Long Before the C-Suite

c suiteBy Dr. Hal M. Lewis

American Jewish organizational leaders are no doubt spending much of their time at this week’s General Assembly discussing their seemingly never-ending quest for meaningful responses to the Pew Study. There is, however, another study, recently released, that has barely raised an eyebrow in the so-called organized Jewish community, and that is unfortunate.

I refer to the analysis conducted by Bridgespan, a follow up to their 2006 study, The Nonprofit Sector’s Leadership Deficit. Summarized at length in the current issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the findings describe the deepening crisis of succession planning plaguing our communal enterprises. But the study’s authors go further, identifying a “leadership development deficit” in which nonprofit leaders, “frustrated at the lack of opportunities and mentoring, are not staying around long enough to move up.” This comports with one of their earlier findings that “only 30 percent of C-suite roles in the nonprofit sector were filled by internal promotion … about half the rate of for-profits.“

I can imagine some veteran organizational leaders dismissing these latest findings as much ado about nothing. After all, the Jewish world has been talking about these issues for decades. Further, I suspect that even among the burgeoning start-up crowd this report is easily ignored, owing to their often-small payrolls and limited budgets. In either case, I believe that failing to react to these findings with an intensity that rivals that which followed Pew, is a mistake.

While I would never say we should abandon our quest for meaningful answers to the now 25-month-old “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” we who care deeply about twenty-first-century Jewish life ignore the latest Bridgespan study at our peril. Indeed, if we have learned anything from our history, it is that there is a direct connection between the caliber of our leaders and our ability to address the challenges we face as a community.

Even in those rare instances in organized Jewish life when light is being shone on the issue of succession planning, it is too-often focused almost exclusively on the executive. What the latest from Bridgespan makes clear is that doing so is a shortsighted and deeply flawed strategy. It is not that we should ignore pipelines and transition planning for CEOs; we should not. But it is becoming abundantly obvious that unless we are prepared to invest in talent growth at every level of the organization, we will fail to ameliorate what the researchers have dubbed the “turnover treadmill” in our institutions.

Leadership training, mentoring, coaching, and professional development must become ubiquitous and sustained elements of the way we do business. They cannot be reserved only for the top tier. Indeed, if we invest energy and money exclusively at the C-Suite level we will not break the pattern of Jewish-organizations-as-revolving-doors.

Many have written previously in these pages and elsewhere about the excuses proffered by lay boards and senior managers for not implementing cross-the-board professional development opportunities in our agencies. These include concerns about money, time, and a general skepticism regarding the overall value proposition associated with investing in our employees. This latest study, a reaffirmation of what many of us have been saying for decades, should remove any doubt as to the long-term cost benefits. A 2014 Harvard Business Review analysis notes that, “the time it takes for an external hire to become productive is twice as long as for someone hired from within.” Additionally, the HBR piece reveals that, “as many as 40 percent of externally hired executives fail within the first 18 months.”

Further, as my own research has found, many nonprofit managers deny development opportunities for entry- and mid-level professionals for fear that once completed they will leave the organization in search of more lucrative opportunities. It turns out that this apprehension is more-often-than-not a red herring. The authors cite the groundbreaking work of the best practice insight and technology company CEB, to wit, “staff members who feel their organizations are supporting their growth stay longer than those who don’t because they trust that their organizations will continue to invest in them over time.”

Perhaps most significant of all, is the fact that when an otherwise promising employee leaves for lack of opportunity, training, or mentoring, the real costs to an organization in everything from productivity to onboarding a replacement, represent enormous and avoidable drains on already limited budgets.

So, while our intellectual, spiritual, and philanthropic elites continue to debate the need for creative responses to the demographic and sociological challenges facing American Jewry, let us not lose sight of the need to develop the women and men who serve our people every day in the agencies and organizations of Jewish life – legacy and start up. Great Jewish communities need great Jewish leaders, and the only way to create the next generation of great Jewish leaders, those who will be prepared to respond to very different realities from the ones that preceded them, is to invest in their training, development and growth, long before they enter the C-Suite.

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include “Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership” and “From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership.” He can be reached at president@spertus.edu.