Learning is Not a Priority. Or is it?

By Yelena Kutikova

A little over a year ago, I started my role at the Wiener Center for Leadership and Learning at UJA-Federation of New York as director of learning and development. I became a professional in the Jewish nonprofit sector after spending more than 10 years in corporate America working in human resources, with a specific focus on learning and development. I decided to switch gears and join the Jewish nonprofit sector to give back to the community that gave me so much. Since I made the switch, I couldn’t be happier to be in this meaningful role and to have an opportunity to make a real impact. During my time here so far, I’ve talked to many people, including executives, learning program participants, and even people who chose not to be part of the programs. I made a few observations about the emphasis on learning and development in Jewish organizations that I thought would be worthwhile to share.

Learning agility comes up again and again on the list of key competencies necessary for employees to be successful in the 21st century. This notion of being a lifelong learner and the necessity to stay current and relevant in the workforce has been circulating in research and best practices for years. Best-in-class organizations are taking notice and making it a priority to invest in the learning and development of the people who work for them. They realize that this is a key part of attracting, developing, and retaining top talent. To be successful, both managers and employees themselves need to take an active part in the learning process.

Unfortunately, making learning a priority is difficult for us in the Jewish nonprofit world because we are strapped for money and time. This issue is further exacerbated by our desire to produce the immediate work results and minimize the overhead cost (as our industry refers to the workforce). Due to the very limited resources that we have, it is a hard choice that managers have to make between allocating money and time to the “actual work” and other organizational priorities versus investing in the professional growth of the people who work for our Jewish organizations.

And, it is not a surprise that investment in learning and development quite often falls to the bottom of the priority list. Leading Edge’s 2016 Employee Engagement Survey, “Are Jewish Organizations Great Places to Work?,” shows that employees in Jewish organizations are not getting the learning and development they need to grow their careers.* This impacts their performance and it also impacts their tenure in the Jewish nonprofit field. As a result, we have a high turnover rate in our industry and are struggling to attract and retain the best and brightest talent.

Perhaps we all need a reminder that Jewish organizations are only as strong as the employees who work for them. If our employees are not equipped with the right skills to be the best that they can be, the results of their work will be of lower quality and won’t deliver the level of impact that we need as a community.

It’s time for us to take pause and think. It’s time to realize that the future of the Jewish communal sector is in our hands and its success depends on us investing in ourselves. Employee and lay leadership learning and development must be a priority if we want to do our work at the highest level of performance and have organizations that are capable of moving our communities forward.

So this Rosh Hashanah, let’s commit as a Jewish community to make learning a priority. Let’s invest in our people so that they can perform to the best of their abilities in the roles that they’re in. Let’s give our people opportunities to learn so that they stay engaged in their work and maintain their passion to carry our community into the future.

There are many ways to invest in learning: on the job learning, training programs, coaching, special assignments, etc. Whatever option you choose, make it a priority! As a manager, give your employees a plethora of opportunities to develop and expand their strengths, learn new skills, and discover hidden talents. As an employee, continuously seek out learning opportunities, own your development, and strive to achieve the highest level of performance in your role.

If you don’t know where to start, we at UJA-Federation of New York’s Wiener Center for Leadership and Learning are here to help. At UJA, we believe that our community is only as strong as its professionals and lay leaders, and we believe in investing in their growth. We have many learning opportunities that can cater to your specific needs. To start, check out our workshop offerings for this fall as well as the Institute for Jewish Executive Leadership.

This is just a sample of our work, so don’t hesitate to reach out to hear more about what we do. I look forward to making learning a priority with you this year!

[editor’s note: the specific programs referenced are only available to those in UJA’s catchment area; similar programs exist in many other communities.]

*A total of 3,422 employees across 55 Jewish organizations responded to questions about their workplace culture, the critical factors that drive their levels of engagement at work, and what motivates the likelihood that they will stay in or leave their organizations – and the Jewish nonprofit sector as a whole.

Yelena Kutikova is the Director of Learning and Development at UJA-Federation of NY, where she oversees professional and lay leadership learning programs. She is also a current participant in the Wexner Heritage Program.