What Matters Most? 2 Pros from 2 Generations Reflect on Staff Development

Why is it that when we have the ability to motivate and empower others, we ruin it by mainly talking, rather than listening, and first giving our own opinion rather than asking theirs?
Marci Mayer Eisen, 30+ year career professional

Being asked for my opinion supports my own growth and reinforces that I want to start my nonprofit career in the Jewish community.
Emilie Docter, 2013 MSW Recipient

Marci Mayer Eisen spends a great deal of time learning how staff members view their jobs and the culture of their organizations through her role as Director of the Millstone Institute, a community-wide initiative of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Emilie Docter is completing her MSW internship with the Millstone Institute. As supervisor and supervisee, they see the issue of supervision as vital for professional growth, and one that they have been discussing in depth with each other for the past 10 months.

Where would we be without quality supervision? For Marci, except for an occasional conference during the first 20 years of her career, the majority of her learning was through the sanctity of supervision. “I remember eagerly looking forward to that one special hour a week when my supervisor helped me feel appreciated and supported and at the same time challenged me to expand my thinking, try new skills and take on increased responsibility,” Marci says. “While most of the time the feedback was positive, even when I was being critiqued to improve, I felt trusted and respected. In other words, supervision was a safe place to learn and improve. In return, I was highly motivated to give back to the organization and the Jewish community.”

Before starting her practicum with the Millstone Institute last fall, Emilie experienced a classic case of task-oriented supervision. She says, “When I had my first conversation with Marci and was offered a chance to create my own agenda and was given an hour of time to learn and process each week, I was shocked. I had come to understand supervision as a place where the tasks at hand came before anything else. The idea that I would get to discuss my own thoughts, both good and bad, was a very comforting feeling.” When supervision is about the supervisee, it gives a chance for one to feel empowered, challenged and motivated.

In the May 2, 2013, issue of eJewish Philanthropy, Mark Young clearly and boldly presents a vision for attracting and retaining the best young professionals. While everyone at all levels of the organization would appreciate higher salaries, the $54,000 solution is not sustainable. As Young also wrote, “People stay (or leave) because of their bosses more often than because of their role or the organization. Supervisors should be a reason to stay, not leave.” As Young identifies, another approach to retaining young Jewish professionals is to reprioritize supervision and professional development.

We recognize that financial packages vary by type of organization and region of the country. However, growing one’s own skills as a professional is a consistently high priority and should be attainable for all professionals. Emilie offers, “While I would love to get paid more, as most young professionals do, I was aware going into the field that money is not the goal. Instead, as new professionals, we enter a job with the desire and motivation to make a difference.

What keeps us in the job is not the salary, but the chance for growth and professional development both within supervision and through outside training. We want to feel like we are valued.”

Professional development has to be explicit, both as a benefit and a set expectation. With the Internet, social media, webinars and an abundance of professional development programs, there is easy access to knowledge and much of it is reasonable in cost. Unfortunately, it has become common to hear about professionals, eager for professional growth, required to use their own money and vacation time to participate in training. When outside training isn’t readily available, the supervisory relationship becomes even more critical for reinforcing professional development.

Marci reflects, “While I am disappointed when training isn’t seen as integral for professional growth, I am even more alarmed at the infrequency of quality, consistent, learning-oriented supervision.” Both Marci and Emilie have spoken with colleagues throughout St. Louis and in other cities and have learned that learning-based supervision is rare. Many younger staff do not even understand the difference between task supervision and process-oriented supervision and therefore haven’t experienced what it means to have professional development through supervision.

Here’s what we’ve heard:

  • “I get no supervision at all except for spending a few minutes each week where my supervisor checks on what tasks I’ve accomplished.”
  • “We’re supposed to meet weekly, but it’s usually every 2 to 3 weeks.”
  • “I report to both the rabbi and the exec, so I’m not even sure who is my official supervisor.”
  • “My supervisor asked how I’m doing, and then she spent most of our time together talking about problems in our organization.”
  • “I dread my weekly supervision because it’s usually about what I’m doing wrong.”
  • “I’ve been here three years and no one has ever asked me what motivates me or even how I feel about my work.”

Making the conscious decision to embrace learning-based supervision can change the culture of an organization. The research and our personal experience confirm that positive supervision has an infinite impact on both the success and morale of the employee and also directly contributes to a healthy and successful organization. Clearly, investing in employees upfront raises the opportunities for success and reinforces long-term commitment. It also saves the organization money in the long run.

While it sounds basic, process-oriented supervision, especially for the younger professional, ideally takes place one hour per week, or perhaps every other week. The supervisor eliminates distractions and comes from behind the desk to focus on the learning of the staff person. The types of meaningful discussions are endless and should include both open ended and specific questions. Quality supervision, even when provided just once a month, can have profound impact on confidence, self-awareness, motivation and skill development.

If you’re the supervisor who is falling short on helping your staff feel that they are your priority, explore the reasons. Do you really not have the time? Are you comfortable asking open-ended questions? Might you feel anxious when you have to listen, rather than talk? Do you trust your staff person? Are you hesitant to give feedback that might be perceived as critical? Are you able to “let go” and share some of the decision-making? Are you receiving the support you need from your own director or board so that you can in turn empower others?

Supervision and consistent staff meetings are critical for a well-functioning staff and especially important for helping young professionals develop confidence, feel valued and strengthen their skills.

In the long run, our community needs intelligent, effective and happy employees, something that we cannot achieve only with more money. We must insist that supervisors and CEOs/executive directors provide the structure and support for professionals to succeed at all levels. In return, our young professionals will renew their commitments to Jewish community careers and our current professional leaders will be re-inspired by the energy and wisdom needed for today and in to the future.

Marci Mayer Eisen is Director of the Millstone Institute at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, a community-wide initiative to support, strengthen and inspire professionals, board members and volunteers throughout the St. Louis community. A graduate of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Marci previously worked at the JCC and JCRC. She currently serves on the board of JCSANA – Jewish Communal Service Association of North America.

Emilie Docter will receive her MSW from the George Warren Brown School of Social Work of Washington University in St. Louis on May 17, 2013. At graduation, she will be recognized with the 2013 Dr. Clara Louise Myers Outstanding Practicum Student Award for Individualized Study. Emilie is a 2011 graduate of Scripps College and looks forward to starting her career as a professional in the Jewish community.