Leading Edge Works to Solve the Jewish Leadership Problem

27a53080-2b5f-4f39-a13b-0464ac45e49dBy Jennifer Friedlin

Over the next five to seven years an estimated 75%-90% of Jewish nonprofits will have to find a new executive director. Concerned about a looming leadership crisis, 15 foundations and federations banded together to create Leading Edge, an organization charged with identifying the causes and solutions to the problem. Executive Director Gali Cooks recently shared the organization’s plans as well as some interesting findings.

JF: What is Leading Edge?

GC: Leading Edge is a new organization, founded by 15 foundations and federations to help build the leadership pipeline for the Jewish nonprofit sector. We have been hearing for many years about a looming “leadership gap” in the American workplace – the baby boomer generation is aging and will begin retiring from their leadership roles. In the Jewish community, my founders began seeing leaders of major Jewish organizations retiring, with no succession plan or obvious successor in place. And finding qualified leaders to fill these roles was proving difficult. For example, in any given year, Hillel has about 35 open director positions. Some of these positions will stay unfilled for months because we have no bench. That is the case for many of our organizations.

JF: How do you begin to tackle this issue?

GC: The first step is to understand the landscape. In the winter of 2014, my founders commissioned Bridgespan to shed light on this problem. Bridgespan interviewed hundreds of stakeholders across the community and surveyed leadership development programs in our sector. Their findings were published in the Leadership Pipeline Initiative report, which found two main themes for our leadership pipeline problem: The field of Jewish nonprofits is not sufficiently developing and advancing the leaders it already has, and many Jewish organizations don’t have the value proposition to attract and retain the leaders they need. We have steep hierarchies, lots of politics, and an aversion to risk that does not appeal to high-potential talent.

JF: What will you do with these findings?

GC: We’ve chosen three ways to tackle the issues. One is learning more about the problem by mapping the field so that we have a better understanding of gaps, areas of need, and areas of opportunity. Second is shifting this leadership problem to a leadership opportunity. This is more of a positive marketing campaign we will be launching soon. Third is launching programs that we believe are levers to help bend the current leadership pipeline trajectory. These are tangible program ideas that came out of the original Bridgespan report.

JF: Can you tell me about them?

GC: We have three programs. One is the CEO onboarding program. A transition in leadership is a prime opportunity for organizational transformation and we want to maximize that point in time. After a lot of research, we decided to create a cohort-based peer fellowship for new CEOs and recently announced our first cohort. We are running this 12-month program with a very generous grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Schusterman Foundation, and the Weinberg Foundation, and we hired TBF Consulting to help us design, steward, and implement the program.

The second program that we launched is called the Lay Leadership Commission, and it is focused on the role that the philanthropic community has in building great organizations. We will be releasing a Commission report this summer which deals with some ways volunteer leaders can help build our talent pipeline.

And the third program, Leading Places to Work, is all about culture change. How can we define a culture that will really allow people to maximize their potential at work? Recently, we closed a pilot employee engagement survey designed to measure how engaged employees are in their work. We will be sharing findings from this pilot survey in the coming months and determine other steps we might help Jewish organizations improve their workplace culture.

JF: Any interesting findings?

GC: Here’s a nugget of data – of the 5,000 people who took the survey there were 2,100 unique job titles, as in only that person has that job title. The problem is not the job titles, but the fact that they aren’t linked to a level or a band or an understanding of what skills are needed for each role. In the private sector you may have crazy titles, but the HR department knows what level that person is on. We don’t have that, and we need that as a community. How else are we going to be able to advise talent on career advancement opportunities.

JF: How did you arrive at this Leading Edge?

GC: I have a meandering professional background. I started my career in politics as a speech writer for the Israeli ambassador to the United States. Then I spent some time at AIPAC as a legislative assistant. From there I went into philanthropy, first as the founding director of the PJ Library and then at the Rita & Stanley Kaplan Family Foundation, where I became the executive director. While at Kaplan, I got an MBA so that I could better talk the language of philanthropists. I went to work at an education technology start up and, from day one, knew I needed to go back to the nonprofit sector. It was my home. I worked at URJ for a bit and am now at Leading Edge.

JF: How do you like being an executive director?

GC:  I like it, for the most part. Most days I feel like we’re making progress and doing important work that will help people. And then there are some days that are tough, when I touch the oven in some way or the stress becomes overwhelming. There’s a heavy burden when you are captain of the ship, trying to navigate uncharted waters. This is my third, and I believe, my last, startup.

JF: Who helps you do your job?

GC: I lean heavily on my board. I also have three teams of stellar consultants. They help us craft and design our programs. I also have a coach. It was one of the things I asked for when thinking about taking this role. I speak to her each week. She has a law degree and a background in mediation, which is really helpful when you are leading an organization that has a board of 17 aiming to tough multiple stakeholders!

JF: So you are still doing diplomacy.

GC: Yes! I’m definitely putting the lessons I learned at the embassy PJ Library, Kaplan and the tech company to work. The key is to listen more than to speak. I am also exercising my grit and resilience muscles. When you’re cutting a new path, there will always be problems, we are going to mess up, so let’s learn from them and keep going. I’m trying to get better at that.

Jennifer Friedlin is the founder and owner of Hungry Marketing (formerly Iris7 Marketing), a firm that writes messaging plans and content for nonprofits. Her blog, “Hungry, the Blog: Food for Thought and Growth,” features nonprofit leaders sharing their experiences, ideas, and tips.