I Thought You Said You Wanted To Run Things Like A Business

monopoly-manby Dr. Hal M. Lewis

After years of working and teaching in the Jewish community I should know better. But, I continue to be struck by the irony that many of the same individuals who claim to want our communal institutions to “run more like businesses,” ignore the very principles and best practices that would enable us to do exactly that. This is particularly apparent in the realm of leadership development and talent management, where crises of CEO succession planning and job dissatisfaction among younger professionals should both challenge and trouble those who have made “be more like a business” their cri de coeur.

Unlike the array of other Jewish crises in our day – from assimilation to declining rates of Jewish philanthropy – the leadership crisis in American Jewish life can be fixed – not overnight, but over time. There are best practices to learn from and models of effective leadership training and talent management to be emulated. While no one would suggest that the corporate arena does it all right all the time, there is solid research and there are shining examples that can help our organizations and our communities both attract and retain first-rate professionals, and prepare for the inevitable transitions in leadership that are part of the quotidian fiber of organizational life.

In contrast to some who have weighed in on these matters, I do not call ab initio for major national initiatives or trans-continental summits as a way of addressing these issues. I choose a more modest approach for reasons made clear in a favorite joke of mine told about the emperor Napoleon:

At the height of his power Napoleon ordered three POWs to be brought to him: a Russian, a Pole, and a Jew. The Emperor said that before their release they could ask anything of him and he would see that their wish was fulfilled. The Russian asked that the czar be deposed. The Pole called for the creation of a free and independent Poland. The Jew asked for some schmaltz herring. Napoleon granted all three requests, leaving the Russian and the Pole enthralled by the prospect of having brought salvation to their nations. When the story of the meeting became known, members of the Jew’s congregation asked him why he had not made better use of the opportunity. Why didn’t he ask for a homeland for the Jews, or for guarantees of security? The Jewish soldier answered: “Do you think Napoleon will really topple the czar or free Poland? I, on the other hand, at least received some good schmaltz herring.”

I refrain from calling for a national response, not because such a thing would be without value – responding to a systemic problem with systemic solutions would, indeed, be helpful – but precisely because others have already issued those calls, and to date precious little has changed as a result. Perhaps that day will come, but while we wait for broad-based responses funded by mega-donors or umbrella groups, there are things we can do today, “one schmaltz herring at a time,” that can enrich the experience of our professionals and transform the organizations they serve.

Put People First

The master teacher of leadership, Peter Drucker framed it best. If the goal is to retain high quality individuals in your organization, “put people first.” Drucker told his business clients what we in the Jewish community would do well to take to heart, “There is no such thing as unquestioning loyalty; an organization has to earn the loyalty of its employees every day.” Lay leaders who want their synagogues or their JCCs to run more like a business should insist that volunteer committees and senior level professionals repeatedly ask Drucker’s three questions at every level of their enterprise: 1) Are people treated with dignity and respect every day? 2) Are they given what they need to make a contribution? and 3) Do they receive the notice they deserve? When an organization can answer each of these in the affirmative it means that employees are valued not as “hired help” but as treasured resources whose long-term futures matter to the agency.

Build Organizations That Value Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

Daniel Pink, whose research in the field of workplace happiness is recognized widely, notes that job satisfaction derives not from extrinsic motivators – money, power and status – but from three intrinsic factors: Autonomy (the desire to direct our own lives and have some control over our work), Mastery (the belief that we can get better at something through training and the acquisition of new skills), and Purpose (the yearning to serve something larger than ourselves and to know that what we do matters). Those who believe Jewish organizations should function more like a business would be well advised to incorporate Pink’s findings and build enterprises that value these three attributes.

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are not theoretical buzzwords; they are substantive concepts that make a difference in the workplace by creating professionals who are more motivated, more productive, and more likely to stay with their organizations. Under such circumstances there is an increased chance that successors will come from within the enterprise, and that transitions, when they do occur, will be less disruptive, less expensive, and more effective than when these conditions are not met. While we await international conclaves and well-intentioned initiatives, we can begin right away to follow four specific steps that will imbue our organizations with a sense of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

First, reduce micromanagement at every level of the agency. The nonprofit world, in general, and Jewish organizations, in particular, are notorious for excessive amounts of micro-management on both the lay and professional levels. Nothing destroys a sense of autonomy more than a system that elevates control to an art form. Lee Iacocca famously said that the key to great productivity is to “hire good people and get the hell outta the way.” Those who want our communal organizations to run like businesses should take the advice of Robert Sutton, Professor of Management at Stanford Engineering School, “Constantly micromanaging employees after giving them an assignment is like planting seeds in the ground and digging them up every week to see how they’re doing.” The importance of autonomy in the work place cannot be overstated, even if it means allowing people to make mistakes, and occasionally even to fail along the way.

Second, provide employees with opportunities for professional development, continuing education, networking, mentoring, and coaching. Critical to conveying a sense of Mastery is an employee’s ability to get better at her work, to face new challenges, to rise above limits and to grow in leadership and skillsets. There is well-documented evidence affirming that staff members who receive professional development opportunities score much higher on job satisfaction scales. And yet at the first sign of trouble, many of the same boards that want things to run more like a business choose to eliminate professional development funds from annual operating budgets when things get tight.

Third, provide employees with regular feedback regarding their performance. The number of veteran communal professionals who report not having received some form of personnel review in the past year is astounding. Corporate best practices have long recognized that meaningful performance evaluations are essential for job satisfaction and long-term retention. Assessments that fairly discuss strengths and weaknesses, areas for improvement, training opportunities and goals, in a meaningful, dialogic fashion between supervisor and direct report convey a sense that the organization cares about growing its people, not just using them. If we want to run things like a business, we ought to insist that meaningful employee evaluations are a regular part of the institutional culture.

Fourth, convey a sense of transcendence, vision, and mission; craft an organization in which meaning matters. Much like the classic story of the cobbler’s children who go unshod, too many communal organizations fail to convey a sense of transcendence and vision to the very individuals whose job it is to “sell the mission” of the enterprise. We ought not allow our preoccupation with metrics, spreadsheets, and efficiency to prevent us from crafting organizations in which meaning matters. It is simply not true that just because people work for a Jewish organization they automatically have a sense of purpose in their work. It is the job of leadership to help foster that sense on a daily basis. When meaning matters a sense of purpose follows.

Craft Jewish organizations that embrace and reflect Jewish values

Beyond the issues designed to enable Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, there are five things that any organization wishing to attract and retain top professionals must consider. For Jewish groups the need to reflect on the alignment between stated values and institutional procedures and practices is especially compelling.

  • Work-Life Balance – The workaholic nature of Jewish communal life is well known: early mornings, late nights, most Sundays, and even more than a few Saturdays and holidays. The impact this culture has on our employees, their families, and their Jewish lives is not without consequence. In an era in which even Wall Street firms are requiring their employees to take some time for themselves, Jewish organizations desiring to retain valuable employees and plan for their long-term career developments can no longer ignore the issue of work-life balance.
  • Personnel Policies – Organizational personnel policies must reflect the values we wish to be known for amongst our constituents and in the competitive workplace. While there is research to suggest that family-friendly policies including leave, flex time, and related issues, are not the most important factors in determining workplace happiness, they matter significantly and they say something about who we are and how we treat our people.
  • Compensation and Benefits – Whether or not compensation is the primary reason people abandon careers in Jewish communal work (research suggests it is not, though a considerable number of editorials and opinion pieces of late would intimate otherwise), there is much to be considered in this regard. Organizations wishing to attract and retain first-rate professionals, and put an end to exploding rates of workplace unhappiness, must review their systems of compensation and benefits for fairness, competitiveness, and gender equity. Job satisfaction depends more on a sense of balance relative to what peers in similar positions are earning than to the actual dollars being paid. Even those organizations with cash-strapped budgets must consider the impact of their policies regarding remuneration and benefits.
  • Shared Power and Collaboration – The history of Jewish leadership since the Torah reveals our people’s pervasive commitment to shared power and collaboration. An understanding that no leader can do it all, and that a diversity of perspectives and leadership types is required for healthy communities, means that contemporary Jewish groups must demonstrate a willingness to tackle the frequently dysfunctional nature of lay-professional relationships. Professionals and lay leaders need each other to do the work that must be done. But lay-professional relationships are often marked by tensions, poor communication and confused expectations. Quality professionals are leaving the field and will continue to do so if these issues are not brought out into the open and addressed.
  • Talent Management and Succession Planning – From the time of Moses and Joshua, talent management and succession planning have been sacred principles of effective Jewish organizations. The succession issues currently plaguing the American Jewish community are daunting. In addition to the wisdom of our own tradition, there is much to be learned from high performing corporate enterprises when it comes to training internal candidates for upward mobility. A willingness to develop and sustain a culture of leadership training and mentoring at every level of the organization lies at the core of well-run businesses – whether those businesses are for-profit or not-for-profit.

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American Jewry’s leadership crisis – growing disaffection within the ranks of younger and mid-career communal professionals and widespread unpreparedness in dealing with the spate of executive-level retirements – is not something that happened to us as a community. It is, in large measure the aggregate result of our own actions and inactions over the years. While I have often felt that calls for us to “be more like a business” are nothing more than veiled attempts to discredit individuals who have chosen a career path other than “business,” there is, in fact, much to learn from those in other sectors who do leadership training and development right. So to all those who want to bring more business savvy into the organizations on whose boards they serve, I urge you to begin immediately, while we can still make a difference. For, as Maimonides said, one should not be embarrassed to consider the truth regardless of the source.

And to those who would pin their hopes on nation-wide initiatives designed to address the leadership challenges we face in the Jewish community, I hope you will forgive my inclination to draw inspiration instead from the story of Napoleon’s Jew with the schmaltz herring. Pace Leonard Cohen, instead of waiting for the miracle to come, it is time for all those who toil in the vineyards of Jewish life – lay leaders and professionals – to say, as Ecclesiastes instructs, “Whatever is in your power to do, do with all your might.” And as Hillel might add in a friendly rejoinder, “If not now, when?”

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include “Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership” and “From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership.”