Finding the Best for the Jewish Communal World

by Jerry Silverman

We want to thank Rabbi Feldstein for his very thoughtful dialogue about the concept of Jewish talent and the development of Jewish community professionals. This issue is one that keeps me up at night. There are few topics of greater concern to our Jewish future.

The question Lou is asking is about internal versus external. We think the question should be about internal and external, what we as a community are doing to acquire, invest in, and prepare individuals to lead our communal organizations – to create succession. We have an opportunity to find the best men and women for both professional and volunteer leadership, no matter where they come from.

There is also a more fundamental question that organizations like the Jewish Communal Service Association and our JFNA Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence are asking: How can we build a culture across the Jewish communal sector that invests in talent, nurtures and rewards continuous growth and rewards and supports upward mobility across the entire spectrum. We want to ensure that the Jewish communal field is seen as truly desirable, on all fronts. We want to create a future where great Jewish Federations and Jewish organizations act as multipliers of candidates from all walks of life, because of their bold and inspiring culture and mission. We want to create a future where people who are seeking meaning and purpose clamor to be part of outstanding Jewish Federations and Jewish organizations.

Across Jewish Federations, we have been addressing the question of talent recruitment for some time. It is the same question being asked in the corporate world: are the best candidates those who have worked in a particular organization or career path throughout their careers, or candidates who come from the outside with different perspectives, approaches and ideas?

We find that the skills and results an individual demonstrates, not the place they developed those skills, sets the top candidates apart. In the Jewish Federation world, those skills are sometimes demonstrated within the context of a single Federation, or several Federations. Sometimes they are demonstrated in an agency, nonprofit or corporation. Some skills can also be developed – Federation processes, such as overseeing a budget or managing a Super Sunday. Other skills remain intrinsic, like personal warmth and sensitivity to others, the ability to be a good listener and an inspiring communicator.

JFNA’s Mandel Center for Leadership Excellent has developed the Success Factors, a competency model that identifies skills of excellent professionals. We know by experience that if our CEOs have proficiency in four key areas – business skills, people skills, personal qualities and style, and strategic and visionary leadership – if their style fits well with the Federation, and if they have a personal passion for and commitment to the Jewish people, they have a strong likelihood of succeeding. This emphasis focuses on the skills: has the candidate demonstrated the skills – in any context – that we need for our professional leaders to be successful? As we work with search committees, we prioritize these skills and then hire to those skills. We then use the success factors for performance feedback and evaluation, for coaching, for professional development and for evaluation.

It is important not to judge people by where they worked. What is important is what skills they demonstrated, what skills, attitudes, attributes and qualities they bring to their position in the Federation, and what each person can mean for the future of the Jewish Federation.

The other key factor is balance between knowledge and experience of the Federation world, and having someone who has been successful in complex, people-oriented environments. It is up to us to create the environment where we can maximize the contribution both of Federation staff, and those who wish to bring their skills and knowledge into the Federation world. We have a responsibility to our field to invest in and develop talent within, and recruit talent from the outside. One plus one can equal three.

The transition in Federations in the next decade will be dramatic. Time is not our friend. The question is not whether we choose from the inside or outside, but of challenging ourselves to think through how we enhance our Federations and raise the bar, to take advantage of people of a wide range of backgrounds, and to continue to challenge ourselves to deliver the results that history demands.

Jerry Silverman is President and CEO, The Jewish Federations of North America.