Mah Tovu: A Strategy That Asks Us To Get Off the Path of Underinvesting in Our Workforce

By Mark S. Young

Are the current strategies in how we lead and manage our staff truly helping us best-achieve our organizational goals?

Leaders of our Jewish organizations today are out to bless our workforce, but we may be accidentally cursing them instead. We need a paradigm shift. If we invest more in our staff and operational excellence, we will retain our talent, lower wasteful turnover costs, raise productivity, strengthen revenue and profit, better meet our missions and both strengthen and secure our Jewish future. This is not a dream or fantasy. This is becoming a proven strategy.

I recently gave an ELI Talk: “Mah Tovu – How to Treat Our Workforce with Blessings, Not Curses” outlining how Jewish nonprofit employers can not only do great work, they can create a supportive, exciting work environment, and that doing so is a very Jewish thing to do. The Jewish nonprofit sector, with its current struggle to recruit and retain talented staff for its leadership roles and its desire to engage the next generations into Jewish life, should take these ideas seriously and follow suit.

There have been many voices recently expressing concern with salary levels both at the top and throughout our Jewish organizations, but I want to suggest that the issue is not merely that certain salaries may be too high or too low. It’s about the overall human resource strategies that we employ. We may think they are the correct strategies but they are actually counterproductive. More specifically, keeping overhead, including most staff salaries and training, low to keep costs down and prices for services low, doesn’t save us money after all. In fact, we are losing in the long run.

After watching my ELI Talk, pick up the Good Jobs Strategy by Dr. Zenyep Ton, or begin with her Harvard Business Review article, and think about how her principles for retail, including the “vicious cycle vs. the virtuous cycle,” can be applied in the Jewish community. Other industries are taking note, as written in “Managed by Q’s “Good Jobs” Gamble” by Adam Davidson in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine Work Issue. But this is more than good business sense. As I share in the talk, even the Talmud advises us to invest more in our staff so they can do better work.

I encourage everyone invested in our industry, especially executive and lay-leaders of our Jewish organizations, to think about these ideas and engage your leadership team to review how you develop, manage, and attempt to retain the talent within your organization. Is your strategy unwittingly suited better for short-term gain but ultimately worse for the long haul? What effects do your current salary levels, methods of recognition, quantity and quality of management training, and benefit offerings have on staff morale, productivity and retention? Do you know how your real and potential organizational dollars are lost each year to avoidable turnover? Can your organization, our organizations, do better?

Involve your staff in this discussion, strategize, and then, begin to make change. Mirroring our morning prayer, begin each day by saying, “Mah Tovu: How goodly is our talent in our organization, our workforce in this Jewish community” and put actions to these words. We can steer our organizations to become better, more attractive employers than the rest of the nonprofit sector and even corporate entities. It is both good business and a fabric of our Jewish tradition. How will you Mah Tovu?

Talk with me about this more on ELI On Air, Monday, April 11th at 1:00 p.m.

Or if you are in New York City on Wednesday, March 9th, join Advancing Jewish Professionals of NYC for a conversation on developing tomorrow’s Jewish professional leader. I’ll be on the panel alongside Gali Cooks, the Executive Director of Leading Edge, and Sheila Katz, Vice President for Social Entrepreneurship at Hillel International.

Mark S. Young is the Director of Alumni Engagement for the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Mark is also the programming co-chair of the JPRO Network and past board chair of the Advancing Jewish Professionals of New York City.