Creating and Maintaining a Value Driven Jewish Organization

Organizations that live according to a clear set of values are far more likely to achieve grand and lofty missions and visions and sustain their success over the long run than organizations that do not.

by David Bernstein and Mike Lasday

It is ironic that for a people so rich in values, few Jewish entities are truly value driven. How many organizations’ staff, regardless of role, can clearly articulate the institutional values? How many of those organizations truly live by them in any objective manner?

Part of the difficulty in discussing organizational values is that far too many assume a false choice. This binary way of thinking suggests that institutions must choose between expending resources on defining and living by core values, or achieving results associated with the mission of the entity. In that black and white world, values have no chance. The ends – as defined by results – justify the means. But it’s not a zero sum game. Organizations that live according to a clear set of values are far more likely to achieve grand and lofty missions and visions and sustain their success over the long run than organizations that do not.

Take, for example The David Project, a leading Israel advocacy organization on college campuses. Three years ago, it was an organization at a crossroads. Morale was low as a revolving door of leaders came and went. Further complicating the organization’s culture were major changes in the strategic direction of the organization. There were no clearly indentified core values, and the manner in which staff interacted with one another was, in a word, dysfunctional. Change throughout the entity was desperately needed.

Fast forward three years, and today the David Project has leadership stability at all levels, is accomplishing its lofty mission in new and creative ways, and is retaining talented young staff at a far higher rate than many other institutions. A tense “cover your behind” culture has been replaced with an incredibly fun and collaborative environment that is yielding outstanding results. It has become a values driven organization.

So how did it make that transition?

The David Project undertook five distinct and sequential steps in transforming into a value based organization, which can be applied to any organization.

STEP 1: Leadership Commitment

The first and frankly most important step in this process is for the chief executive to be committed to making this transition. This requires being willing to lose “control” of the process at some point (as will be described in later steps) while maintaining the authority to steer it at the macro level. This requires clear vision of the benefits associated with the ultimate outcome. Without such vision, it becomes far too easy to stifle the process along the way. It is perfectly natural for staff to be skeptical of leadership during this initial step (especially in a pre-existing value-less environment) as ultimately it is the leader’s willingness to live with the results of the entire process that will inspire confidence from the staff. In other words, it is not enough for the leader to say the right things, he or she must also “walk the walk.”

When the David Project introduced the vision of creating an entirely different culture based on a clear set of values, David was met with a degree of polite skepticism. He knew that trying to convince staff of his sincerity would be a waste of time and that only through his actions would he earn trust. Though he wish someone could have waived a wand and expedited that process, the reality was that he needed to earn their trust through letting the full process unfold.

STEP 2: Defining the Organization’s Core Values Inclusively

In order to live by core values, everyone needs to know what they are. Unlike the commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai, core values of an organization should be developed by the organization itself. A leader or a Board that simply dictates what the values are risks alienating staff and, more importantly, missing out on both the buy-in and brilliant ideas that others might bring to the table. This is where leadership must have both the confidence and discipline to allow the staff to be heavily involved in the process.

In December of 2011, the entire staff of the David Project went away together for a three day retreat facilitated by Mike with the primary objective of creating the organization’s core values. David made clear at the outset of the retreat that though he retained the authority to ultimately approve the values, he would respect the process and would participate as an equal with the assumption that the results of the whole would be reflective of the needs of the organization. Though some in the group only heard the “retain the authority” part of that statement, the proof ultimately was in the pudding as he kept his word by staying true to the results of the retreat.

At the end of those three days, seven broad core values were adopted by the entire staff.

STEP 3: Converting Broad Concepts into Actions

Far too many entities are simply satisfied by having a set of core values which they can slap on their websites and employee manuals. Unfortunately, the words themselves do not result in the organization suddenly becoming values oriented. The next step in the process is determining what to do with the broad values that had been identified and agreed upon by the group.

At the conclusion of the David Project retreat in 2011, David announced that he would be creating a “Core Values Team,” which would be tasked with taking each of the seven values that had been identified, defining them further, and recommending specific activities and/or policies by which the organization should consider living. He made clear once again that though he retained the authority to approve or reject any proposal from that committee, his assumption was that he would not need to do so (again, that would only be proven over time). Over the next several months the committee broke up into several smaller groups to more clearly define each value and to recommend specific organizational changes to advance those values.

Most recommendations cost little and were relatively easy to implement. Others required more of a systemic approach (e.g., changes to personnel policies) that took longer and required greater care. Staff understood that not all suggestions were either feasible from an economic standpoint or even legal in terms of the archaic human resources regulations to which organizations are forced to adhere. But sufficient number of changes occurred in the six months following the retreat to demonstrate to everyone that the organization was indeed serious about implementing their recommended changes.

STEP 4: Measuring Success

Each core value of an organization needs to be regularly measured to assess the degree to which it is being lived. This metric is a critical tool for management to determine where to commit time and energy in fixing any internal issues that may arise. Assuming that the values continue to be important, this measurement can also be an early warning system for any dysfunction or dissatisfaction that may be brewing. Depending on the nature of the specific values, some should be measured monthly and others semi-annually or annually. Here too the staff of the David Project, through the work of the “Core Values Team,” set up ways to both measure the progress being made with each of the values and how well the entire staff was contributing to the organization’s commitment to its values.

STEP 5: Reassessing What Is Important

If the initial process of creating the core values is done correctly, then those values should be able to stand the test of time. In other words, an organization’s core values should not change in any material way over months and years. It is a testament to the original work of the staff that two years later the values remain the values at the David Project.

That being said, it is critical to periodically (perhaps annually or bi-annually) take a step back and assess whether the values continue to represent what the organization would like to be.

Having gone through these five steps, what have been the results for the David Project? They can be lumped into three interrelated categories.

First, the morale of the staff has been completely turned around. This can be measured both in taking stock of the atmosphere of the office and the retention rate of key staff. Simply put, the David Project is a fun place to work. What makes this case particularly interesting is the number of “millennials” on staff. That generation is so different than any previous one in its expectations of their professional lives. They are incredibly values oriented and look for their professional lives to reflect their personal interests, rejecting the “two lives” (i.e. professional and personal) norm that had a become an accepted part of life for the generations that preceded them. It is no surprise that those were the staff who pushed hard to serve on the core values team and essentially drove the train. They led, and the “old fogies” (over 30), including David, followed.

Second, the high retention rate of staff and increased functionality in the workplace (as dictated by a couple of the values) created an environment of innovation and experimentation that did not exist before. While some of that experimentation did not work, many of these innovations resulted in highly creative programs on college campuses. This is where living by the core values actually has had a significant impact on the actual work of the organization. Needless to say, the results from a culture that encourages risk taking (one of the values) far exceed those in one that requires everyone to cover their behind.

Lastly, although it was critical for leadership (i.e., David) to spearhead this process in the beginning, the values team no longer needs him, as sufficient trust has been developed where the team understands the process’s limitations (e.g., they wouldn’t even suggest a policy change that would require significant financial resources without a compelling return on investment analysis) and he trusts that they will manage the recurring measurement and reassessment appropriately. The net result is a company-wide embrace of the values rather than the all too common cynical rejection.

In an ever-increasing “ends justify the means” society, it is absolutely critical that Jewish organizations do not fall into the trap of doing anything to achieve their organizational goals. Our values are our guidelines for determining what is and what is not acceptable behavior in our pursuits. Organizations that do not take the time to both define their values and live by them risk losing the forest from the trees. Perhaps they may find short-term success at seemingly acceptable costs, but such results are never sustainable over time. Jewish organizations should reflect the richness of our people’s history and values both because they are valuable guides on what is “right” and because they are the surest path to long term success.

David Bernstein is the executive director of The David Project, which works to shape the campus discussion on Israel. You can follow him on twitter @davidlbernstein

Mike Lasday is the Principal Mentor, Coach, Author and Wiseman at “Me First Leadership.”