This Labor Day, Bless Your Workforce

labor dayBy Miriam Brosseau

Labor Day, while not a Jewish holiday, is an ideal time to think about the Jewish professional world and how we can make it better. We asked Mark S. Young, whose ELI Talk “Mah Tovu: Treating Our Workforce with Blessings (Not Curses)” just this past February, to revisit his ideas and his talk in light of the holiday.

We all want to be good people and make the world a better place, but it’s easy to fall short. Why is it so hard for organizations and their leaders to “be a blessing”?

I work from the assumption that all (or the vast majority of) supervisors and leaders in Jewish nonprofits inherently want to be good managers for their staff. But few were actually given the tools to be good managers in a way that our staff will most appreciate and will actually be more productive for the organization. In a sense, we were “given the car keys and now sit behind the wheel, but we never took driver’s ed.” – and that makes for inconsistencies across the field. In addition, we operate in nonprofits from a scarcity model: the assumption that we only have so much money, so much time, so many resources … and it’s the program that needs to be prioritized. We could learn from the for-profit world, or some forward thinking nonprofits who invest largely in their human resources, that investing in staff actually enlarges the pie. It’s been shown to increase productivity and naturally reduce costs over time. It’s an investment model that would lead to more blessings of our work force in our field.

It’s been just over six months since the release of your talk. What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the Jewish organizational landscape since then? How are organizations blessing their workforce? What’s an area where you feel there’s most need for improvement?

Thanks to the work of groups such as Advancing Womens Professionals, Men as Allies, and others, dozens more Jewish organizations are offering paid parental leave AND are proudly using this benefit to recruit and retain talent. I am also impressed by national movements such as Hillel and JCCs who are designing and buying into new expansive programs in talent management and ongoing learning. These are good steps, but not nearly where we could be. Organizations individually need to step up and create succession plans for each of their staff. Leaders need to ask: how can I grow each employee? How can I best compensate and recognize them? I don’t see this pervasively in as part of the Jewish professional world quite yet – but I think we are heading in the right direction.

Your talk hinges on parsha Balak and the story of Balaam, who sets out to curse the Israelites and ends up blessing them. Are there other role models in Jewish text and tradition that you look to as examples of “mah tovu” leadership/management?

I love Pirkei Avot’s “acquire for yourself a mentor.” Looking through the lens of “mah tovu,” I have seen time and again the employees who are provided mentors in their work – and even those called on to mentor – who experience more joy and satisfaction in their work as a result. It’s a simple yet powerful way to share blessings throughout staff culture in an organization every day.

I also think of the prophet Samuel. He provides blessing and guidance to Saul and then David as eventual Kings of Israel. Those Kings were far from perfect, but I would suggest that so much of the good each of them did came from the confidence and blessing stemming from Samuel’s support. He was an attentive and wise mentor to them.

You’ve got two beautiful young children – as they grow up, what message do you want to share with your them related to this idea?

Be kind to yourself and to others. I find that strong management really stems from the kindness and caring we should want to have for everyone, especially those personally and professionally closest to us. My mom (whose maiden name was Kind) always told me this and, in this sense, moms are never wrong.

What’s one thing that Jewish organizational leaders can do today to bless their workforce?

Managers: schedule an hour coffee or meal with each of your staff and ask about them. How are they doing? What’s one thing they are doing out of work for fun? Where do they want to go professionally? Show genuine interest and caring and then figure out how you can use what you are hearing to be a more receptive and responsive manager for each of them. Easy. And sometimes the best compensation, recognition, and training for our employees is to feel heard and responded to. Employees want to know that their supervisor cares about them and shows desire to support their career and personal growth. Try it! Make it a regular event! For both the manager and employee, it’s pretty great.

Miriam Brosseau is Director of Engagement, Program Director of ELI Talks.

Mark S. Young is the Managing Director of the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.