Take an Inside Look at CEO Transitions in Major Jewish Organizations

By Sandy Cardin and Gali Cooks

The nonprofit world is in the midst of several simultaneous seismic shifts, three of which are the current massive intergenerational transfer of wealth, the push for gender equality and the large number of impending leadership transitions. C-suite changes are times during which organizations often struggle to find effective ways to find the proper balance between their sense of loss on one hand and, on the other, their desire to capitalize on the opportunity to clarify their vision and/or reinvigorate their sense of purpose. 

In an effort to pull back the curtain on the many challenges posed by leadership transitions, Leading Edge recently commissioned a series of case studies profiling CEO transitions at six different major Jewish organizations across the country: American Jewish World Service, Bend the Arc, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, a JCC in the Midwest, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, and Tufts Hillel. What we learned were valuable lessons about how Jewish organizations can best prepare and position leaders to succeed. 

These case studies offer a candid, personal look at the inner workings of a CEO transition process. They are rich with first person accounts from key figures involved – the outgoing and incoming CEOs, board members, search committee members, and others – and address key issues for Jewish organizations today, including gender and generational differences in approach to leadership, organizational culture change, best practices for search committees, and more.

We are sharing these stories now because we are living in a time of great opportunity and great risk for the entire sector. It is critical that each of us do our part to help as many organizations as possible navigate their succession challenges in a way that strengthens their management teams and positions them to thrive in the months and years ahead. The leaders chosen today will set the direction for their organizations and the entire field for years to come; the social fabric of our society will be in their hands.

In the case studies series, three stories highlight internal candidates who were selected as the new CEO and three highlight stories of external candidates who were selected. But they all reflect and articulate the deep level of intentionality, thoughtfulness, and purpose with which the board and search committee approached the process.

The learnings come through in clear, sometimes surprising ways, and can inform other organizations’ approaches to leadership and leadership transitions.

As one example, the case study on Bend the Arc’s transition captures a “breakthrough” moment for new CEO Stosh Cotler. “…a breakthrough came when she spoke with a male CEO who was moving to a larger organization that required experience handling real estate finances, an area of expertise that he didn’t have. Cotler asked him about whether that worried him. He replied, ‘I’ll learn.’

“I realized I didn’t think this way. But there’s no reason that I shouldn’t have the same optimistic view of my ability to learn and grow,” [Cotler] says.

The case study on American Jewish World Service chronicles the give-and-take, and even tension, that can occur between an outgoing CEO and an organization’s board, in this instance led then by Kathleen Levin: “‘Ruth couldn’t understand why we couldn’t just blindly accept her choice [of successor], but from a governance perspective, you really need to be careful,’” Levin says. ‘[The selection] can’t be done by one or two board members, it can’t be done by the outgoing CEO. It has to be done by the full board, and every board member has to buy-in, has to feel heard, and has to have the time to deliberate,’ she says.”

These quotes are indicative of the honesty and vulnerability with which the featured organizations approached the process of being interviewed for these case studies.

When Leading Edge was founded in 2014, many organizations that comprise the Jewish nonprofit sector were on the precipice of a long-predicted, generational leadership transition. Five years later, that very transition is happening. Major Jewish organizations recently completed CEO searches, while others are about to embark on theirs. 

Last year, Leading Edge released a CEO Search Committee Guide with best practices for CEO searches and applied them to the Jewish nonprofit sector. Now, we build on that with these fascinating and unique stories of leadership transitions.

The case studies, prepared by Eben Harrell, a senior editor at Harvard Business Review (HBR), are available in both written and audio form at https://leadingedge.org/case-study/. We hope you take time to review them, appreciate the transparency provided by all involved, and gain deeper knowledge about the many elements of effective leadership transitions.

Sandy Cardin is the Chair of Leading Edge, and Gali Cooks is the President and CEO of the organization. It works to influence, inspire, and enables dramatic change in attracting, developing, and retaining top talent for Jewish organizations by creating a forum for the sector to address talent and culture issues. The case study series was funded by the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation.