Professional Development: Hillel Takes It to the Next Level

by Rae Ringel

“Professional development” has morphed into a catch-all phrase encompassing anything from how-to skills training, to meetings with supervisors, to attendance at conferences and workshops. What if professional development meant not just building skills, but in building leaders? What if a non-profit wanted to help its professionals achieve their highest potential and inspire the clients, staff, and volunteers with whom they interact every day?

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, created the Next Level Coaching experience in partnership with The Picower Foundation to invest in the leadership growth of some of its most promising campus-based Hillel Directors. These professionals lead complex enterprises in the campus environment. They engage college students, interact with their board members, partner with university organizations and administration, supervise staff, fundraise, and manage budgets and facilities. For a Hillel Director, it takes great skill to succeed, and it takes leadership and vision to excel.

Hillel’s Next Level Coaching experience pairs Hillel Directors with certified coaches who create customized learning paths for them. Through a series of group interactions and one-on-one coaching sessions, participants forge personalized goals and metrics of success. For example, during the most recent six-month cycle of the program:

A Hillel Director worked on his confidence and leadership presence, enabling him to connect with potential donors in a more vibrant way and, ultimately, raise more money for his organization.

A Hillel Director developed a new approach and communication style when recruiting new board members.  By creating a culture of responsibility and accountability, her interactions with the board have been more productive, and the organization is reaping the benefits of an active, engaged group of lay leaders.

A Hillel Director worked on her conflict resolution skills, helping her to take the difficult step of letting go of a staff member who was not the right fit for the job. In the end, this step was better for her staff member and for her organization.

Instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach to professional development, Hillel has created a leadership coaching program that is customized to the strengths and needs of each participating professional. As a result, Hillel Directors are motivated to stay with the organization and better positioned to thrive in their campus-based enterprises.

What Is Coaching?

Coaching is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Unlike other training methodologies, which may focus on how-to skill building (e.g. how to write a grant proposal, how to balance a budget), coaching combines personal inquiry and customized goal setting to help coachees uncover their hidden strengths and improve their organizations.

In designing the Next Level Coaching experience, Hillel chose to work only with professional coaches who had been certified by the International Coach Federation and had studied and practiced methodologies including: leadership coaching as organization intervention, coaching to create breakthroughs, coaching on leadership presence, and coaching teams and groups. Rae Ringel, a certified professional coach with more than 15 years experience working with Jewish communal organizations, designed the program and led the team of coaches who worked with the Hillel Directors. Ms. Ringel also has consulted with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and entrepreneurial start-ups and is a nationally-recognized leadership coach and motivational speaker.

How Does Hillel’s Program Work?

Hillel implemented the first cycle of the Next Level Coaching experience from December 2007 – June 2008. The program began with a competitive application process and the selection of the first cohort of 10 participants, each of whom had been a Hillel Director for at least 3 years.

The Hillel Directors’ first face-to-face interaction, with each other and with the coaches, took place at the Next Level Coaching Orientation, held in conjunction with Hillel’s annual Professional Staff Conference. For the next six months, each Hillel Director met with his or her coach twice a month. During these coaching sessions, the Directors worked with their coaches on their Personal Action Plans, finding ways to build upon their innate leadership strengths while dealing with the stumbling blocks that were keeping them from achieving their goals. The coaching relationships were strictly confidential; however, each Director’s Personal Action Plan was submitted to Hillel’s International Office (its headquarters) so that Hillel could track the kinds of issues that Directors were addressing, report back to the program’s funders, and measure the return on investment to the organization.

To close the Next Level Coaching experience in an intentional manner, Directors and coaches participated in a Capstone Retreat at the end of the six months. The Retreat documented what the Directors were doing differently after their six months of coaching while providing key concepts that would frame the coaching experience. At the Retreat, Directors created goals for continued growth determined ways that they could get continuing support in meeting those new goals. The Capstone Retreat included opportunities for both personal reflection and group learning. One Director said “… that the two days we just spent in Washington with our colleagues [at the Capstone Retreat] were priceless, and I feel privileged to work with such fine people.”

Program Enhancements

For the current cycle of the program, Hillel had its Directors take part in two evaluation and assessment projects before the formal coaching process begins.  In a 360° Review, colleagues, supervisors, board members, and students will offer feedback on the performance of each Hillel Director. This will help provide a holistic view of how the Director is perceived by others and, in some cases, the differences between those perceptions and the Director’s own view of his or her performance and effectiveness. Directors also will complete the Leadership Practices Inventory, an assessment tool which will help them measure their leadership competencies. With this information in hand, the coaches will be prepared to begin setting goals with their coaches once the formal coaching relationships begin.

Impacts and Outcomes of the Next Level Coaching Experience

Leadership is easy to recognize, but difficult to measure, especially in the short term. One of the best measurements of leadership is long term organizational change. Many people can maintain the status quo, but few can transform an organization and change the status quo.

While long-term changes have yet to be observed, there are early signs that the Next Level Coaching experience is having positive impacts. Hillel Directors who took part in the program already are more effectively working with their boards, managing their employees, and maintaining the fiscal stability of their organizations. These Directors also report changes in themselves, as professionals and individuals. As one Director noted:

I can honestly tell you that this was the best training I have received in five years with Hillel and while it was difficult at times to go through the kinds of issues we discussed, there is no doubt that the experience (both individually as well as collectively via the last two days at the Capstone retreat that HR organized with outside professional Executive Coach consultants) will make an impact not only on how I manage this Hillel, but also life and family in general.

Long-Term Outcomes

Hillel looks forward to achieving several long-term outcomes from the Next Level Coaching experience:

  • Outstanding Opportunities for Jewish Students on Campus – Hillel’s mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world. By placing strong, inspiring leaders at the helm of its campus-based operations, Hillel will present students with vibrant opportunities to express and explore their Jewish selves.
  • Improved Staff Retention – Many of Hillel’s staff throughout North America are in the early stages of professional life. Some leave the organization to seek other professional challenges or attend graduate school, and others simply experience burnout. By investing in professional excellence and advancement, Hillel hopes to showcase an organizational culture that values professional growth. Potential employees will see Hillel not just as a place to work for a couple of years, but as a place where they can learn and grow during long, rich, and rewarding careers.
  • Creating a Standard for Investing in Professional Leadership – Hillel’s Next Level Coaching experience is a break from the non-profit norm. At so many other non-profit organizations, professional development is either forgotten altogether, or is reduced to a few hundred dollars that an employee can spend to attend a one-day training or conference. The onus is on the employee to figure out what he needs to know and how he can build his skills. Hillel has raised the bar by committing to investments in its professionals that, while difficult to measure in the short term, will pay tremendous dividends in the long term. Hillel’s commitment can inspire other non-profits to invest in their most important assets – their staff – in meaningful and substantive ways.

The Benefits of Coaching for Jewish Communal Organizations

In light of these impacts, Hillel has several insights and recommendations to share with other Jewish organizations that wish to make substantive investments in professional leadership:

Cultivating professional leadership is good for the bottom line. Particularly in a depressed economy, with limited human and financial resources, it is more important than ever to get the most from your organization’s employees.

The Jewish community suffers from a lack of talent coming in to its professional ranks. Talented young (and not-so-young) adults are lured to more lucrative, fast-paced, or cutting edge fields – they may not view Jewish communal life as a place for professional growth. Investing in customized professional development programs can help retain good staff and recruit new staff who are attracted to the organization’s visionary approach to leadership.

Coaching can benefit lay leaders as well as staff. Providing one-on-one coaching to board members and other volunteers can help these stakeholders to find their “leadership voice” and gain confidence, serving as more effective fundraisers, community liaisons, and spokespeople for the organization.

By investing in coaching, and sharing the impacts of coaching upon their organizations, Jewish non-profits can be a part of the most innovative trends in human resources development and can establish themselves as thought leaders in the field.

Rae Ringel is president of The Ringel Group, LLC. This article was provided to us by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.