Presidents Circle LogoBy Marci Mayer Eisen

When we dream about possibilities for strengthening the connections between our organizations and communities, it’s helpful to ask a traditional inquiry question, what is the smallest effort for the biggest impact?

For me four years ago, the answer was the Presidents’ Circle, an initiative of Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ Millstone Institute. Quite simply, we can only advance collaborative leadership when there are spaces for senior leaders – board presidents, presidents-elect, executive directors/CEOs and clergy to meet each other. Not a place for debate or decision making, but rather an opportunity to connect with someone you otherwise most likely might not get to meet. A comfortable atmosphere for networking and conversations. The Presidents’ Circle format promotes conversations that generates respect, trust and curiosity about each other’s organizations. From the moment these leaders enter, they recognize there really is no other place in the Jewish community that provides this type of opportunity for relationship building.

“The Presidents’ Circle is a wonderful resource for board presidents to meet,
learn together and grow as leaders.
I personally have had an “aha” moment in conversation at the last program which brought clarity to an issue and gave me the tools I needed to move forward.”
Dee Mogerman, President, Temple Israel Congregation

“Presidents’ Circle meetings have successfully built community among Jewish leaders – both lay and professional.We are able to connect across denominations, agencies and ages. I feel more a part of our community simply because I am able to meet new people, identify potential board members, as well connect with colleagues who have expertise in areas that can benefit our school.”
Cheryl Maayan, Head of School, Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School

“Presidents’ Circle is an incomparable community building tool. I’ve experienced firsthand how it has been able to bring together leadership of our organizations, both professional and lay, to talk about the things that truly matter to them. The relationships that result cross all types of institutional lines and lay the groundwork for collaborations and partnerships that would otherwise not be possible.
Rabbi Levi Landa, Chabad of Greater St. Louis and President of JPro-St. Louis

We initially invited senior leaders in 2012 to a reception in order to help advance the mission of our one-year old Millstone Institute for Jewish Leadership and promote a shared vision for leadership training. We hoped for forty people and nearly eighty showed up. We watched with genuine excitement as the head of an orthodox day school met a Reform temple president and a new rabbi engaged with a tenured rabbi from another movement. We knew this approach was necessary when we observed a new executive of another faith being warmly greeted by a Rabbi from a large established organization. We watched business cards being exchanged, dates for coffee being set and felt a sense of awe that an effort so easy, low cost and practical, had never been done before. I want to stress that this wasn’t a hand selected group. Invitations went out to literally every single organization with ties to the nonprofit Jewish community. Also, we felt it was important to hold the event outside the walls of our organizations with a different feel than a typical Jewish event. Most of the Presidents’ Circle gatherings have been held at a centrally located hotel and the 5:30-7 pm timeframe provides a flexible time for those with the busiest of schedules.

Thankfully, the response to the first event was not an anomaly. Since August 2012, we have held Presidents’ Circle twice yearly each August and December. We warmly welcome those who are new to St. Louis or their positions. The Presidents’ Circle is seen as a perk, especially for new board presidents.

We enhanced the December program by also recognizing the recent graduates of our Millstone Fellows leadership program. We honor the “Fellows” and promote new connections between senior leaders and emerging leaders. We’ve also added structured interactive experiences that represent opportunities available in other areas of the Millstone Institute – from a round robin of leadership coaching questions to creative networking questions that we hope participants will take back to use at their own boards and staff teams. The Presidents’ Circle is now core to the mission of Jewish Federation of St. Louis, naturally creating new relationships between senior leaders. What would it look like if every community in the country had a Presidents’ Circle? We encourage other communities to make it work in a way that captures the essence of their own community, providing personal value and creating the desired environment for long term relationships and shared commitments.

Marci Mayer Eisen is Director of the Millstone Institute, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ community-wide leadership initiative.