For Every Complex Problem …

by Hal M. Lewis

To the chorus of voices rising in response to the crisis of CEO transitioning, I would add, respectfully, a few brief observations. All of us who care about this issue would be well advised to take a page from HL Mencken’s sobering quip, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” The fact that so many Jewish organizations are facing a crisis of leadership is symptomatic of a much larger issue. It is not the prominent departures of the past few months or the pending retirements of a generation of baby boomer executives alone that ought to concern us. It is the fact that, with few exceptions, we have consistently made a mockery of leadership training and development in Jewish life, ignoring best practices from industry, the academy, and our own classical Jewish sources that ought to spur us to action.

Based on my own research and our experiences training communal leaders at Spertus, in our graduate degree programs, our Certificate offerings (including a joint program with Northwestern University), and our continuing professional education courses, I would like to suggest a set of guiding principles to help frame any continued discussion of these matters.

  1. Organizations wishing to avoid crises arising from the retirement of a long-serving CEO should begin thinking about these matters the first day the CEO begins her job.
  2. The key to effective executive transitioning is a systemic commitment to leadership training and development at every level of the enterprise.
  3. It is time to stop conflating volunteer training and donor education with leadership development.
  4. Important as they are, programs of Jewish literacy are not, in and of themselves, leadership training.
  5. Leadership training is a protracted process; it takes years and cannot be effectuated over a weekend or multi-day retreat.
  6. Leadership development must involve more than theoretical classroom presentations; It must also provide hands-on experiences to “practice leadership” over time, as well as regular feedback and observation.
  7. Organizations that are serious about “growing” new leaders will create a culture in which mentoring and coaching are not viewed as signs of weakness, but are supported and embraced from the top with enthusiasm and resources.
  8. Accountability for leadership development and succession planning must be shared jointly by the lay and professional heads of the organization.

If the organized Jewish community is serious about solving the challenges of executive transitioning, we will begin by recognizing that what confronts us is what Heifetz and Linsky call an adaptive problem, one that cannot be fixed by responding to each instance on a case-by-case basis. It will require (as I have suggested previously in these pages) a national initiative that brings the best minds of American Jewry to the table. Succession planning begins with a comprehensive commitment to the identification, nurturing, and training of communal leaders. Only when the development of leaders – lay and professional – is an attribute of the system, will we be able to think in a planful, reflective, and strategic fashion. Writing in the October 2011 Harvard Business Review, former Procter and Gamble CEO, A.G. Lafley, wrote, “Succession planning is not a periodic exercise; it never stops.”

Effective succession planning requires an attitudinal adjustment on the part of both board members and incumbent executives. The midrash insightfully teaches, “It is easy to go up to a dais, tough to come down.” Or, as Rabbi Joshua ben Qivsay notes in the Jerusalem Talmud, “All my life I would run away from office. Now that I have entered it, whoever comes to oust me I will come down upon him with this kettle. Just as a kettle scalds and wounds and blackens, so I will come down upon him.” The reality is that dealing with succession requires a recognition that careers and influence do not last forever.

Again, the insights of P&G’s Lafley, “Many CEOs don’t push their boards to discuss what might happen when they leave, because they don’t want to think about it.” While Moses understood that leadership is about building an enterprise that outlasts any given leader, even a long serving and inspirational one (see for example Numbers 27:16-17), too many Jewish groups behave as if succession planning is the purview of a Nominating or Search Committee convened to resolve a last minute or unanticipated turn of events.

Key to crafting a systemic response to CEO transitions is a willingness to hold all who lead – lay and professional – responsible for the growth and development of those who come after them. Too often in Jewish communal life we permit the urgent to trump the important, allowing senior personnel, amid the fury of seemingly more pressing issues, to relegate developing new leaders to a place of secondary importance. As a result, we extend token lip service to the need to grow leaders, but we reduce our leadership training expenditures at the first sign of constrained budgets. We talk about the need for real training, but in our personal actions we are often reticent to share power and let others step up, fearful of the mistakes they might make, or worse, the need for us to share the limelight. No less a powerful executive than former GE chairman, Jack Welch, who spent nearly a decade training his successor, said, “Before you are a leader success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

One issue that has generated some of the most spirited debate in recent weeks is the matter of “internal versus external” candidates to replace long-serving executives. Reasonable arguments have been proffered on both sides. It is true that, as Peter Drucker taught, the job of the CEO is to “bring the outside in,” and many of our organizations would, indeed, benefit from being challenged and stimulated by new thinking and alternate models. Maimonides instructed that we should “consider the truth, regardless of the source.” And there is certainly much to be learned by studying best practices from outside. It is also true, however, as the Harvard Business Review found in 2007 that, “high performing companies almost never replace their CEOs with outsiders.” If our organizations think of succession planning as a long-term strategy not an emergency measure, we would obviate the need for the crisis mentality that seems to be dominating the communal landscape.

In either case, however, reducing the argument to the issue of internal versus external misses the point. Our community needs to reassess our entire approach to leadership training and development, not only because an entire generation of baby boomer executives is within easy reach of retirement, but because that is what healthy organizations do, all the time. “One who would exercise authority over a community in Israel without considering how to do it,” teaches the midrash “is sure to fall and take his punishment from the hands of the community.” Our ability to create healthy organizations is directly related to our ability to identify, nurture and train the next generation of volunteer and professional leaders, including the next generation of CEOs. The great expert on quality control, W. Edwards Deming, said it succinctly, “Training … is not mandatory, but neither is survival.”

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and CEO of Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago. A nationally recognized expert on Jewish leadership, his works include Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership and From Sanctuary To Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership.