Leadership and talent are on the map in the Jewish community in a way that they haven’t been previously. As organizations focus on improving their culture and talent development, the Jewish nonprofit sector will be able to better attract, retain and develop talent – our most precious resource.

Leading Edge is here to help. In addition to providing this survey again in April 2018, Leading Edge will continue to work relentlessly to help Jewish organizations improve their culture – curating resources and best practices, providing training, and offering opportunities for organizations to connect with one another to advance these goals.

If you’re interested in joining the movement, don’t be shy – please be in touch

Scott Kaufman is CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

To download the full results from Leading Edge’s Employee Engagement Survey, click here.