Listening and Learning from Women CEOs in the Time of COVID-19

By Nancy K Kaufman, Naomi Adler, Ruth Messinger, Lori Weinstein

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg often cites the personal value of being “a very strong believer in listening and learning from others.” As veteran CEOs with decades of experience leading diverse organizations, we agree. In this time of deep economic and organizational crisis, listening to women CEOs in the Jewish community, has never mattered more.

Over the past two and a half months we have spoken to scores of colleagues and friends who are leading organizations at this perilous time. To formalize these discussions, we reached out to a cross-section of women CEOs who are leading diverse organizations of varying sizes throughout the country. Many had shared feelings of being both isolated and overwhelmed in this time of COVID-19. We wanted to offer our support and perspective to women leaders who were dealing with unprecedented challenges in the midst of this pandemic. 

The group that has come together to meet over zoom includes more than two dozen women CEOs. They are leaders of federations, social service agencies, nonprofits serving women and girls, and social justice organizations. It includes organizations whose missions include leadership development, organizing and advocacy, fundraising, direct services and everything in-between.

In our safe-space discussions participants have openly and honestly shared their concerns and received support from one another. They have identified board and staff challenges, family challenges and program challenges that keep them up at night and work long and difficult days.                                                    

Women leaders are trying to keep up with rapid changes in every aspect of their work. To be successful, they need board members to acknowledge the changed environment, understand that decisions which seemed appropriate just weeks ago may need to be revisited. They need to allow leaders space to utilize their professional expertise in handling the changes. Boards, more than ever, need to be clear about their governing roles and need to be more present and more patient as CEOs and professional staff try to operate in this “new normal.” While some board members are “too in the weeds” in their oversight, others, consumed by their own stresses, are not involved at all. Large boards can be additionally burdensome to a CEO who finds herself with an increased workload and a board and committees that need additional time and attention as well.

Fundraising is a looming concern for both CEOs and their boards. While the SBA’s PPP funds alleviated the immediate crisis in many agencies, there is growing apprehension about what happens when the money runs out. And, there are small nonprofits who were unable to access the money at all.

The concerns around staff are numerous and include everything from trying to provide support and care, to worrying about future staff cuts and/or salary and benefit reductions. Members of the group expressed particular unease about their ability to be transparent and reassuring with their teams when they themselves do not know what the future holds. For CEOs who pride themselves on building supportive and transparent cultures within their organizations, it is difficult not to be able to have these discussions and offer clear answers. Added to this is the inability to be “proximate” with their co-workers for the informal and productive conversations that often occur in the office. 

Enormous family challenges were also voiced by the group, many falling disproportionately on these CEOs because they are women (while acknowledging the support of caring partners). Some have young children at home and are trying to juggle school time, mealtime, household chores as well as simply trying to be “present” to their partners and children. For those with teens and/or college students at home, there is an entirely different set of challenges. And, for those who are sheltering alone, there is often a feeling of isolation reinforced by the absence of physical contact. Added to this are worries about aging parents and grandparents who have been identified as particularly vulnerable right now and/or need additional care. For everyone, there is a NEED TO take time for “self-care” which is often the first thing to be ignored as the needs of others multiply. We all should be concerned about the potential burn-out and health issues resulting from exhaustion and daily, unremitting stress. 

Finally, there are the many programmatic challenges that women CEOs are facing as they try to navigate this “new normal.” Which programs can be let go? What new programs can be envisioned? How can donor expectations be best managed or if necessary, modified? Is this the time to be innovative and expansive or to hunker down and try to protect the status quo? Is this a time to consider new partnerships, mergers or even sunsetting our organizations? Will existing donors step up or be diverted by competing needs of other organizations? And, will innovators and groups that have worked effectively to focus attention on the Jewish community’s rich diversity, creating important programs for previously “marginalized” populations, get their fair share of any new collaborative funding streams? 

While there were numerous challenges identified among the twenty-five women CEOs, there were also many suggested next steps. The most consistent suggestion centered around the importance of communication. Organizations of all sizes need to be able to plan, communicate and find ways to share creative approaches with one another. Strengthening communication both internally and externally – with staff and boards, donors and funders, and clients and stakeholders – was felt to be key to future success. The hope now is that as new funds are raised and allocated, they will fully reflect a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion so the progress made over the past few years is not lost.

Second, we need to pay greater attention to the isolation felt by women CEOs which is exacerbated by the pandemic crisis. Many ideas were shared as to how to generate more connections and supportive networks including finding a “chevruta partner” or coach or creating on-going mentoring networks for groups of women CEOs. Those participants who are alums of the Schusterman, Leading Edge and Wexner fellowship programs expressed particular appreciation to those groups for reaching out and providing support and assistance at this time.

Suggestions were offered about establishing clear boundaries and parameters around expectations of time spent and work products delivered by staff. Acknowledging distinct differences among staff members based on title and job description is also important. Setting limits on electronic communications and encouraging staff to delineate time for their personal lives, is also essential.

Finally, we encourage the Jewish community to support efforts to lift up and support women’s executive leadership by funding more formalized leadership cohorts of women at all levels and in all sectors of our communal network. Outstanding women are leading organizations throughout the country, including in social justice organizations that are part of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable; in direct service organizations that are part of the Network of Human Services Agencies; in Hillels that are part of International Hillel movement; in JCCs who are part of the JCCA network; in federations of all sizes throughout the JFNA network; and in synagogues of all denominations throughout the country. 

Our fear is if these leaders are not given the support and attention they need, we will lose the robust pipeline that so many of us have cultivated for many years. Our hope coming out of this pandemic is that we will have an ever-stronger network of individual organizations and agencies sharing a greater commitment to collaboration and partnership; and that increased numbers of women CEOs will propel us forward. We are hopeful as experienced women CEOs that our community is in good hands and we will emerge from this challenging “pause” with new and innovative ways of being effective communal leaders leading exemplary organizations.

Nancy K. Kaufman is immediate past CEO of National Council of Jewish Women and JCRC of Greater Boston; Naomi Adler is immediate past CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; Ruth Messinger is the immediate past CEO of American Jewish World Service; and Lori Weinstein is immediate past CEO of JWI (Jewish Women International). Collectively, they have over 75 years of CEO experience in the Jewish community.