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A Path Forward in Jewish Leadership Development

by Mordy Walfish

In her now-famous study on leadership, Tina Kiefer, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Warwick, asked participants to draw a picture of an effective leader.

She found, not surprisingly, that the overwhelming number of people – no matter their gender – drew a white man. This study points to the fascinating way in which a particular mental model of leadership shapes both how we see the world and how we might imagine our future, as well as our unconscious biases of what a leader looks like. And it begs the question: what might we as a community achieve if we work to expand our mental models of leadership?

The recent report from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) articulates a number of core challenges to attracting and retaining top talent for the Jewish nonprofit sector. In particular, it makes a strong case that without increased career development opportunities and resources for Jewish professionals, it will be challenging for them to succeed in their current roles and to advance into new leadership roles. These are indeed the very challenges that led to the founding of Leading Edge in 2014. And over the past five years, we have been working with our partners to nurture emerging leaders and to support organizations to create the kinds of workplaces that attract the best and brightest.

Through this work, one thing has remained clear: there is no talent crisis. There is no shortage of people ready to roll up their sleeves, enter our workforce, and advance to more senior roles. But all too often, our organizations are not ready for an expansive vision of who a leader is and what a leader looks like. Leading Edge believes it is in the interest of the entire Jewish community to have a vibrant sector that is able to recruit, develop, retain and advance leaders of all genders, races, abilities and sexual orientations. Doing so will require a great deal of intentionality and purpose.

Here are a few insights that Leading Edge has gleaned through our work that may help us all address challenges related to leadership development and retention.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

If we want to recruit diverse talent to both join and grow in our organizations, we need to ensure that our cultures are built to empower a diversity of voices. The 2019 Leading Edge Employee Experience Survey found that while 70% of the employees surveyed believed that their organizations valued diversity, only 53% actually built diverse teams. There is a gap between our aspirations and our actions. To narrow this gap, we need, as Suzanne Feinspan articulates, to support our leaders in examining the implicit biases that we all carry and bring to bear on our work; we need to empower staff with language and skills around equity and inclusion and get board buy-in for creating inclusive organizational cultures. We need to create workplaces that promote trust, respect and psychological safety, making space for courageous conversations that honor diverging perspectives. This not only aligns with our Jewish values, but it also drives stronger outcomes because of the innovation that occurs through the meeting of diverse perspectives.

We also need to ensure that our workplaces are free of harassment, discrimination and abuse. This is something that I think a lot about as a male in a field in which 70% of employees identify as female. I am aware of – and know that I still can learn more about – the opportunities I have been given and the way in which my voice has often been privileged over female colleagues because of my gender.

The process shapes the outcome

We’re all familiar with the old adage “what got you here won’t get you there.”

Given the deeply networked and at times familial nature of our sector, recruitment and hiring in our field is often done in an informal and unstructured way and, more often than not, people hear about jobs through their connections. Networking to find talent can be a tremendous asset – and a tremendous liability that excludes talented and qualified candidates from landing roles because they do not hold the same kinds of relationships with connectors in the community.

Leading Edge recently published a CEO Search Committee Guide, which among other things contains extremely helpful advice from feminist leader Shifra Bronznick, founder of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, on eliminating bias from the process of hiring a new CEO. Bronznick stresses that search committees should run an entirely structured process, from how resumes are rated to how interviews are assessed. Assessors should rate each candidate independently before knowing the ratings from other committee members. This will help eliminate groupthink where bias thrives.

The Limits of Cultural Fit

The recent study commissioned by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative finds that at least 12-15% of the 7.2 million Jews in the United States are Jews of Color. Though we’ve seen emerging efforts to support the leadership of Jews of Color in our community, it is clear that our workforce is nowhere close to representing our community.

Oftentimes the language of “cultural fit” is used to exclude candidates from under-represented groups, such as candidates of color, from being hired. The term cultural fit, which originated in the 1980s, refers to screening potential candidates to determine what type of cultural impact they might have on an organization (e.g. do they align with the values, beliefs and norms of the organization?) While we certainly believe in the importance of cultural alignment, we also see the way in which the language of “cultural fit” may be used to exclude candidates who bring an under-represented identity or perspective to the organization. This feels all the more live in our community, where a prerequisite to being hired is often previous work in or familiarity with the Jewish community. If we think about the history of those who may have been excluded from mainstream Jewish life, it is not hard to see how focusing on “cultural fit” in hiring processes can result in maintaining a certain level of homogeneity in our organizations.

Diversity as a lens

We know in our hearts that the opportunities for leadership are as diverse as the people who make up our community and we are constantly thinking about how we might support and amplify a wide range of models of leadership. We are inspired by such efforts both in our community, such as Yavilah McCoy wrote about recently and models of leadership beyond our immediate community.

People often ask if Leading Edge will create a separate area of work to tackle issues such as women’s leadership. In fact, we are embarking on a project – generously funded by the Genesis Prize Foundation and the SafetyRespectEquity Coalition – to understand and address the root causes of the gender gap in leadership in our community. However, critically, we plan to integrate the learnings and actionable items from this project into all of our efforts, rather than maintaining it as a separate line of work.

This approach, we believe, is indicative of the urgency and possibility we see now in the Jewish leadership space. Yes, we need to act now to fill the void of leadership – and the diversity of leadership – throughout the Jewish community. And yes, the talent exists to support a new generation of Jewish leaders, reflecting an expanding mental model of leadership. We are learning about effective strategies to cultivate this development in long-lasting ways, and we share these learnings to help the field. Together, let’s support the talent within our community, welcome new talent, and continue to change how Jewish leaders are supported – and who Jewish leaders are.

This article originally appeared in eJewish Philanthropy on August 8, 2019.

About the Author
  • Mordy Walfish is the Chief Operating Officer at Leading Edge.

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