Suggestions for the Next Generation of Jewish CEO’s

by Robert Hyfler PhD

The most predictable fact about Jewish communal life in the next generation is that the profile of future executives will differ from that of their predecessors. We can expect, as but three examples, greater gender balance, a diversity of educational and prior career backgrounds and stronger Jewish experiences. While all without exception are for the better, new styles and backgrounds bring with them new challenges, trade-offs and potential pitfalls. Herein are suggestions for the next generation of CEO’s, useful to all but perhaps particularly useful to those newly transported to Jewish professional leadership who will, along with homegrown talent, potentially enrich and ennoble our field. As the saying goes, “you’re not in Kansas anymore”.

Legislative Leadership Trumps Executive Leadership

In the Jewish world everyone has leverage over everyone else. Success is measured by the CEO’s ability to forge coalitions of the willing and at times not so willing. The Jewish nonprofit CEO cannot dictate outcomes nor make representations or promises with the same freedom as some of her private sector counterparts. Boards and committees defer to paid management only to a point. Honeymoons can be short and institutional gossip can be rampant. Authority must be exerted judicially and humility and compromise often provide payout. In moments of success, praise and credit must be widely diffused. In moments of defeat the arrogant and imaginary “all powerful” have few defenders.

Cultivate an Anthropological Imagination

Organizations have similarities but cultures have their uniqueness. The best executives see their organization, their community and the chosen world they operate in from the inside out. Observe and study hard. Embrace your new world and your new field. Generalizations from academic studies and business periodical insights (which I am quite fond of) take one only so far. We are a people of deep memory and profound communal and institutional pride. To borrow a phrase from Ahad HaAm, new wine must be aged in old casks.

Understand the Distinction between Vision and Strategy

Vision gives you the ability to think expansively, strategy gives you the license to say no when appropriate. Vision raises our belief in a more perfect community, strategy forces us to think of our unique institutional roles and what is doable and sustainable. Bluntly, we are not in the business of social engineering, of defining and creating the “new Jew”. Messianism has a checkered history in our past. We are structuralists who are in the sometimes derided day to day business of creating and perpetuating systems of excellence and meaning that will, hopefully, be places where members of the community come seeking the tools and support to enrich their personal and communal lives. Ironically, when we stick to our task, lives are often saved and transformed.

Give your Boards and Committees a Definition of their Potential Success and Failure

If a primary responsibility of a board is to hold the executive accountable then a primary responsibility of the CEO is to make it clear to the board what their successes and failure would look like and mean. For too long we have been ignoring the lay-professional partnership, the essential role of boards in resource development and the mix of vision and practicality that comes from volunteer bodies. All are in need of a 21st century upgrade and reboot. Are we surprised when frustrated, directionless and underutilized boards turn beyond existing professional ranks in choosing their professional partners?

Be the Fundraiser in Chief not Chief Fundraiser

I was told of a respected Rabbi who approached a major benefactor with a request that the benefactor’s adult son not participate in a public event that would bring controversy upon the community. The benefactor, though taken aback, spoke with his son who agreed to his father’s request. Months later the Rabbi approached the benefactor for a large donation. The benefactor declined saying, “Last year you approached me as my Rabbi and I acquiesced; now you are asking me for money and I choose to say no”.

The CEO wears many hats; primary among them is to ensure the financial stability and growth of the organization. However that which may be primary is not exclusive. The credibility and standing of a CEO as fundraiser is contingent upon her behavior, standing and leadership at many times and in many areas – fundraising prowess being the very least of them. When a donor meets with the CEO they want to hear something more than an ask, and they want to see in front of them something more than a fundraiser.

Loyalty is a Two Way Street with Your Staff

An executive’s staff can make or break an agenda. Trust me, I live in New Jersey.

Executives who succeed speak regularly for their staff in discussions with their board and sensitize staff to their own agenda and board needs and priorities.

CEO’s must not only exemplify independent thinking and call out mediocrity but must respect and honor staff who do the same.

When outside consultants are utilized it must be made clear that they are there to complement the staff partnership and teamwork not undermine it.

The future will undoubtedly bring a spotlight on salary differentials. The CEO, who will make a good living and have a comfortable and respectable retirement, must make certain that the same can go for those who have their back.

Find your Inner Geek/Nerd/ or Thinker – Doing and Thinking are not Antithetical

Thinkers and pundits seem to be ubiquitous in the Jewish world and headline conferences on a regular basis. Unfortunately, all too few of them have had real experience in an institutional communal setting. And with some wonderful exceptions the voices of our professional leaders often speak volumes in their silence. The CEO’s credibility as a person of action is not compromised by a penchant for Jewish textual musings or the writing of an honest and thoughtful article. Many of our incoming professional leaders have an experience of Jewish education and a sense of Jewish history not present in or available to their predecessors. All is not branding and positioning. Find the time to write, to think and to talk in your most authentic voice. If Ben Gurion was able to find the time, you can too.

Bob Hyfler is an organizational consultant with over 30 years experience in communal life. He was recruited from the “outside” by the Council of Jewish Federations and was sent for an immersion year at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation where he was tutored by some of the professional and lay greats of that generation. He can be reached at Bobhyfler@comcast.net