Leadership matters

The job multiverse: How similarly do CEOs and employees experience work?

In Short

Understanding how top leaders experience their work is vital for boards, funders, CEOs themselves and the field at large. We have seen consistently over time that trusted leadership, and high leadership performance, are factors that are both variable and strongly correlated with organizational success.

The poet John Keats once wrote, “Nothing ever becomes real ‘til it is experienced.” And he was right. It’s one thing to hear a story about, say, flying over your bike’s handlebars while mountain biking in Israel, but trust me, doing it is so different from hearing about it that it’s another reality entirely. 

For people in the workplace, being in a different role from someone else is one of many factors that can lead to having vastly different experiences — living in different realities. What about CEOs and employees at Jewish organizations? How are our experiences the same or different?

Every year (with the exception of 2020), Leading Edge conducts an Employee Experience Survey. Our primary purpose for the survey is to provide an analytics tool that helps Jewish nonprofit leaders and managers better understand their workplace culture. With questions ranging from mission alignment to internal communications and from management practices to psychological safety, the survey gives an in-depth look into the world of work. With more and more organizations opting to take part in the survey every year, Leading Edge is able to glean insights into Jewish nonprofit professionals’ experiences. 

This year, however — for the first time — we piloted an additional CEO survey just for top-most professionals: CEOs, executive directors and other equivalent titles. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to them simply as CEOs.) Since the CEO’s experience leading their organization is notably different from the rest of the professional team’s experience, this survey focused on the CEO experience only. 

Understanding how top leaders experience their work is vital for boards, funders, CEOs themselves and the field at large. We have seen consistently over time that trusted leadership, and high leadership performance, are factors that are both variable and strongly correlated with organizational success. Leadership really matters! That’s why we wanted to take this deep dive into how CEOs in Jewish nonprofits experience their work, their relationships with their senior teams, their board relationships and their perspectives of their most common strengths and struggles. 

So now that we have both surveys, we can ask, and answer, this question: What’s different, and what’s the same, about how CEOs and their employees are experiencing work in our sector? And what does that mean for our field?

Two Similarities

Here are two areas where CEOs and employees in the sector seem to be strongly aligned in their experiences:

  1. Most CEOs and employees feel their organizations have been taking meaningful steps regarding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). 72% of CEOs agree that “My organization is taking meaningful steps to address diversity, equity and inclusion,” while 70% of employees agree that “My organization demonstrates a genuine commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.” It would be better if these numbers were higher, but they do represent a strong majority. It’s important to remember that “meaningful steps” isn’t the same as saying, “mission accomplished.” Even as 72% of CEOs say their organizations are taking meaningful steps on DEI, 68% of CEOs also say (in response to a different question) that DEI is “a growth area” at their organization. This practice is very much a work in progress in our field.
  2. Most people feel their organizations are understaffed. This is something we have seen every year in the Employee Experience Survey data and, unsurprisingly, find a shared experience between CEOs and employees. 44% of CEOs agree that “Our organization has the staff we need to fulfill our mission,” compared to 42% of employees who agree that “There are enough people to do the work we need to do.” This finding is straightforward, but important. In the midst of a shifting workforce and the redefinition of work, organizations may lose valuable employees due to understaffing and overworking. Running a lean organization may not be all it’s cracked up to be and will likely lead to even more of an overwork issue as the most put-upon and stretched employees search for more balanced opportunities elsewhere.

Two Differences

Here are two areas where CEOs and employees diverge:

  1. CEOs have a harder time unplugging. It’s no surprise, but it’s still worthy of note — leadership is very demanding! Only 32% of CEOs say “I have enough opportunities to disconnect from work,” compared to 55% of employees — a 23% gap. Honestly, both of these numbers should be much higher than they are if we want organizations to achieve their best performance. Turnover, burnout and languishing have real costs — human costs, financial costs and social costs to the mission. But for leaders, the problem seems to be especially acute. Leaders, boards and funders should take seriously the need to allow top leaders to have time to disconnect to mitigate potential burnout. 

There is also an equity angle here. In our report released this summer, The Gender Gap in Jewish Nonprofit Leadership: An Ecosystem View, we found that the perception that you cannot be a top leader and a primary caregiver at the same time is one of five “keystone” causes of the gender gap in top Jewish leadership. Everyone needs time outside of work just for the sake of their mental health and well-being. It is also worth noting that leaders who do not take breaks or unplug are setting a harmful example for their employees and the next generation of leaders. 

  1. CEOs feel like they’re getting things done. Employees? Maybe not as much. 90% of CEOs agree that “Most days I feel that I am making progress with my work,” compared to 78% of employees — a 12% gap. Both numbers are relatively high, which is another piece of good news for the field. Feelings of daily progress are incredibly important. Every year, in our Employee Experience Survey report, we analyze what differentiates people who want to stay at their organizations from people who want to leave their organizations, and this year feelings of daily progress is one of the vital factors for retention. 90% of employees who said they want to stay at their organization for two years or more also reported feeling that they make daily progress in their work. Among those who want to leave their organizations within two years, just 44% said they make progress each day at work (a 46% gap). Other research also shows the importance of progress to employee engagement. The fact that CEOs are more likely than employees to feel they are making progress should prompt CEOs to explore this more. It’s tempting to assume that others experience work the same way we do, but this question shows that for many CEOs and employees, there may be a disconnect. Some CEOs may therefore be missing opportunities to figure out how to remove barriers to their employees getting things done, in ways that would benefit everyone.

There’s more to be said. There are other similarities, and other differences, between the perspectives of CEOs and employees at Jewish nonprofits. To explore them, I hope you’ll read both survey reports! (Find them at leadingedge.org/resources.) And if you’re an organizational leader whose organization has not yet participated in our surveys, consider joining us for the Employee Experience Survey and CEO Survey in 2022! Registration will open in January. Getting this type of feedback from your staff gives you information to support building a better workplace culture. Data and information are just means to that end, but you can’t get to what should be until you understand what is.

As we rapidly approach the end of the calendar year, we wish for you a 2022 of great work life, great life away from work, great colleagues (and enough colleagues) and a workplace culture where everyone feels and knows that they are included and belong.

Alena Akselrod is senior program director at Leading Edge.