The Value of the CEO Onboarding Program

By Dov Ben-Shimon and Stefanie Rhodes

Once you accept the role of CEO at a major American Jewish organization, there’s no road map for how to become a leader.

In theory, our past experiences had prepared us for new positions. No one prepared us, or our colleagues in Cohort One of the CEO Onboarding Program, for that first day walking through the door into our new roles.

We came in with so many questions. What are the obvious missteps to avoid? What are the quick victories that could set us up for success? Who’s rooting for us to succeed? What questions do we not even know to ask?

The North American Jewish communal “system” has an array of programs for new hires and mid-level managers. Until now, we’ve not had a framework that takes new CEOs of American Jewish organizations and gives them a peer network for guidance, mentorship, coaching opportunities and skills development.

We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have participated in Cohort One of the CEO Onboarding Program. The different levels of experience each cohort member brought to the group, along with their unique skills and expertise, transcended the size of each organization and the issues with which we work. We each learned from one another over the past year, and we know we’ll keep learning long past the last day of the program.

The past year also has been a journey in understanding how we bring our own personalities and strengths to our roles, and how these qualities play into our individual successes, now and in the future. As part of the program, our time at the Center for Creative Leadership provided an individualized picture of our personal leadership styles. The support of an Executive Coach helped us build on that piece of the onboarding puzzle. For many of us, the combination empowered us to bring our whole selves into our new roles in a way that could strengthen our impact and set us – and our organizations – up for success.

As this incredible journey draws to a close, we find we are all better CEOs for having had this opportunity (others can have this opportunity too by applying for cohort 2 now). Our organizations, and the Jewish world, are the ultimate benefactors of this incredible investment.

Here are some key insights from our year in this program.

1. Collaboration is key to success. Not only have we built meaningful relationships as a cohort, we’ve also used those connections to create new professional ties between our organizations. These ties reflect the vibrancy and diversity of our American Jewish life. At a time when so much in our community is fragmented and divisive, we’ve formed a group that has collaborated and cooperated on everything from funding to programming.

2. Size matters, but value matters more. One of us (Dov) is the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, one of the largest Jewish Federations in the country. The other (Stefanie) is the Executive Director of Slingshot, one of the smaller-sized Jewish nonprofits in terms of staffing. Many of the issues we face, however, are similar. Learning from each other, and drawing on our varying backgrounds, offered new ideas and solutions for each of us.

3. Expert coaching is a special opportunity. One of the major benefits of the program was having a coach assigned for personal time on a regular basis. Coaching provided us with powerful, confidential guidance about holding difficult conversations, hiring and firing, and budgeting and planning. Anyone fortunate be a part of Cohort Two will experience the same highly personalized, ongoing elite coaching that makes this program unique.

4. Follow the wise. We were blessed to have meetings and discussions with great leaders of the American Jewish scene. They gave advice and perspective, and guided us through the process. In general, we don’t have enough opportunities to hear from those who came before us in our roles, and this was a well-needed resource.

5. The role goes with you, wherever you are. There were so many “real-time” learnings during the year. One that especially sticks with us occurred in Jerusalem. Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro was briefing us on U.S.-Israel relations and their impact on the American Jewish community. At the very same time, we watched several colleagues deal with bomb threats to their institutions in real time. The lesson was clear: Our role as leaders never ceases.

We know it will be a challenging and enlightening year ahead for us, as we step away from the CEO Onboarding Program and continue to establish ourselves as CEOs of our organizations. We want to live up to the ideals of Jewish communal service and to set an example for those who come after us.

We’re grateful for the vision of Leading Edge and the generous support of the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Weinberg Foundation, the Schusterman Foundation, the Diller Foundation, and other generous funders. We’re thankful for our leadership and boards for supporting us and validating our participation.

Most importantly, we’re inspired by the message this program sends: The funders of the American Jewish community are committed to our future – and to the role of Jewish communal CEOs in getting us there.

Dov Ben-Shimon is Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Stefanie Rhodes is Executive Director of Slingshot.

Learn more about Cohort Two of the CEO Onboarding Program. Applications are open.