Executive Education: The Time for Action is Now

by Lyn Light Geller

Thanks to David Edell for jumpstarting the conversation about what is possible regarding executive education for our field. I agree that the time for action is now. I am happy to respond to David’s invitation to use this forum to discuss our experiences.

Here in New York, UJA-Federation’s Wiener Educational Center has been involved in executive education and professional development for many years. Now I know that many say that New York is sui generis. But we’ve learned some lessons from our current models of professional and executive education for the Jewish not-for-profit sector that may be more broadly applicable.

Our mission – to care for those in need, inspire a passion for Jewish life and learning, and to strengthen the Jewish people, is foundational to all that we do. We understand that our mission cannot be accomplished without skilled and passionate professional leaders who are positioned to lead us to the next phase of Jewish communal life. And, we have developed a multi-tiered program to recruit, educate and retain our professional leadership.

Our strategy includes:

Widening Our Doors. Increasing opportunities to enter the field through internships and scholarships. In recent years we have expanded our scholarship programs to include supporting education for rabbinical students and Jewish educators in addition to students of social work, non-profit management, etc. Fundamental to this strategy is exposing students to our local institutions; to each other, across disciplines; and to the challenges and opportunities facing our field.

Emerging Professional Leadership. Opportunities to develop execs begin in the early years. The focus of this year-long program is to ignite passion, increase skills, develop personal vision, learn how to exercise leadership and build a strong cohort bond as well as a bond with our field. A key to success is execs in the system that “get it” (and thus encourage participation) and others who are willing to invest time to mentor (backing up Edell’s claims). (See article by Geller and Donaldson in JCSA Journal, Volume 85,1 ) We are currently seeking funding to continue this exceptional program.

Strengthening the Middle. Our High Impact Strategies program enhances the managerial skills and knowledge of experienced professionals with a special focus on managing individuals and teams, aligning vision with mission, strategic development of programs and services and project management. This program includes 8 sessions of intensive learning for middle managers.

Executive Level Education. Over the years we have offered, in association with Columbia University, 9 cycles of the Institute for Not-for-Profit Management for Jewish Communal Service. This program, developed for CEO’s was later broadened to include executive level staff. The backbone of the program was strategic planning, leadership and management. Fundamental to the design is the concept of retreating with the cohort, providing time away to focus, reflect, and build important collaborative relationships. The program is currently in redesign as we explore with current execs what is needed.

Learning At All Levels. Through a diverse offering of professional development and skills building workshops (Approximately 30 workshops are held yearly) we provide opportunities for every professional to develop new abilities.

The programs above represent our formal programs. There is much more that takes place that supports this work: mentoring conversations, arrangements for networking, alumni gatherings to keep the cohorts in touch and renewed, etc.

Several years ago, UJA-Federation of NY, in collaboration with several others, convened providers of long-term professional development programs for the Jewish not-for-profit sector. Perhaps the time has come to regroup so that we can assess where we are. Here are some of the observations we would share and the challenges we continue to face:

Break down the barriers. Most traditional programs (including until recently most of ours) catered to those professionals formally associated with the host sponsor (e.g. federations’ network agencies).) New models should consider bringing together professionals from across sectors. We have evidence from our emerging leaders and student programs that this cross-field exposure opens up both perspectives and career possibilities.

We cannot afford to bifurcate our field. Execs from both emerging and established institutions should be included. Here in NY we have convened groups of execs from both and they are having amazing conversations. This approach not only enhances learning but can inspire and flame the passion that can get buried by some of the complex problems execs have to deal with.

Make it a priority: Funding. What does it take to get funders to recognize that while professional education is not as sexy as food pantries, just like ayn kemach, eyn torah, … without quality professional leadership, we cannot have effective agencies or programs. Here David’s suggestion is compelling – to have agencies budget the expense. This will not work at all levels nor for all agencies. But it is worthy of consideration. Perhaps funders, both federations and foundations, should earmark funding for this when grants are made.

Make it a priority: Time. David is 100% correct. There is always something more important to do, and the higher the level of the professional, the more difficult it is for some to invest the time for learning. We have also found that there are times when the exec is more able to step away, but those on the exec team are not enabled to do so. Building it in as an expectation is a welcomed suggestion.

Trickle-down effect. Once an exec makes this commitment, creating a culture of support for executive education is much easier. We have seen time and again that the exec who engages herself in executive education, is the one who takes the time to be a mentor, who seeks out staff to participate in long term professional development, who makes it a priority to meet with newer execs in the field.

It’s not all about the content. We see evidence in all that we do that learning together builds community. Collaborations, consultations, support systems and more emerge from these learning communities and these have value that far outlasts the end of the programs.

Reinforce the learning. Projects, coaching and mentoring are all good strategies for helping participants apply the learning to their own setting.

Limitations of the learning. Executive education is not a panacea. Some deficiencies will not be overcome through this strategy. While addressing the pitfalls of executive leadership can help some avoid them, not all will do so. However, the vast majority of communal institutions will be enriched by the participation of their professionals in these programs and the execs will be transformed.

Leader and Funder Champions. David you are so correct. Here in New York we have an excellent lay committee to work on these issues with us. Just like potential funders, executive education and professional development does not a priori resonate with every lay leader. There is a strong case to be made. Those of us who know this need to increase our efforts to articulate and sell it.

So we do have some facts on the ground, both here in New York and as Barry Rosenberg pointed out in St Louis, and elsewhere. There are national and international models to learn from as well. There is indeed some action. What is needed is more conversation between those who talk and those who act; more dialogue between those who act; the development of a national strategy to be implemented on both local and national levels, and the support of our leadership, both professional and lay, to give this the priority that it deserves.

Lyn Light Geller is executive director of the department of educational resources and organizational development for UJA-Federation of New York.