Leadership in Leaving

The (Too) Often Neglected Leadership Imperative for Seasoned Nonprofit Executives
by Dr. Steven Noble

Isn’t it all about leadership? … being developed for it, being elevated to it, exerting it, modeling it, being accountable for it, identifying “best practices” in it?

Look on Amazon.com for books on “Leadership” and find 118,670 results… or search eJewish Philanthropy’s website on “leadership” and find 352 pages of citations!

There is so much fine coverage on this site about leadership in nonprofits and, especially in the Jewish world – Effective leadership to orchestrate staff, ensure requisite financial and human resources, implement missions, create new visions, strategically plan… but what about the focus on leadership in leaving?

What’s leadership in leaving? There is a superb 2012 monograph on it by The Building Movement Project which was a principal reading in the Oct 16-18, 2013 Cape Cod workshop for 20 execs in Jewish Communal Service fields. (A 2nd workshop, scheduled for May 18-21 on Cape Cod, is designed for another 20 executives; need-based scholarships are available.)

Succinctly stated, exerting and modeling leadership in leaving is imperative for long-term leaders as they assess and plan future organizational needs, continuity and sustainability and, as well, plan for their own post-agency futures. (Parenthetically – leadership in leaving is additionally essential to help ensure a robust talent pipeline of midlevel and young talent. A topic for another column – but consider how many talented #2’s “in-waiting” are lost when the #1 does not exhibit leadership in leaving?)

Why is this topic more important, now, than ever? Larry Moses spotlighted one principal reason in December 2012,  “The national Jewish community appears to be on the edge of a precipice. Within the next five to ten years, the baby boomers will retire and leave upwards of 75-90% of Jewish community agencies with the challenge of finding new executive leadership.”

Although the large majority of these individuals will not actually “retire” (in the sense their parent’s generation did); they will, rather, step down and move to a new life phase, which in most cases will include 20+ more years of life. However, there is and will continue to be, as Larry Moses noted, a vast exodus (some say tsunami!), of those at the helm of Jewish organizations today. However large, a more important question than when they will step down is how will they? Will it be exemplified by proactive, well-conceived planning for their agencies and for themselves? (For a 2012 research report on data on this topic, see “Transitioning Leadership: A New Study”.)

We can applaud John Ruskay (UJAFederationNY) and his board for having the foresight to do it right and well with John’s upcoming transition (and the selection of Eric Goldstein). However, they are the largest federation with ample resources to do what’s needed for effective transitioning. But what of the literally tens of thousands smaller Jewish organizations in smaller cities with insufficient resources and where seat of pants (or pants-suit) “processes” are more the norm? We hear too often of conflictual, disruptive or blind-sided “exits”. Whose faults were these abysmal “transitional” scenarios? The responsibility is often “shared” by professionals and lay leaders, alike and is likely due to poor planning and unclear communications.

Earlier we mentioned an Oct. workshop on Cape Cod attended by twenty forward-thinking executives from nine fields (federations, family services, Hillels, senior homes, Day Schools, BJEs , advocacy groups, national agencies and JCCs.) Their average age was 62 with a range 55-67; eight were under 60. Why is the age fact noted? Very arguably, the age that one should starts to consider and plan for “what’s next” for themselves as well as for their organization is simply not at 65!

With that in mind, here are some comments from the October workshop participants:

The Head of a major Day School observed …“If we believe reflective practice is critical to success of our staff and institutions, then – kol v’khomer – as leaders of Jewish institutions, we need to take time to plan for best possible transitions out of leadership roles and consider what it means to ‘end well’.”

“This was a rare chance to focus, finally, on “me”. Although most execs are consumed with career… our lives after the “organization world” can be a stage for meaningful renewal, growth and new opportunities,” commented an Executive Director of a large synagogue.

“This was a unique space for reflection on next steps in my career – steps I would never have taken on my own. The extensive interaction with colleagues in comparable situations was invaluable for my framing key questions for myself as I begin to plan the next few years in my career.” (Federation executive)

“With all the disparate challenges involved in a founder leaving an organization, it’s easy to forget one needs to prepare oneself, as well as the organization, for transitions and next chapters.” (Founder/Executive Director)

“The workshop provided many opportunities to do focused, soul-searching and planning on the conceivably most significant transition in our professional careers… the transition to “post-chapters.” (Federation executive)

Is effective transitioning the sole task and goal of the executive? Principally yes, but as one participant with much experience training lay chairs stated, “Effective succession planning and transitioning of one’s exec is the realm not only of professionals, but of lay leadership, as well.”

Why is transitioning so difficult at this level? The multitude of reasons are quite understandable: concerns for future financial security; fear of letting go and losing identity, “I am not finished my work here,” concerns of being “lame duck” and the huge personal and philosophical concern of what else I could do as meaningful. As one participant from a national agency put it, “…I struggle with the realities of no longer having that ‘corner office’, enriching challenges and immense gratification of a career devoted to serving the Jewish community.”

In sum, institutions have entrusted their top executives to effectively lead their organizations – but part of that leadership mandate has to be better planning for enhanced organizational sustainability and continuity. Indeed this is succession planning, a highly emotive, scary process for all incumbents. But, doing it well is a hallmark of visionary leadership and leadership maturity. And, how important would it be for both the exec and her organization to genuinely concur… it “ended well!”

Dr. Steven Noble is Adjunct Prof., Leadership/Organizational Behavior, Boston University’s MBA program and Managing Director, Noble Consulting Associates, Inc. (Brookline, MA). He’s also co-facilitator of the upcoming May 18-21 Cape Cod Workshop for 20 execs. “The Next Phase: Long Careers, New Opportunities.”