What Has Been Invested?

Leaders of high quality organizations of any type or size who are inspiring, mission driven, relevant and well trained are more likely to attract and retain the most gifted talent.

by Maxyne Finkelstein

There has been significant concern expressed and important analysis offered, during the past year, about the imminent retirement of veteran Jewish communal professionals and what will come after… Much of the concern is expressed in the context of an opportunity to create change and/or the impending crisis due to the lack of competent professionals to replace those leaving. Perhaps we can use this time productively and consider the approach to training the current and next generation of professionals and how greater investment could improve organizations and enhance the talent pool.

Blending the two related issues of organizational value and the challenges of recruiting talent, from the onset, creates a limitation on an important discussion of strategic purpose. Recruiting and replacing talent is in itself a critical challenge that will impact many fields in coming decades. The youngest of the baby boomers will be leaving the active work force in the early 2030s based on current trends. When that time arrives we will see the end of a generation which has saturated and shaped many industries and institutions with their values and practices.

While the baby boomer generation of leaders in the Jewish communal field may not have fully prepared for succession, neither have most corporate or nonprofit leaders. In large part this gap exists as many Boards of Directors have not considered timely succession planning. This could be the result of discomfort in having the “planning for retirement conversation”; not being certain of what is needed next or not having resources to plan due to the emphasis on current survival.

One of the most significant transitions in the Jewish communal field began many years ago when leadership began questioning whether an advanced degree in social work was the only valid academic training for a nonprofit executive. This discussion began openly in the early 1980s alongside considering whether training in management, finance and other skills and practices taught in business schools should be added to the tool box of emerging professional leaders.

The 1980s was a long time ago – many employees now in the work force were not even born when this discussion began. Where we have not full met our responsibility during the ensuing 30+ years is by neglecting to require systematic and relevant training for those entering the field. We want this field and related professionals to be recognized as valid, meaningful and as attractive as any other, yet it is rare that we require emerging or veteran professionals to accumulate continuing professional education credits in order to increase compensation or receive a positive evaluation.

We have accepted that executives may emerge from many disciplines beyond social work yet we have not yet fully defined what one should be asked to learn upon entering the field as a young or mature worker. It is not enough to say that someone coming from another field has “an important learning curve”. The nature of that learning curve requires detailed definition. Without definition of what one needs to know, how can we judge satisfactory performance?

This concern is particularly relevant when lay leaders who evaluate CEOs have limited terms, while standards of professional practice need to be measured consistently over many years.

When considering competence of experienced professionals, we may want to ask if we would choose to engage with a physician, financial advisor or computer technician who has not invested in upgrading their skill in 25 years in a meaningful and measurable way. Would it not be easier to recruit young people to the field if they knew that standards of training and measurements of achievement were available and transferable as acquired skills? Think of the value that could be added to organizations if all employers were required to dedicate a small percent of their payroll to defined training for each member of staff and participation was an expectation for advancement. While each of us must take some responsibility for our own professional education what will best serve organizations should be a structural/ strategic as well as personal decision.

The issue of succession is further impacted by a significant dichotomy in the perspective of search committees. The difference in perspective often surfaces in the push and pull between wanting to replace retiring leaders with someone with the same admired qualities (perhaps with a bit more of a corporate image or training) and someone completely different. This dilemma may emerge from a lack of clarity in what skill is required to lead organizations through the 21st century. Addressing this issue requires a long view beyond hiring to resolve current day challenges.

Currently in looking at organizations we tend to approach them through the lens of mainstream (less relevant and perhaps boring to some observers) and start up (relevant and perhaps inspiring to other observers). This lens severely limits the conversation in terms of considering the capacity of all organizations and their value. Both the new and the established are needed and each should be encouraged to develop and thrive. In the past decade there has been many start ups which have opened and closed. At times these failures have also been as a result of a lack of vision of what type of skills are required by professional leaders and little to no funds being dedicated to meaningful professional training from the onset.

New organizations can and should challenge current thinking and encourage us to question our “truths” but they cannot always do the heavy lifting required to have a substantial impact. A few mainstream organizations may continue to survive only due to inertia but most will thrive or disappear due to marketplace demand. At the same time, leaders of high quality organizations of any type or size who are inspiring, mission driven, relevant and well trained are more likely to attract and retain the most gifted talent. These professional leaders will also recruit and sustain champions who see the combination of excellent service and passion as attractive qualities which contribute to creating greater good. These are the professional leaders we all seek for both current and emerging organizations.

Maxyne Finkelstein serves as a Senior Advisor to the Genesis Prize Foundation.