Jewish Organizations Should Focus on Building Great Organizational Cultures

by David Bernstein

A young professional who works for a large Jewish organization recently confided in me that “my boss reads books on organizational culture but never does anything to improve our culture.” That’s probably a step up from many organizational leaders who are hardly aware of the concept of organizational culture and thus do not seek to improve it.

Organizational leaders can build great cultures, but they must spend significant time, resources and effort doing it. When they do, the investment pays off in spades.

Organizational culture is often misunderstood as a touchy feely concept that has little bearing on the real world. Yet when we think of many of the best companies around today, such as Google, Starbucks, or Zappos, these are places, generally speaking, with great cultures that encourage innovation, embody the organization’s brand, and drive success. There are a few – too few – examples of Jewish organizations with superb cultures as well. People who work at these places are proud of not only their profitability, but of their values, and are highly motivated to take their organizations to the next level.

Indeed, numerous studies show that first rate organizational cultures tend to spark incredible returns. Team members are able to talk to each other, free from the discourse-stifling politics that dysfunctional organizations are mired in, and find solutions to problems. A great organizational culture both keeps talent and recruits talent. When word got out that my organization had become an excellent place to work, we became flooded with applications from better candidates.

With such a demonstrable connection between organizational culture and success, why is it then that so few Jewish organizations seem to have highly energized and open staff cultures?

My contention is that the CEOs who lead these organizations either don’t have a clue as to how to change a culture, or, when confronted with all the other ways they can use their time, they choose to focus on the crises of the moment, the financial situation, the strategy, etc. Anything that seems more tangible and measurable. Best-selling business author Patrick Lencioni observes that CEOs from great companies place a major premium on cultivating “organizational health” (his expanded concept of culture), but their less successful competitors tend to see it as beneath them. I’m guessing that’s exactly what many Jewish organizational leaders think.

Creating a first-rate organizational culture , like anything else worthwhile, takes work. It won’t happen by itself. And it won’t happen overnight.

When I came to The David Project two years ago, an organization dedicated to improving sentiment toward Israel on campuses, there were a few positives about the culture, most notably a thirst for learning and a love of Israel. But the morale was low, particularly among the younger staff; people didn’t believe that change was possible or desirable; and they didn’t possess a strong commitment to excellence. Few believed we could or should see ourselves as real agents of change in attitudes toward Israel among young people.

We went through a significant shift in organization culture, which is still very much underway. A head hunter recently visited our office to assess our organization prior to launching a search, and was struck at the palpable sense of excitement and a commitment to a common sense of destiny among the staff team.

Here are a few things you can do to change your organizational culture:

  • Develop a cohesive senior team. Many organizations fail to create a cohesive culture because they have a discordant senior team, members of which represent a series of silos. The team must be responsible for overseeing the entire organization and not represent individual fiefdoms. Senior team members must be willing to put the organization’s well-being over their own department or interest area, which over time forces people from different departments to work together for the common good.
  • Let people go. Make staff changes if employees ultimately refuse to buy into the new direction or spread bad feeling. While it’s important to allow as many people as possible to be involved in the discussion about setting the direction, after the direction has been set it has to be “believe or leave.” Organizations cannot thrive with naysayers who sit around the water cooler and complain all day. All it takes is a few very negative people to keep everyone else down. Better to cut them loose and start anew.
  • Be an example. The executive leadership must be a living example of the culture it wishes to create. If you want an open culture where people can speak their minds, the CEO, especially, must demonstrate the ability to listen and be highly accessible. One businessman and philanthropist I know takes every member of his 150 plus person team out to lunch each year. If he can do it with 150 people, I can certainly do it with 27. Take the time to get to know your people, help them through challenges, and inspire them along the way. Most of all, actively encourage them to give unadulterated feedback about the organization. Our senior team just went through a comprehensive 360 feedback process and will report back to staff about the feedback and our personal development plans (e.g. executive coaching).
  • Articulate organizational values. Spend time thinking through and articulating your values, and then relentlessly implement them. We took our staff on a two and a half day organizational culture retreat dedicated to organizational culture and values. We drew up an initial list of defining values, and then empowered a staff team to sharpen them and draw up an implementation plan. Among other things, we are conducting a twice a year survey to check the temperature of staff attitudes. Articulating values is the easy part; creating ways of living up to them is the tricky part. Falling short in implementation breeds cynicism; success breeds incredible excitement.
  • Allow your team a major role in creating the culture. Staff have to own the culture. Allow staff to organize retreat sessions, monitor the staff values, induct new employees in the organizational culture and values and plan staff events.
  • Infuse organization life with Jewish values. Jewish organizations can help motivate their staffs and sanctify their mission by drawing from the wellspring of Jewish values, from how people treat each other to how they assess the challenges in the outside world. We at The David Project have made embracing Zionism a core value, which is key to our mission and sense of self. We live it out by giving extra non-paid leave for trips to Israel, encouraging staff to take advantage of opportunities to go to Israel, and holding staff events and ongoing staff educational seminars on Israel.

Invigorating your culture is a big ticket item. Study up on it first, using some of the links provided in this article. In the end, it will make everyone – including yourself – far more effective.

David Bernstein is the executive director of The David Project. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein