A small nonprofit’s journey from start-up to sustainable
By Esther Mendlowitz
I’ll never forget the day in December 2015 when our CEO casually walked by my desk and said, “We’re talking tonight?” “No,” I said, bemused, seeing nothing on my calendar. He nodded his head, indicating “Yes,” and walked away. That was an atypical exchange, so I knew something was brewing. Evening came around, the phone rang, and the next thing I knew I was being promoted to COO.
It was an unsettling time for our organization. Our former President was recruited to lead a massive Israel-Diaspora Jewry initiative, and huge shoes needed to be filled. Knowing what I know now about organizational life cycles and the perils of navigating them, I give much credit to our CEO for his wisdom to look internally and not jump to hire an outsider to fill them. I had been his partner in co-managing our Film Production Department, along with a woman who is likely the best multi-tasker to exist. (For the curious, making films is a long and complex process involving juggling hundreds of details.) Armed with intimate knowledge of production and how our CEO works, as well as several years under my belt managing small businesses and teams of varying sizes, I was the most likely candidate to take the operational helm.
A world of opportunity had suddenly opened up, and I had an immediate vision: Jerusalem U as a well oiled machine, full of happy, healthy employees doing their best work. Executing this vision was going to take tremendous determination and tenacity – natural traits that have served me well in and out of the office. What I didn’t anticipate needing were the herculean levels of patience, empathy and charisma that mark the most successful leaders – especially those leading organizational change.
Two-and-a-half years later, I’m both proud of our organizational achievements and humbled by the lessons that I and the leadership team have learned along the way. In this series, I’ll be sharing the many parts of our quest toward achieving organizational health – a journey marked by triumphs and failures, and which, by its very nature, continues on.
In 2016, Jerusalem U was what management guru Ichak Adizes calls a classic “Go-Go” organization: opportunity-driven, lacking strategic focus (read: inability or unwillingness to say no to new and diverging business), all projects holding the same priority level (urgent), unclear or non-existent accountabilities (read: “I thought you were taking care of that.”), and reactive management due to lack of planning (no time for that).
Lucky for us, we knew Go-Go was a normal part of the business lifecycle, thanks to a consultant who had introduced us to Adizes’s book “Managing Corporate Lifecycles” and his PAEI method, which still guides much of our operational decision-making. We also embraced and were proud of our entrepreneurial strength, creativity and relentless pioneering drive that mark the Go-Go company. Indeed, these traits remain among our foundational values.
The problem is that companies cannot remain in Go-Go forever without falling into what Adizes calls Founder’s Trap. Many articles have been written about this phenomenon, which I’ll simply describe as a hamster wheel. The company has grown too big for the founder to control all activity and decision-making and therefore she tries to delegate, only to wrest back control when she doesn’t like the decisions. Therein starts the hamster wheel.
Founder: “This place is out of control, and it’s too much for me to handle alone. Get organized and start making things happen without me. Just make sure you get my approval first.”
Leadership Team: “Um, ok.”
To cure or altogether avoid Founder’s Trap, the founder must make the very difficult decision to enter Adolescence. Why difficult? Just visualize your rule-averse, authority-thwarting teenager.
During Adolescence, the founder must give time, space and authority to the operations team to put in systems, structure and controls – practices that are anathema to the entrepreneur, whose successes were borne by antithetical behaviors, like grabbing opportunities and making quick decisions. Few things bother an entrepreneur more than hearing from an administrator, “I’m sorry, we don’t have the resources for that,” or “Great idea, just put it through the process.”
It took tremendous courage for our CEO to take this step and give me the autonomy to lead us through Adolescence. After all, a company can continue to exist in Go-Go & Founder’s Trap indefinitely, and we weren’t in crisis. The decision to deliberately choose this path came from our CEO’s staunch commitment to professional growth and being a driver of change, striving for large-scale impact.
My vision to create a well oiled machine filled with happy, healthy employees in hand, I set out to make our transition as smooth and quick as possible and to create the operational framework for sustainability and scale.
My work as COO orbits around four constellations:
- Building culture
- Executing strategy
- Creating systems and structure
- Deepening management
Reaching our goals in each area has required restructuring, hiring the right people, and adopting and experimenting with a wide array of best practices and guiding principles, which I’ll cover in-depth in upcoming articles in this series.
While technically still in Adolescence, we’re a long way from Go-Go, and our organizational development deepens every day. In Adizes language, our goal is get to Prime: a healthy organization that’s fit for sustainable success.
The first step on the journey toward organizational health is an honest and critical look at where your company sits on the life cycle continuum. This information made all the difference in how we viewed our strengths and weaknesses and approached our growth planning. Knowing what the goal looked like and the steps required to get there provided the compass we needed to lead breakthrough change and attain our vision for the future.
In the next installment of this series, I’ll cover the second step in our quest: building a culture of innovation and trust.
Esther Mendlowitz is COO of Jerusalem U, a digital media company that connects young Jews to Israel and Judaism through media and film. Before joining Jerusalem U, Esther spent 12 years in the magazine publishing industry, serving as Editor-in-Chief of several national industry magazines and peer-reviewed journals, as well as editor of a dozen books on Jewish subjects. She led business development, strategic partnerships and editorial direction of her various publications, representing each title in national and international spheres. After moving to Israel, she served as a teacher of Jewish Studies and school administrator. Esther holds a BA in English and Education from the University of Florida.