Trust in Transition: The Story of Mayyim Hayyim’s Recent Executive Transition

by Carrie Bornstein and Aliza Kline

[The recent leadership transition at Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center can be instructive to other organizations in transition especially those who face the change from start up to “second stage.”

Now eleven years old, Mayyim Hayyim was envisioned by Anita Diamant and built by founding executive director Aliza Kline to be a new kind of resource serving the Greater Boston Jewish community and beyond. Mayyim Hayyim is a mikveh (ritual bath), education center, and art gallery open to everyone who wishes to enter. In its first decade, Mayyim Hayyim welcomed thousands of visitors for quiet, personal experiences, classes, art exhibits and large-scale community events.

Aliza Kline was hired in 2001, and in January 2012 announced her resignation, effective August 2012. Carrie Bornstein, previously Mayyim Hayyim’s assistant director, and acting executive director during Aliza’s sabbatical in Israel, stepped into the role of executive director.]

Carrie: When I told friends and colleagues I’d be taking on the role of Executive Director at Mayyim Hayyim, they were thrilled. When I told them Aliza would return to work for the summer following her sabbatical so we could overlap for two months, they were horrified – and I hadn’t even told them yet that we’d be sharing an office.

But I was never worried about the “overlap.” I was honored the board chose the “promote from within” route and the fact that I was going to have my role model and mentor back for the summer was great news. Part of me wanted to slide back into the assistant director role watching her in action; part of me wanted to have her shadow me. In reality, both happened.

Aliza: As for the summer’s overlapping weeks in the office, I too was both looking forward to it and not quite sure what to expect. Where would I sit? What, if any, authority would I have? Could I actually keep my mouth shut and let Carrie run things? (I am better at talking than listening, and very accustomed to making decisions at Mayyim Hayyim). My role was different than it had been. I observed more and listened more, but rarely felt like I was biting my tongue. Mostly I answered a lot of questions, trying to transfer as much data from my head as possible, and looking to Carrie to set priorities.

There were a number of factors that made for a smooth and successful leadership transition.

1. Aliza’s commitment to developing leadership

Carrie: When I asked Aliza how she wanted to spend her time transitioning out of the job she held for the past eleven years, she said, “I want to be helpful to you.”

Aliza focused on the needs of Mayyim Hayyim and its new leader. In past years, Aliza had invested in my development, creating a new full-time position for me, supporting me during my pregnancy, paid leave and return to work, introducing me to community leaders and encouraging me to take on greater responsibility within the organization, promoting me to assistant director. When Aliza prepared for her sabbatical, she both coached me and hired a professional coach to help me assume the role of acting E.D.

Aliza: Letting go is an important lesson for founders, for leaders, for parents. Being an effective executive leader requires that you surround yourself with talented, passionate staff who ensure the organization will continue to mature, flourish and deepen its services. It felt good to watch Carrie grow, learn, and run the place skillfully; she allowed me to spend a precious year with my family in Israel, confident the organization (my “fourth baby”) would thrive.

Carrie entered the organization in 2006 as a volunteer Mikveh Guide, the most important volunteer role in the organization. Carrie’s abilities and need to grow pushed me to rethink our organizational structure and create the position of assistant director, a promotion that freed me to initiate more organizational growth.

2. Coaching / Getting Support

Carrie: Judy Elkin, a professional coach, was a key element in our success. She provided a safe space to strategize and analyze, vent, and see the positives when I got down. She also helped me take ownership of the transition and prepare for the “high-low” talk with Aliza: “What’s our best case scenario for this transition?” This helped me clarify what I wanted – and what I didn’t want – out of our transition time.

Because Aliza had also worked with Judy, she understood the job and the organization well and thanks to her guidance and input, Aliza and I shared a common language about the transition.

Aliza: I also turned to past mentors, both friends and colleagues. My first call was to Aliza Mazor, executive director of Bikkurim, an expert in organizational change, who I asked about ways to inform staff and lay partners about my decision to resign; she identified common pitfalls of professional transition and suggested ways to avoid them.

David Trietsch of the Leadership Development Institute at Combined Jewish Philanthropies guided the board through a thoughtful process as they considered next steps; he helped board members feel comfortable and confident about their decisions.

3. We are women

Carrie: I’m not sure how it makes a difference but it must. The fact that Aliza’s “most productive decade” included launching Mayyim Hayyim AND giving birth to and raising three children – proves that family life and work can be successfully balanced. She created a culture that demands excellence from staff and also provides flexibility, support and understanding for personal needs. I watched Aliza arrive at 9:00 am and walk out at 5:00 pm and while there were evening community events, and off-hour emails, grant writing and travel, she led by example. (Of course, it also helped that we each have husbands who take responsibility for balancing two full-time careers and raising young children.)

Aliza: What may be most “feminine” in our process was open and frequent communication and our inclination to seek guidance and support from mentors and advisors.

4. Trust

Aliza: It is hard to leave an organization that you founded. I wanted to “leave it in good hands,” confident that my successor would maintain and improve what I built. Because of our communication style, the board’s thoughtful process and participation, and our friendship – I trust that with Carrie in charge, Mayyim Hayyim will grow and flourish.

Carrie Bornstein is Executive Director at Mayyim Hayyim. Aliza Kline, is the former Executive Director and currently Senior Project Director, Advancing Women Professionals, Consultant to Jewish Education Project.

Lessons from Mayyim Hayyim

  • Make a Commitment to Leadership Development – It is essential to recognize talent among professional staff and support their growth with promotions, compensation and organizational input.
  • Get Help – Outside voices can provide insight and feedback as well as valuable expertise not only for staff but for board members, who must also navigate this change and come out the other side feeling positive and empowered.
  • Encourage a Feminine Approach – Communicate openly, promote flexibility and support for personal needs.
  • Build Strong Relationships and Trust – Clarify desires and hopes for the organization’s future and how the relationship with the founding executive director will work.