Money Can’t Buy Love… and Neither Can, um, Compulsory Professional Development Seminars

money can't buy loveby Ken Gordon

The Jewish world underwent a communal plotz recently, as a person named Mark S. Young, proposed – on this website – something he called the $54,000 Strategy. In the piece, Young suggested the (sadly) radical idea that Jewish orgs should actually invest in their employees, and that they become “employers of choice.”

Yes! we said as one… and then hoped that someone forwarded the piece to our executive directors, who would promptly bump up all our salaries.

Today I have another thought, and it goes like this: Young’s proposal, which I find very appealing, is just too weak on explaining how to transform an org into an employer of choice.

But I think we might actually get somewhere when Young talks about “compensating beyond the dollar.” Well, we might if we ignore Young’s interpretation of beyond-the-dollar compensation, which is well meaning but kind of absurd. “Require all employees to attend seminars or courses to improve professional skill sets on a quarterly or bimonthly basis (at no cost to the employee!), demonstrating that we value their professional growth and development of their talents,” he writes. “This will increase current performance and yield a noticeable return on investment.”

No employee will ever love their job because they are required to attend a seminar – and if they do they’re not using their Yiddishe Kop. But then how do you create a nonprofit job people will love?

You look to the MIT Media Lab, which is, to my mind – and some of the sharpest minds in The Jewish communal world – the best place in the world to work. I know this because I’ve read Frank Moss’ The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives, and if you run, or work at, a Jewish nonprofit, you should too.

The Media Lab model is built on a modest number of principles which, if imported properly into the communal world, would make the people who work there much more innovative – and, I believe, happier.

The Power of Passion. The work done at the Media Lab begins with the personal passions of the researchers on hand. Imagine asking prospective employees, “What are you passionate about and how would you integrate this into your job?” An employer of choice would find a way to align employee interests and skills with organizational goals. Creating such a work plan should be a new hire’s first task.

Note: This doesn’t mean letting people do what they want; it means asking them what truly motivates them and finding a way to make this work for your org’s mission. For you risk-averse executive directors who fear freedom, this passion-based professionalism can be relegated to a fraction of one’s job: Google’s 80-20 rule is perhaps a good way to try this out.

Disappearing Disciplines. The Media Lab strives to mix together a heterogeneous group of specialists, thereby creating a space in which everyone is encouraged to ask questions and that failure is merely a weigh station on the way to success. Every org is composed by people with various kinds of expertise; why not ensure that the ideas your employees think up get a fair hearing? Why not let their proposals benefit from the wisdom from every corner of your professional environment? Surely receiving – and heeding – constructive criticism from, say, the development, marketing, and even IT departments will make for better ideas.

Hard Fun. You will find no mechitza between work and play at the Media Lab: that’s because the passion-driven research is designed to blur the two. They call this having “hard fun.” When you’ve properly engaged your Jewish professionals, you’ll see the positive effects of such a culture. An employer of choice works hard to give employees the chance to partake in hard fun.

Serendipity by Design. The Media Lab makes it possible for all kinds of people to get connected in the course of their research. A strong Jewish nonprofit will do the same. Don’t hold secret meetings of senior management; bring in your smart new hires. Don’t keep visiting board members apart from junior staffers – invite them to sit in on brainstorming meetings.

Yes, Young’s right on the money about money: more would be great – but an investment in creating an exciting, meaningful, passion-based work culture: that’s a sustainable idea. Let’s see what we can do about both…

Ken Gordon edits the PEJE Blog. He invites you to join the conversation at the JEDLAB discussion group, where we talk (at great length) about how the Media Lab’s philosophy can improve Jewish education.