People First: Why We’re Focusing on Workplace Culture in Jewish Organizations

GettyImages-183012662 copyBy Gali Cooks and Amy Born

For the first few weeks at his new job at a Jewish nonprofit, Aaron had to ring a doorbell to get into the building. No one told him there was an access code for employees.

When Lauren started her new job at a different Jewish nonprofit, she met with the CEO to discuss the organization’s mission and how her job contributed to it. She was assigned a mentor to help onboard her and meetings with key stakeholders were scheduled in her calendar.

Who do you think felt more inspired and empowered to do their best work?

People are the most important assets of organizations, yet many (not all, to be sure, but many) of our Jewish workplace cultures do not reflect this important truth.

An executive director can have a brilliant vision, but it will not see the light of day if her employees are unclear about their roles, frustrated by operational friction and feel clueless about the ways their jobs connect to the greater vision and mission of the organization. As management guru Peter Drucker put it, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

That is why Leading Edge is launching its “Leading Places to Work” initiative – to shine a light on the importance of workplace cultures, including prioritizing supporting employees to genuinely feel empowered to do their best and most creative work, as well as recruiting and retaining the best possible talent for open positions.

If successful, this project will help the heart of our community – the nonprofits that provide education, social justice, environmental, and safety net services to our beloved Jewish community – to make an even more meaningful and lasting difference. This is no small task.

As a first step on this journey, this month Leading Edge launched a pilot employee engagement survey with 55 organizations and nearly 5,000 employees across the United States.

The purpose of the survey is to get a baseline level of employee satisfaction and engagement in the Jewish nonprofit sector. We want to understand what’s working and what needs work in our organizations so we can enrich our field. The interest and participation in this pilot is indicative of a sector open to understanding the needs of an evolving workforce.

Our partner in this initiative is Hay Group, a global leader in employee research whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. This is the first time a capacity building pilot of this scale and with this methodological approach has been launched in the Jewish nonprofit sector.

Organizations participating in the pilot will get aggregated results (survey participants are anonymous) for their own organizations and will see how they compare with other organizations in the pilot group. They will gain access to action-planning tools to help them cultivate their “growing edges.”

And this is only the beginning. Leading Edge is committed to supporting organizations on the journey to becoming leading places to work. We look forward to using the pilot data to determine next steps, which may include expanding the survey sector-wide, developing other tools and piloting additional interventions.

If we want our organizations to have the deepest impact, we need to create environments – grounded in trust, nurtured by respect – where individuals can maximize their potential. It is not just management gurus that espouse this cultural focus. Our own tradition highlights this priority.

Spertus CEO Hal Lewis speaking at a recent Spertus event entitled, How Great Leaders Create Great Places to Work shared a Talmudic teaching from the great sage Raba: When individuals die and stand at the gates of heaven, they are asked a series of questions to determine how they lived their lives. The number one question an individual is asked is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?” It’s not, how religiously observant were you, or even how charitable. The text suggests the measure of our lives depends significantly on the quality of our conduct in the workplace.

Organizations are the sum of their people, and like people, they must reflect in order to grow and become their best selves. We believe organizational growth is a practice, not a destination. It is time to put this practice front and center in our community.

Results from our pilot will be released and on our website this spring. Stay tuned.

Gali Cooks is the Executive Director of Leading Edge, a partnership between Jewish foundations and federations to build a robust talent pipeline for Jewish organizations. Amy Born works in the field of organizational psychology and is partnering with Leading Edge on this initiative.