Investing in the Intrapreneur

by Adam Simon

When I left a business career to return to Jewish not-for-profit leadership several years ago, most reactions included surprised looks and concerns that – despite an MBA from a highly ranked business school – I could not cut it.

And when I have counseled hundreds of young people trying to figure out their path, the idea of being a Jewish professional is usually anathema to the most skilled.

It is not that I want everyone to follow in my footsteps. To the contrary, I want people to follow their passions. I am more troubled by the categorical denial of a Jewish professional career, rather than seeing it as a viable opportunity for excitement, growth, compensation and fulfillment.

For a long time, this perception has dogged the not-for-profit sector in general. The unspoken maxim is that the strongest individuals take posts in the business world, while the weak cast their lots with not-for-profits.

Today, that myth is finally being debunked. Business schools nationwide, including the top-ranked programs at Harvard and Northwestern, have dedicated not-for-profit management programs. Organizations like Teach For America, as well as the fellowships offered by Coro, City Year and others, have further enhanced the prestige and prospects of a not-for-profit career. And Nancy Lublin, CEO of DoSomething, has even flipped the outdated convention on its head, writing about what the for-profit world can learn from how the not-for-profit world does its “business.”

But even as careers in the not-for-profit sector have grown in appeal, the Jewish professional community has struggled to keep pace.

The perception of life in the Jewish professional sphere is not one of a strong career ladder, opportunities for competitive compensation, professional development, public kudos and a high coolness factor. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. The net effect is that we are losing talented professionals, be it right out of the gate or after a few quick years. Organization and foundation boards are left to lament the struggle to recruit, hire and retain exceptional people.

Why does all this matter? For several reasons:

  • Because the Jewish community, today and into the future, needs exceptional professionals. Indeed, our organizations are only as strong as the people steering the ship. Just as we wouldn’t invest in a mutual fund with a manager unqualified to run it, we shouldn’t rely on organizations with poorly supported and trained people running it.
  • Because professionals – particularly younger professionals – need to understand that the Jewish community cares about them as people, not just as employees. For young employees in particular, they should have an astute understanding that their current position is more than just a job – it is helping them to build a career.
  • Because employees today define success differently than their parents and grandparents did – and they define it in a way that is ideally matched for the professional opportunities in our community. It is not just about a salary but being able to articulate the kind of difference one is making in the world with pride.
  • And finally, because our community needs intrapreneurs – i.e., those creative and innovative agents of change who act within organizations, from the inside out and the bottom up.

The Jewish community can and must change the equation. Here are four suggestions for how:

  1. Set, communicate and maintain high expectations. Jewish professional work is important and holy, and it demands nothing less than the highest standards and the most outstanding people. Schlocky work attracts schlocky people, and we cannot afford to settle for mediocrity. Make the case for the best talent and demand their best work. Communicate expectations and successes clearly.
  2. Offer employees real coaching, mentorship and professional development. We will be best served if Jewish organizations continually identify their strongest professionals, communicate clearly their strengths and weaknesses, provide the support and training necessary to overcome or compensate for those weaknesses and put in place the proper infrastructure for their success.Our foundation is working to do our part. For the last six years, in cooperation with the Center for Leadership Initiatives, we have been running Kivun, a five-month program for young professionals in their 20’s at Jewish not-for-profit organizations. Kivun provides the tools, networks and perspectives young professionals need to achieve excellence and make an impact on the Jewish world. (Meet the 2011 Kivun Intensive Cohort). Additionally, this year we are launching a new talent pipeline program to provide the most highly qualified Jewish professionals in their 30’s with mentorship, advanced skills development and valuable networking.
  3. Compensate competitively. There is not a short cut: we need to pay competitively to recruit and retain the best and the brightest, and our organizations have the resources if we prioritize appropriately. We can also find creative ways to compensate high performers that have small or no impact on the balance sheet. Professional development conferences, telecommuting, training from other departments, face-time with top lay and professional leadership and books – to name just a few – offer a diverse playbook of options that can be uniquely applied for each employee. In fact, as with our foundation, it pays to make it mandatory that employees take advantage of these opportunities.
  4. Celebrate the Jewish value-add. There is something unique about both working Jewish and living Jewish. Of course, not all Jewish professionals are Jewish, but I frequently hear from those that are about the frustrations of trying to create an independent Jewish personal life from the public Jewish role at work. We need to apply the lessons of Shabbat: provide employees with sacred personal time, celebrate the validation that comes with professional and professional values alignment, and offer role models for professionals navigating this road.

We can do this. We can elevate the professional development game to create a Jewish communal landscape where high expectations combined with support, mentorship and professional development will lead to achievement and growth, and where this self-perpetuating cycle will become the standard-bearer for the not-for-profit industry as a whole.

In doing so, we will create a Jewish communal landscape where people will pull every string, leverage every contact and do whatever it takes to land that dream job as a full-time creator of Jewish life. Our young people will benefit, as will our organizations – both long-standing and emerging – and, ultimately, our entire community.

Adam Simon is the director of Jewish programs at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.