Supporting managers when they need it most

The two months since the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and subsequent outbreak of war have pushed Jewish organizations and their employees to their limits. Staff at all levels have been doing some of the most demanding work of their careers while also grappling with their own emotions and the collective pain of their communities. 

While everyone is being stretched emotionally, physically and mentally, managers are being called upon to show up in additional ways for their teams — but do they have the resources they need to step up effectively and sustainably, or is there more to be done to support those who are the cornerstones of our organizations?

Even in “ordinary“ times, most nonprofit managers work without sufficient training, resources or tools for their roles. The newly released Leading Edge report “State of the Jewish Workplace 2023,” using data collected months prior to the Oct. 7 attacks, found only 59% of managers and 56% of managers of managers report having a reasonable workload. Even more concerning is that less than 40% of employees in these two groups feel that there are enough people in their organization to do the needed work.

The Jewish nonprofit sector can and must buck this trend by making management training a rite of passage and ongoing support for managers accessible. We know that excellence in management is the most important determinant of employee performance and retention. Managers create conditions that enable their teams to execute and implement their organization’s vision. They motivate employees to accomplish their goals. Without well-trained and supported managers, our organizations simply cannot deliver on their missions.

Leading Edge’s data demonstrates how our field’s managers felt in spring 2023. What about now?

At JPro, we’ve heard directly about the significant challenges managers are facing in the weeks since Oct. 7. One manager is feeling conflicted, because they are being asked by their boss to move forward with regular business while they and their direct reports feel called to pivot to meaningfully respond to the war. Another manager, who worked hard to foster the inclusion of a direct report who previously felt isolated because of their identity, expressed concern about the possibility of losing this staff member because they now felt politically alienated from their organization. Yet another manager, one who is less familiar with the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said they are struggling to find information that would help them support their colleagues. 

These new challenges exacerbate preexisting capacity limitations, requiring more from managers who frequently do not have sufficient bandwidth or support systems in place. 

Managers should not be left to address these challenges alone. Otherwise, lack of management training, combined with managers’ stretched capacities and workloads, have ripple effects across all layers of staff and impede organizations’ abilities to fulfill their critical missions. Addressing these deficits requires a multifaceted approach, involving funders, organizational leaders and managers themselves:

  • Funders can invest further in initiatives that support managers, providing tools to increase their effectiveness and opportunities to reduce feelings of isolation. Many of the resources targeted to supporting senior leaders are not available to middle management, including peer networks, retreats and investments in both professional development opportunities and personal wellness. While full democratization of these types of offerings, especially on a short turnaround, is unlikely, we’ve seen through COVID response the impact that Jewish funders can have when they act quickly to meet urgent needs, particularly with agreement on common goals for collective impact. Recognition of the specific and pressing needs of middle managers, and investment in the resources and training that can help them navigate this time and beyond, has the ability to dramatically impact our organizations’ abilities to grow stronger through this unprecedented time in Jewish life.
  • Organizational leaders can model appropriate boundary-setting by taking mental health days, setting healthy limits, adjusting other work timelines to make space for new tasks related to Israel, and so on. Additionally, middle managers often have a more direct line into morale and employee culture, so creating space for them to articulate to leadership what they are seeing can help address concerns among staff before they grow. Lastly, prioritizing investment in managers’ professional development and peer network-building, even in times of competing priorities, ensures that these key team members have both the skills and the supports they need to rise to meet the challenges they are facing and do their best work.
  • Managers themselves have a key role in self-reflection and advocacy. What tools and resources do you need in order to do your job most effectively? When opportunities come up, or professional development budgets are assigned, do you invest in your own skills? Too often, professional development and connection building is viewed either as “nice to have” (ergo quick to be eliminated in times of crisis) or as “remedial” (i.e. that seeking training in areas of core responsibility might imply that you don’t already possess the skills and expertise needed to do your job effectively). Investment in continuous learning and improvement is essential for any employee to do their job well and in the case of managers also benefits the whole team, for a magnified return on investment.

Leading Edge’s survey data, JPro’s own research and literature from across the field has consistently highlighted that effective managers are essential to employee performance, development and retention. Supporting managers — both by teaching them skills they can implement to work more effectively, and by connecting them to management-level peers to lessen isolation and tap into problem-solving networks — has been a key priority for JPro for over two years. Yet the data demonstrates that there is much more work to be done, and it will take continued commitment at all levels  — from funders, leaders and managers themselves — to ensure that excellence in management becomes our new baseline.

Laura Herman is JPro’s director of program and evaluation, and Deirdre Munley is JPro’s chief strategy officer.