Organizations’ Plans For Succession Seen Lacking

by Helen Chernikof

The resignations of the top executives at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society come just weeks before the release of a survey showing that an “overwhelming majority” of almost 450 Jewish executives have no succession plan prepared in the event of their departure.

The Jewish community must do more formal succession planning and leadership development, said leadership expert and executive coach Steven Noble, who conducted the survey and wrote the accompanying report.

Both will be made public on June 5 under the auspices of the Jewish Communal Service Association at its annual meeting in Baltimore.

“This is really a call for change,” said Noble, a former director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Mandel Executive Development Program and an adjunct professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Boston University’s Graduate School of Management.

“It’s a mandate to be proactive,” Noble said. “It’s an early warning system.”

He declined to reveal specifics of the survey’s findings or recommendations until it is officially released. The study included executives of synagogues, camps, federations, JCCs, day schools, family and children’s services and other groups.

The UJA-Federation of New York and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations did not respond to calls from The Jewish Week asking if they had a succession plan in place. Malcolm Hoenlein was appointed the executive vice chairman of the Presidents’ Conference in 1986 and John Ruskay has headed New York’s federation since 1999.

Abraham Foxman, who has directed the Anti-Defamation League since 1987, declined to say if the organization has designated his successor, but said it has put in place a “process,” to select his replacement should he step down.

“Every responsible organization, profit or nonprofit, plans for succession. That’s as much as it’s anyone’s business,” Foxman said.

The JDC, a Jewish humanitarian assistance organization that works in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Cuba and other spots around the world, is “currently in the middle of its succession process,” said spokesman Michael Geller. It did not name an interim replacement to its chief executive officer, Steven Schwager, until four days after it said he was stepping down. Schwager had served as CEO for 10 years and been at the organization for 13 years before that.

He did not specify any reason for his retirement, saying in a statement only, “Following careful soul searching, I concluded that after nearly 23 years serving this marvelous organization, it was time for me to retire.”

“The JDC – like many organizations of all sizes – apparently did not have a succession plan in place,” wrote Dan Brown, the founder and director of eJewish Philanthropy, a widely followed website and newsletter.

Migration and refugee resettlement organization HIAS announced CEO Gideon Aronoff’s resignation and his interim successor, Mark Hetfield, in the same press release. It could do so because Hetfield’s position of “senior vice president for policy and programs” is the natural replacement for a departing leader, said spokeswoman Roberta Elliott.

“I can’t say we had a written-down plan,” she said, “but it’s understood that’s who would come in. He was inside of absolutely every important decision that was made, and directed much of it.”

Likewise, Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, knows that Chief Operating Officer Aryeh Furst would step in for President Wayne Firestone in the event of an emergency, said Dennis Kirschbaum, director of operations.

Nobody is being actively groomed as Firestone’s successor; on the contrary, Kirschbaum said, the board might use a change in leadership as an opportunity to assess the organization’s direction.

Indeed, many Jewish organizations seem to have adopted the practice of waiting until a leader leaves to appoint a temporary replacement and then search for a successor. They have some professional justification for this as well.

A 2007 article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy entitled “More than a Temporary Fix” proclaimed the hiring of interim directors a trend, useful to organizations looking for a chance to reflect and plan.

Noble has a different vision, one that hews closely to practices prevalent in the private sector. For the sake of both individual Jewish leaders and their organizations, he wants to see fewer temporary appointments and more active nurturing of future leaders from within the organization. He also wants support for leaders who in many cases have devoted their lives to their work and may not know how to start thinking about what’s next for them.

“The most important task of a CEO is preparing your succession,” Noble said. “That’s your legacy, that’s sustainability. An executive who doesn’t focus on that is woefully remiss.”

To be sure, he said, the responsibility for succession planning involves both the board and the leader.

What tends to happen instead, he said, is that Jewish leaders find letting go harder than the executives in secular nonprofits with whom Noble works. Often, Jewish leaders didn’t gain any substantive work experience outside their field, and they consider their work a calling. On the board side, the lack of rigor in planning for the future is often rooted in a broader culture that also doesn’t do sufficiently thorough performance reviews of the CEO, either.

“The board members don’t apply what they use in their own organizations and careers,” he said.

Other Jewish organizations, such as the Jewish federations in both Chicago and Cleveland, say that they are practicing the leadership development Noble espouses.

At the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, President Seven Nasatir has directed the federation for about 35 years, and the board will decide who will replace him when he leaves, said spokesman Aaron Cohen. But in the meantime, a group of about six 40-something professionals are being given successively more responsibility to ready them for increasingly important jobs.

Jewish Federation of Cleveland President Stephen Hoffman has for the past two years held an annual discussion with his senior lay leaders in which he shares his current thinking about each of the major professional leaders and who could step in if there was a need, also referred to in Cleveland as “winning the lottery.”

Hoffman has been in his position since 1983, except for a three-year stint at what was called at that time the United Jewish Communities, now the JFNA.

Hoffman said the federation system is not doing enough of this leadership pipeline development.

“I give us a C-minus, based on the hires that have been going on,” he said. “They’re almost all external, which says we haven’t been doing a good job of developing qualified internal candidates.”

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This article first appeared in The New York Jewish Week.