Rethinking Hiring: Attitude over Experience?

by Aaron Margulis

A couple of months ago Maxyne Finkelstein published a thoughtful piece about the impending retirement of a large number of established Jewish communal professionals, and questioned whether enough investment has been made in training or readying the next cohort.

She correctly recognizes that the current marketplace can be fickle, and that organizations need to be inspiring, relevant and capable of retaining great talent to succeed. She is absolutely right on those points. However, before we talk about training and retaining emerging leaders, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and address how many Jewish communal organizations approach the hiring the process, something about which I have become more familiar over the past few months.

Having been with my current organization for more than five years (and more than fifteen in this field), most of those in a leadership capacity, I decided a few months ago to explore other opportunities. My preference is to head an agency and apply my experience and the lessons I’ve learned serving in various leadership roles that involved financial, strategic and personnel decisions.

Despite this experience, and an obvious dedication to the field, I most often face scrutiny over a hole in my experience, and not on the strengths I bring to the process. (I’m not writing this piece out of anger, as I realize there are many qualified candidates and I may not be the right match at a particular place.) Instead of being asked questions on how I could apply lessons learned, or what kind of management style I prefer, I get multiple questions often asked in a disapproving tone about my lack of specific, direct engagement with a particular portfolio. A small deficiency outweighs other positive attributes or characteristics.

I shared this overall experience with a well-respected and accomplished Jewish professional in the area. He expressed similar disappointment with the hiring process, recalling the last time he was in the running for a leadership position. In multiple interviews, he lamented, people questioned him repeatedly about one particular area not highlighted on his resume, instead of focusing on the many accomplishments he had enjoyed as a professional. He had to spend more time allaying people’s fears, instead of being able to inspire and impress them with his ideas and capabilities.

Too often, I believe, those involved in the hiring process quickly scan resumes and cover letters looking to rule people out on a technicality, rather than looking for potential leaders. This approach, unfortunately, has consciously or subconsciously reinforced the notion that to lead an organization in this field you have to spend a couple of years in development, a couple in planning, maybe a couple in programming, and maybe some time in another area in order to be considered capable of assuming a leadership role. Young professionals think they need to go from one department to the next getting their passport stamped in order to be eligible to enter the executive suite.

This approach has many negative consequences, from talented people pursuing paths outside of the Jewish community due to frustration, or stymieing the development and growth of an individual who may demonstrate real excellence in a particular sub-specialty but feels the need to develop a more diverse resume knowing that future search committees or recruiters may look for the hole.

If we want to have a strong, dynamic Jewish communal field, we need to rethink what we look for in potential leaders. First, we should recognize that gifted, successful leaders do not need to possess a deep skill-set in every area of management. Successful leaders will understand their strengths and surround themselves with talented individuals capable of complementing or compensating for any deficiencies, creating a well-rounded management team that can achieve desired outcomes.

Second, while not completely discounting experience or existing skill-sets, search committees and recruiters should focus more on character and attitude. As former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher, noted, “we can change skill levels through training, but we can’t change attitude.” Leadership today requires individuals to build teams that can collaborate, foster cultures that attract quality workers, and maintain positive relationships with key stakeholders, more so than having a bit of experience in different pre-existing categories. Leadership today is more about motivation, teamwork, inspiration and vision than having climbed various rungs on the traditional ladder.

As we contemplate the retirement of existing Jewish communal leaders and look for the next group that will drive innovation in this field, let’s reexamine how we define and search for leadership. Once we identify individuals with the right attitude and potential, we can and should shift the conversation back to training and support.

Aaron Margulis is Department Director for a mid-size education organization.